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I have yet to see a single episode of HBO's crime anthology series "True Detective," but that's not going to keep me from speculating and fantasizing about the acting team-ups I'd want to see for future seasons. With Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson setting the precedent, I think we're finally at the point where A-list movie stars are truly free to tackle a television project like this without worrying about the effect on their film careers. Heck, Halle Berry's starring in a limited series from CBS this year and Philip Seymour Hoffman had a pilot in the bag for Showtime before he left us. So the sky's the limit as far as casting goes. Below are a few possible pairings I'd love to see for a future season of "True Detective."

Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro - If these two screen legends were willing to team-up for something as bottom-of-the-barrel as "Righteous Kill," surely they could do it for "True Detective." Pacino and HBO have been on good terms over the years and DeNiro hasn't exactly been choosy about his roles lately, having been drafted in "Grudge Match" with Sylvester Stallone, for instance. These two have certainly slowed down since their heyday in the '70s, but I still love seeing them onscreen and they've done great work together. Tommy Lee Jones and Dustin Hoffman would also make good alternates here.

Edward Norton and Ryan Reynolds - These two have been knocking around Hollywood for ages, almost making the A-list but not quite. Both have almost landed major stardom through superhero movies, but not quite. I've been itching to see Norton do something more substantive than his appearances in Wes Anderson films for a while now, and it's clear that under the movie star exterior Ryan Reynolds has some pretty serious acting chops. These two need a stepping stone to get their careers back into gear, and a high-profile run on "True Detective" just might be what they both need at this point. Mark Ruffalo for an alternate.

Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain - It's rough being a lead actress in the movies, especially when the parts just aren't there anymore. That's why so many of our most celebrated leading ladies have moved into television work. I doubt that the creators of "True Detective" would want to address the show's gender issues by going whole hog with a female-female lead pairing, but both of these ladies are currently in ascendency and need major parts to sink their teeth into. The show could easily give that to them. Other possibilities for female leads include Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Connelly, and Michelle Williams.

Will Smith and Forrest Whitaker - Similarly to the previous entry, it would be a little too obvious for the show to do a season with entirely minority leads, but I definitely hope they consider them. Whitaker has already tried a television series with the "Criminal Minds" spinoff, which gave him very little to work with. I think he needs to take another shot at it with better material. As for Will Smith, he's in desperate need of some career rehab right now, and I'd much rather see him try something ambitious like a dramatic TV role than go down the path of endless blockbuster sequels that he seem to be on right now. Mos Def or Idris Elba for alternates.

Zach Galifianakis and Sam Rockwell - These are two funny guys who have both done some great dramatic work that tends to get overlooked. Galifianakis turned in one of my favorite underseen performances this year as the main character's bitterly sarcastic dad in "Kings of Summer," and has the potential makings of serious screen heavy if he wants. Rockwell's been one of our most dependable character actors for a while now, and he's got a fantastic range from comic to bleak. I think that these two would do great shouldering lead roles in a crime drama and would go especially well together.

James Franco and Sean Penn - What these two have in common is that you can't predict what they're going to do. Franco's gone through some major ups and downs in the last few years, seeing his profile rise and fall and rebound wildly as he's taken on a bunch of different projects. Penn has seen a similar trajectory, though his recent work has been quieter and more low-profile. Why would they want to do an HBO series? Well, why wouldn't they? The only issue is that I think both would try to wrest some of the creative control away from showrunners Cary Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto. Ed Norton might too, now that I think about it.

Nicholas Cage and Michael Shannon - No particular reasoning here. I just always wanted to see these two get into a scenery-chewing showdown.

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Minor spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far

After thirteen episodes, I feel like I'm still waiting for "Almost Human" to drop the other shoe. Despite setting up a lot of mythology and all these different little mysteries that point to longer arcs and more substantive stories, there hasn't been a whole lot of progression for any of the show's major ongoing conflicts since the pilot. Remember the traumatic shoot-out with the Syndicate and John Kennex's missing ex-girlfriend? They're referenced a few times, to assure us that the storyline is still alive and well, but the developments are only incremental. What about the mysterious memories that Rudy found in Dorian? No answers, but plenty of fretting over them. Any more information on Dorian's past or the circumstances of his decommissioning? Not really.

Instead, "Almost Human" quickly slipped into being yet another crime-of-the-week police procedural, except set in a future version of Pittsburgh. The special effects are still a notch above the norm, and it's fun to see the show play with concepts like a genetically-engineered class of humans called Chromes, souped-up security systems run amok, and upgraded plastic surgery. Sadly, the writing isn't anything special, and there's nothing that matches up to the promising first two episodes. Instead, it pings as awfully similar to the all the middling science-fiction shows that I was watching on FOX back in the '90s like "Sliders" and all the "The X-Files" clones. I was especially puzzled at how the show so rarely delves into the question posed by the show's title - what are the larger consequences of creating androids like Dorian, who are almost human, but not quite? The show touches on Dorian's day-to-day struggles with living as a synthetic being in a human world, but never very deeply. I don't think Kennex's status as a cyborg officer has been brought up since the third or fourth episode.

I still like the pairing of Michael Ealy and Keith Urban very much, and it's enough to keep most of the filler stories on track, but the show clearly isn't using these two to their full potential. The rest of the cast is in even worse shape. Mackenzie Crook's Rudy has gotten a lot of screen time and makes for decent comic relief, but Lili Taylor is stuck spouting tired exposition as their supervisor, Michael Irby's Detective Paul remains infuriatingly two-dimensional, and though Minka Kelly got one good episode as Detective Stahl, I still can't take her seriously as a police officer, especially as the show insists on dressing and coiffing her like a network morning show hostess and she's frequently more plasticine than the show's android characters. Compare how another network genre show, "Person of Interest" has steadily developed its cast of minor characters, and the problem becomes obvious.

What I liked so much about the early episodes of "Almost Human" was the worldbuilding, that nice mix of retro-futuristic elements with more contemporary technological advancements. However, this has gotten increasingly generic over time. Hackers apparently still take their fashion cues from the outdated 90s alternative scene last seen in "Hackers" the movie. The plots to "Repo Men" and "Untraceable" have already been rehashed, along with the usual runamok androids, misappropriated high-tech weaponry, and medical advances gone wrong that inevitably show up on every similar science-fiction show. The problem is that "Almost Human" hasn't provided much to distinguish itself. It still feels like the show is referencing other science-fiction media instead of making a cohesive whole out of all the different bits of technology it's introduced.

Detective Kennex and Dorian could be really compelling characters if they were handled right, and the show is in a position where it could tackle much headier and more interesting material, but the desire to do so clearly isn't there. I keep finding myself comparing "Almost Human" to the first season of the "Ghost in the Shell" series, which was also a procedural about law enforcement operating in a technologically advanced near-future filled with cyborgs and androids. The difference is that despite being animated, "Ghost in the Shell" wasn't afraid of complex ideas and difficult characters. It had no interest in trotting out the old tropes and pandering to their audience, even if it meant alienating the more mainstream viewers. "Almost Human" is often painfully safe and formulaic.

Oh well. Maybe I expected too much. "Almost Human" is still a perfectly watchable genre show and continues to display a lot of potential to be better than it is. However, I'm not going to be too disappointed if this turns out to be its only season. It produced a few good episodes and created some interesting characters. It's just too bad that it never took advantage of everything it had going for it, and produced anything really great.
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The ceremony ran a little longer than average, hitting the three-and-a-half hour mark, but it was a remarkably painless evening at the Academy Awards. Ellen Degeneres was a good host, avoiding big production numbers and scripted segments, but doing several running bits with her audience of celebrities that came off very well. The hosting choices of recent years have been a very mixed bag, and I can see the Academy latching on to Ellen for the long term. Her humor's on the gentler side, but she can still land a good "You're all racists" zing once in a while. There were too many random montages and perfunctory appearances, but all the musical performances were pretty strong. Poor Idina Menzel stumbled with "Let it Go," but John Travolta has been getting more flak the morning after for mangling her name.

The awards themselves offered few surprises. Ever since the guild awards became more high profile and the prognosticators ramped up their game, all the suspense is gone. So "Gravity" won all the technical awards, there was a Director and Picture split, and Lupita Nyong'o beat out Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress, exactly as everyone predicted. The only remotely surprising outcome came in Documentary Feature, where "20 Feet From Stardom" beat out "The Act of Killing," and it wasn't hard to figure out why in a crowd of entertainment industry insiders. Fortunately we had a good crop of heartfelt, well-delivered acceptance speeches this year. Darlene Love sang. The Lopezes rhymed. Spike Jonze brought imaginary people. Lupita Nyong'o was sobering and eloquent. Matthew McConaughey couldn't have been more charming.

I'm far from convinced that the right people won, but I wasn't too bothered by the ones who did. It actually helped that the choices were pretty much a foregone conclusion by this point and there weren't any major upsets. In spite of "Gravity" getting the lion's share of the trophies, totaling seven, nearly every film I liked came away with something. "12 Years a Slave" got Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress. "Her" got Best Original Screenplay. It bothered me that "American Hustle" racked up so many nominations at the expense of much better films, but it came away the biggest loser last night. Zero for ten, which has got to hurt. There were an awful lot of shutouts last night, including "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Captain Phillips," and "Philomena." With the expanded Best Picture field, I suppose it as inevitable.

The telecast never runs smoothly, and this year had its share of flubbed intros, weird cutaways, and technical glitches. However, the whole thing looked considerably more modern and well considered this year. The nomination graphics had a decidedly Web 2.0 design sensibility, with the final run of Best Picture hopefuls depicted in a flash animated segment instead of the usual montage of clips. The set design was unobtrusive, the musical cues only stuck out in a few cases, and I didn't catch a single instance of the orchestra drowning out a speech as a winner was played off stage. There were definitely some changes made to streamline the ceremony - no accountants, no prefilmed opening segment, and Ellen Degeneres did most of the intros for presenters instead of a generic announcer, which also gave her a chance to do more schtick - but the event's organizers seemed less worried about the time crunch this year, so everything felt more relaxed.

What I think made the most difference this year was that there was a lot more spontaneous interaction with the celebrities in attendance. Pharrell got Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Adams, and even Meryl Streep to dance with him during his performance of "Happy." Ellen seemed to be in the aisles as much as she was onstage, with her multi-part pizza gag and the epic selfie. Brad Pitt passing out paper plates and Jared Leto racing over to be in the picture are things that you just can't script. Harrison Ford was a lot more entertaining getting pizza in his seat than he was awkwardly reciting bland copy from the teleprompter. It gave the whole event a warmer, more personal, collegiate atmosphere. The appearance of people having fun counted for a lot.

I was glad to see that Sarah Jones was acknowledged, that the performance clips were in, that interpretive dance sequences were out, that Bill Murray got a chance to give a shout-out to Harold Ramis, and that Kevin Spacey brought his Frank Underwood drawl along for presenting duties. I have no idea what that animation "heroes" montage was about and the proliferation of older actresses sporting botox was disheartening, but these are minor quibbles. Yes, the Oscars were a little boring this year, but they were also much more watchable, pleasant, and enjoyable than they've been in some time.

Until next year, award show fans.
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7:01 PM - More Ellen and selfies with the audience. This is great. Meryl's never Tweeted before!

7:03 PM - Here's Michael B. Jordon and Kristin B. Ell. Ah, the Sci-Tech awards rundown.

7:05 PM - Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron are here to present the Sound awards. Sound Mixing goes to the "Gravity" team. Annnd Sound Editing goes to "Gravity." They're sweeping the technical awards, as predicted. Gotta speed it up, guys. We're past the halfway point of the ceremony, but only just getting to halfway through the awards to be presented.

7:11 PM - This is very cheery intro music for Christoph Waltz. Ooh, Best Supporting Actress time. Yay, Lupita Nyong'o wins! Quite a field in this category this year too. I haven't seen "August Osage County," but the rest of the nominees were stellar.

7:21 PM - Ellen's bit with the pizza goes on. Brad Pitt is on paper plate duty. They're shaking down Harvey Weinstein to tip the delivery guy.

7:23 PM - Here's the president of the Academy, Cheryl Boon Isaacs. The new museum they want to build looks very shiny.

7:25 PM - Amy Adams and Bill Murray are presenting Best Cinematography. Aw, Murray gives a shout out to Harold Ramis. Emmanuel Lubezki finally lands one for "Gravity." I can already hear the moaning from people who think there was too much special effects work involved for this to qualify. I don't care how many computers helped. That movie didn't shoot itself.

7:29 PM - Gabourey Sidibe and Anna Kendrick present for Best Editing. Cuaron's going home with at least one Oscar tonight! "Gravity" team wins!

7:32 PM - Whoopi Goldberg is presenting the special tribute to "The Wizard of Oz," celebrating its 75th anniversary this year (and because "Gone With the Wind" has too much baggage). Judy Garland's kids have shown up. And here's Pink singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

7:42 PM - Ellen's in a Glinda outfit. I love that crown. And the sleeve poofs. Here's Jennifer Garner and Benedict Cumberbatch presenting Best Production Design. Oscar goes to "The Great Gatsby" team. Mrs. Luhrmann just scored her fourth Oscar, and second of the evening.

7:45 PM - Chris Evans (that's two "Avengers" this evening so far) is presenting a montage of "popular heroes." Looks like this is genre movies, and the previous one was for historical and prestige dramas.

7:48 PM - Okay, another break. We're down to the music categories, the big six, and the memoriam. Hold on to your hats.

7:52 PM - Glenn Close is presenting the In Memoriam segment. Here we go. Didn't know about Les Blank or Frederic Back. Couldn't place the music until Richard Matheson's name came up - it's the theme from "Somewhere in Time." I'm glad they held Bette Middler's performance back until after the montage was over. Sorry to friends of Sarah Jones, but there were way too many people that had to be mentioned this year.

8:01 PM - Whoah, almost missed that little popup tribute graphic at the end there. Partial victory?

8:03 PM - They crashed Twitter! The selfie is currently the top post on Reddit. Lupita Nyong'o's brother just kinda snuck right into the middle of that one, didn't he?

8:04 PM - Goldie Hawn is here with the last batch of Best Picture nominees, "Philomena," "Captain Phillips," and "12 Years a Slave."

8:08 PM - And they roll out John Travolta to "Miserlou." He's introducing Idina Menzel to sing "Let it Go" from "Frozen." She didn't quite nail that ending there. Ah, the perils of live performances.

8:12 PM - Jamie Foxx and Jessica Beal present the music categories. Score goes to Steven Price for "Gravity." That's six by my count. Song goes to "Frozen." Robert Lopez has his EGOT. The Lopezes wrote a rhyming speech and they are awesome.

8:22 PM - Ellen's passing Pharrell's hat around for pizza money. Harvey, Spacey, Pitt, and Ejiofor chip in. Lupita Nyong'o adds her lip balm.

8:23 PM - Robert DeNiro and Penelope Cruz are presenting the writing awards. Adapted Screenplay goes to John Ridley for "12 Years a Slave." Hooray! And the steam is coming out of Armond White's ears as we speak.

8:26 PM - Original Screenplay goes to Spike! Go "Her"! His speech is adorable. It really has been a good night for speeches.

8:28 PM - They're running long. Four more to go.

8:30 PM - Has everyone seen the red carpet photo of Benedict Cumberbatch photobombing U2? Go Google it. I'll wait.

8:32 PM - Angelina Jolie and Sidney Poitier get a standing ovation - 50th anniversary of his Best Actor win, remember. They're presenting Best Director. Just want to give a shout out to whoever is doing the nominee graphics this year. They're fabulous. Alfonso Cuaron wins! Considering what it took him to get "Gravity" made, can't begrudge him one bit.

8:38 PM - I have no idea how Ellen keeps here energy up like this. Cute fake-out, but we've got a couple more to go.

8:41 PM - Ooh, Daniel Day-Lewis. Best Actress time. Cate Blanchett wins her second Oscar, and delivers a perfectly polished acceptance speech. Yep, Woody got namechecked. Suck it, haters.

8:47 PM - Jennifer Lawrence is presenting Best Actor. It's a McConaughey night. Alright, alright, alright! The man's career has had a heck of a turnaround these past two years. I'm happy for him.

8:54 PM - Best Picture! Will Smith presenting... which could be a tip off, but let's not get ahead of ourselves... okay these graphics instead of the montage are are lot of fun... Oscar goes to "12 Years a Slave." Oh with the hugging! "Gravity" still takes home seven trophies, remember. Brad Pitt is talking because he had a huge part in getting the film made, guys.

Steve McQueen, stop apologizing. You're a winner.

Now he's bouncing up and down. That's more like it.

Happy Oscar night. Proper dissection tomorrow.
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5:34 PM - Aaargh. I'm late due to a technical glitch. We're already partway through Ellen's monologue. Going well so far. Doesn't look like I missed a production number anywhere.

5:36 PM - The room loves Jennifer Lawrence. Who doesn't?

5:37 PM - Aw. Bruce Dern and Laura Dern are seated next to each other.

5:40 PM - Hi Anne Hathaway. Here comes Best Supporting Actor. Yes, we get performance clips this year! Leto wins, as expected. Good grief, he's not delivering this speech well. You'd think that with the roll he's been on, he'd have this down by now.

5:46 PM - Back to Ellen for a much needed energy boot. And here's Jim Carrey. We still love you!

5:47 PM - And Carrey's here to present the animation award. I don't know what he has to do with animation, but at least he's doing better than last year's presenters. I'm kinda confused by this montage though. It's a really poor sampling of movies. Oh, wait. He's not presenting an award. Just that lousy montage. Huh.

5:51 PM - Moving on, here. Pharrell with "Happy" the first Best Song nominee. Go Lupita!

5:56 PM - Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Watts are presenting Costume, Hair, and Makeup awards. Costume goes to "Great Gatsby." Good to see this getting some recognition. Baz's "Gatsby" was a bust, it sure looked great. Ah, the winner is Mrs. Luhrmann! As a three-time winner, she's definitely got more Oscars than her husband.

6:00 PM - Makeup and Hairstyling goes to the team from "Dallas Buyers Club." Apparently they had the smallest budget too.

6:02 PM - Harrison Ford comes out to the "Indiana Jones" theme. He's presenting Best Picture nominees. Looks like they're doing them in batches this year. "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club," and "Wolf of Wall Street" up first. Mr. Ford does not appear impressed by the lines he's been given.

6:05 PM - Channing Tatum is here to talk about an Academy outreach program called "Team Oscar." For all of five seconds.

6:10 PM - Ellen's handing out Lotto scratchers as consolation prizes.

6:11 PM - I've just lost audio, and have no idea what Kim Novak and Matthew McConaughey are saying, but Novak looks a little ill. Oh, they're presenting Animated Short! I haven't seen any of these, but the winner, "Mr. Hublot" looks great. The director is adorably nervous, and thanked his cartoon star, Mr. Hublot.

6:14 PM - Animated feature time. Oscar goes to "Frozen." Much as I'd have liked to see Miyazaki take another one home, it's about damn time Disney got a win in this category.

6:16 PM - Mark humor. I love Ellen. And here's Sally Field, looking gorgeous as ever.

6:19 PM - This "hero" montage is better, but still way too slanted toward modern films.

6:20 PM - Emma Watson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are presenting Best Visual Effects. Oscar goes to "Gravity," of course. No mention of the picketers outside.

6:23 PM - Zac Efron presenting Karen O., singing "The Moon Song" from "Her."

6:29 PM - So they're not going to explain what Ellen was doing with that guitar? Okay, here's Kate Hudson and Jason Sudiekis with the Best Live Action Short. Oscar goes to "Helium." Good grief, none of these shorts are from the U.S.

6:33 PM - Best Documentary Short goes to "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life" about Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer, who just passed away.

6:35 PM - More Ellen. I'm glad she's staying so present during the show instead of disappearing like some of the past hosts.

6:36 PM - Here comes Documentary Feature with Bradley Cooper. I've actually seen most of these this year. Holy moly, "20 Feet From Stardom" won. Over "The Act of Killing." "20 Feet" was a good film, but this is perplexing.

Okay, that's probably the best speech of the night. Nobody's playing her off.

6:40 PM - Kevin Spacey's here to give us the rundown of the Governor's Awards. I love the little Frank Underwood he slipped in there. Honorary awards went to Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, and costume designer Piero Tosi. As usual, I wish I could have seen that ceremony. Wait, they gave the Hersholt to Angelina Jolie?

6:46 PM - That Google Play commercial officially had the best movie montage of the evening so far.

6:47 PM - Ewan McGregor and Viola Davis presenting Best Foreign Language film. Rooting for "Broker Circle," expecting "The Great Beauty" to take it. Yep, "The Great Beauty" wins. That film completely went over my head.

6:50 PM - Hi Tyler Perry. He's presenting more Best Picture nominees. "Nebraska," "Her," and "Gravity." Amy Adams does not realize the camera is pointed in her direction, making it look like she's as underwhelmed with the award show pablum as the rest of us. But damn, these are all good movies.

6:54 PM - Ellen's wardrobe change gets whistles. Hee. And here comes Brad Pitt to intro U2, performing "Ordinary Love" from the "Mandela" biopic that nobody saw. Ever since "Across the Universe," I have the sneaking suspicion that Bono is always in The Walrus mode.

6:59 PM - To be continued in Part 2 after I get a hummus refill.
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Yes, I heard about Harold Ramis. Terrible news. And yes, I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Shirley Temple, and Sid Caesar, and Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole right at the end of the year. I also heard about the passing of a few names you probably won't recognize, like Miklós Jancsó and Jimmy Murakami. I love all their work, but I've refrained from writing about them on this blog. I only write up full posts for the figures who really meant something to me personally, and by my account that's only happened three times to date, for anime director Satoshi Kon, for Ray Bradbury, and for Roger Ebert. As awful and tragic as losing some of the others were, writing about their deaths wouldn't be the same.

I decided on this policy a long time ago, because to set the bar any lower would mean making judgment calls I'm not particularly inclined to make. Just look at what's happened to the In Memoriam segment at the Oscars, where there's a full-blown battle every year over who gets on the list. Every year someone notable gets left out, leading to lots of grousing. Every year there are calls to just do away with the whole thing because the process has gotten so acrimonious. This year things have even taken on a political dimension, with a petition going around to include Sarah Jones, the second assistant director of "Midnight Rider," who was killed in a terrible accident during the film's production, in this year's montage. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler announced his support a few days ago. I don't think they have much of a shot, considering how jam-packed the list of potential honorees is this year. There's a good chance that Ramis isn't going to make it in this year because his death came so close to the date of the Oscar ceremony.

When the first "In Memoriam" montages started appearing in award shows in the 90s, I found them a highlight. It was a nice break from the awards show banter, and pointedly injected some real gravitas into the Hollywood spectacle. Sadly, all too soon they became criticized and compromised, as inclusion in the montages became a status symbol. Suddenly it was a big deal if a famous name was left out, even if the justification for adding them was iffy. People got emotional and nitpicky. Campaigns and petitions started appearing at the end of every year. For a while there were the complaints over the varying applause levels that different honorees would attract, which lead to requests that all applause be held until the end of the segments. Ironically, cutting the applause often made all the honorees seem less important. I've found the recent practice of inviting famous performers to sing something melancholy during the segment is awfully distracting. A few years ago the Emmys got The Canadian Tenors for theirs, which was pretty dire.

Want to add more names? That usually means that the In Memoriam segment gets stretched out to untenable lengths in an already lengthy awards ceremony, or that individual honorees get less time. The Emmys tried to mitigate this somewhat by specially spotlighting six notable figures, which didn't turn out so well. Cory Monteith got one of the special tribute spots over other beloved TV figures with far longer and more accomplished careers, which predictably brought out the complainers (me included). The Oscars have already posted a hefty list online of every Academy member who died last year to emphasize that they haven't been forgotten - simply that there isn't enough time for everybody in Sunday night's montage. Of course, not every notable or semi-notable figure from the film community who died last year was a member of the Academy.

The basic idea behind the In Memoriam segments and the sentiment that fuels their popularity remain perfectly legitimate. I still get a chill every time I spot someone in the lineup who I didn't realize was gone, or had forgotten had only passed recently. However, the major memorial montages have transmogrified over the years to stand for things that they were never meant to. In the eyes of many they're just another industry recognition to be fought over, bargained for, and dissected for motes of meaning by observers. What will it mean if Sarah Jones gets included in the montage over Maximilian Schell or Richard Matheson? What about if Paul Walker gets more applause than Joan Fontaine? What does that signal? Probably not much except the prevailing sentiments of the hour.

I have my own little list of names in my head of people that I hope the Academy doesn't forget, but honestly enough of a fuss has been made about this. And if I look at my own blog, there's really only one person I cared enough about to try and honor myself - Roger Ebert.

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Minor spoilers ahead.

I initially pegged "Carnivàle" as a slow-moving, atmospheric supernatural show that didn't concern itself overmuch with plot. Well, in season two the plot showed up with a vengeance. While the complicated series mythology remains largely unexamined, it soon becomes inevitable that our two protagonists, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin will have their destined confrontation by the last episode of the season, and the series becomes a much more goal-oriented, focused piece of work in order to get them there. Instead of waiting for the apocalypse to arrive, now key characters are actively in search of it.

Spurred by newfound purpose, Ben puts his doubts aside and becomes a hero the audience can really root for, while Brother Justin descends into the depths of villainy in pursuit of power. Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown's performances really kick into high gear, and are a lot of fun. However, the effect of putting so much focus on this pair is that for much of the season the rest of the cast gets sidelined. I wouldn't say they're neglected since there there are strong subplots and character arcs for most of the regulars, particularly the Dreifuss family, Jonesy, Samson, and Sophie, but we see far less of the little character portraits and backstory that was prevalent in the first season. It's also very noticeable that the cast has been reduced by several members.

A few new characters and some strong guest stars help to pick up the slack. Notably there's a new villain, Varlyn Stroud, played by John Carroll Lynch, who Brother Justin sets on Ben's trail like a bloodhound. However, the ones who make the most of an impression tend to be the ones with the least amount of screen time. I love how "Carnivàle" consistently manages to create these fully-formed characters who only appear for a few minutes, some who are totally incidental to the plot. A German hotel clerk and a nameless old man on the road who Ben gets information from are as memorable as some of the major players. There are so many I wish we could have spent more time getting to know.

This season is more fulfilling from a writing standpoint. Though the the pace remains fairly slow, there are far more frequent payoffs to the various storylines, and the status quo changes irrevocably several times. What the series loses in simmering mystery, it gains in strong plotting and a bolder narrative. I found I got much more attached to characters like Jonesy and Samson when they were put in a position to be more active and make more important choices. Meanwhile, those left treading water with dead-end developments like poor Ruthie were more frustrating to watch. Easily the character I found the most improved was Amy Madigan's Iris, whose motivations are much better defined this year. With much of Brother Justin's inner struggle resolved, the spotlight turns to his devoted sister and her myriad sins.

There were some things in this season that came off as rather contrived - someone's gambling problem materializes out of nowhere, the fallout from Lodz's absence is a distraction that doesn't really come to much, and Sophie's existential crisis gets awfully convoluted - but eventually the show finds its groove again when it counts. The back half of the season is one of the most enjoyable runs of episodes I've seen in a long time, finding ways to get all the characters involved in the final battle and building up the suspense to terrific heights. After seeing so many similar supernatural genre programs fail to stick their landings, it's incredibly gratifying to see "Carnivàle" execute a properly epic and apocalyptic showdown so well.

The world of "Carnivàle" remains a source of fascinating horrors. More than once I was reminded of Garth Ennis's "Preacher" comics, with their abundance of uniquely American grotesques. Ben Hawkins runs across several varieties of them in his travels, and of course Brother Justin is one as well. The second season had to undergo some budget cuts and it shows. The carnival scenes are scaled back and crowds are thinner. Still, the effects and makeup work remain top of the line, and the production design of the Depression Era setting is consistently gorgeous. You can see the dust and grit in every frame. And I just love the little details like Libby Dreifuss's bleached hair starting to show its roots in a later episode, and that Lila uses a single curler for her beard. After a decade the series doesn't look like it's aged a day.

I'm not particularly upset that "Carnivàle" ended after this season, because I knew it was going to be truncated from the start and the finale was strong enough and decisive enough that it left me satisfied. "Carnivàle" feels like a complete story even though I know that more was planned. This is certainly one of the best HBO productions I've seen so far, and the most unique.

Looks like it's on to "Deadwood" next.
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And now for something completely different again.

For fun, I've put together a second Youtube playlist of various television and movie (and related) clips that have a strong musical element involved. It’s a mix of clips from movies and television shows, a couple of shorts, various obscurities, tie-ins, and one fan video. They have absolutely nothing in common except that I enjoyed them and thought they were saving the links to and worth pointing out for recommendation. Hopefully, you'll find something in the mix that you’ll enjoy too.

Flash Gordon Opening Titles - Still one of my favorite opening title sequences to any movie, that pays homage to the “Flash Gordon" comics while revving the audience up for oncoming action and fun. The theme song by Queen is, of course, immortal, and I was thrilled when it popped up in “Ted" as part of their extended “Flash Gordon" homage.

Science Fiction: A Montage - Initially I was wary of putting any fan-made videos into this list, but I couldn’t pass up James Van Fleet’s tribute to science-fiction cinema, set to the Jupiter movement of Gustav Holst’s Planets suite no less. Unlike most of these tribute videos I’ve seen, there’s lots and lots of clips from older films like “Forbidden Planet" and “Metropolis," and a real focus on the science-fiction elements instead of just action or effects shots.

The Adventures of Chip ‘n’ Dale - Back in 1959, an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney" was devoted to Chip ‘n’ Dale cartoons, which included specially animated intro segments and an incredibly catchy theme song. I’ve included the opening number here, which shows off some nifty integration of the 2D animation with a real world environment.

Signal in the Sky - Former kids of a certain age will remember the Cartoon Network “Groovies," a series of shorts in the form of music videos, each devoted to a particular cartoon on the Cartoon Network roster. The best of them, and the one that they seemed to play the most often was “Signal in the Sky," featuring The Powerpuff Girls and music by Apples in Stereo. Though the girls appear in their usual animated forms, most of the short was actually live action and puppetry, created by the Will Vinton studios.

That Steve Martin Number From “Little Shop of Horrors" - I’ve refrained from using the more famous title of the song in case you’ve never seen it before, because it would spoil the surprise. The first time I saw “Little Shop of Horrors" I had absolutely no idea what was coming, laughed so hard I missed half the jokes, and I still can’t watch this without a ridiculous smile on my face. It’s my favorite thing that Steve Martin has ever done in his entire career.

Broken Circle Breakdown - A quick teaser trailer featuring the most wrenching number from the film. The full version has been posted up in a few places, but there are some major spoilers that come with it, and I think it really needs the context of the rest of the film to get the full effect. Still, I do want to acknowledge one of the best musical moments in film that I’ve seen this year, so the teaser will have to do.

Please Mr. Kennedy - From “Inside Llewyn Davis," this is the other entry from a current film on the list, and frankly it’s a shame the song wasn’t eligible for the Oscars.

Time Warp vs. Shake Your Groove Thing - “The Drew Carey Show" remains much beloved by its fans though sadly forgotten by most TV viewers. They had a particular love for elaborate musical numbers, such as this one, where “Rocky Horror Picture Show" loving Drew and his pals have a standoff with mortal enemy Mimi Bombeck and her “Priscilla Queen of the Desert" minions. It’s a camp-off of pure delight.

Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight - It’s a shame that the opening sequence of the “Lodoss War" television series is really the best thing about it. You can really get a sense of the scope and the grandeur that they were going for, but failed to achieve. Thanks to the Yoko Kanno’s “Sea of Miracles" and some really killer high fantasy imagery, this remains one of the best bits of the whole franchise, and I’d put it up there with the best anime openings of all time.

That’s About the Size - Bud Luckey is one of the great unsung animation greats. He’s currently a character designer at PIXAR, but had a long career in commercials, and during the ‘70s created many beloved animated segments for “Sesame Street," writing, animating, composing, and providing voices and songs for “Ladybug’s Picnic," “The Alligator King," and “Penny Candy Man." His “That’s About the Size" remains one of my favorites.

Noi Siamo Zingarelle - I saw this gorgeous stop-motion short on PBS when I was a kid in the early ‘90s, when it was used as a time filler between programs, and spent years trying to track it down. Finally, after I got to college, success. It’s one of the segments of “Opéra Imaginaire" a European animation anthology, where all the shorts are set to pieces from famous operas.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life - Because I can’t think of a better way to end anything in all of cinema.
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February was a weird month for television. Normally February is a sweeps month, which means that the networks usually pull out all the stops in order to attract viewers, because the ratings during sweeps set the advertising rates for the next few months. This year, because NBC's Olympics coverage coincided with a big chunk of the sweeps period, the competition mostly didn't bother to try. For the last two weeks prime time network television has almost been a dead zone outside of NBC. New episodes of anything have been scarce since the Superbowl and midseason premieres have been pushed back. If all you've been watching are the Olympics you may not have noticed that all there is to watch is pretty much the Olympics.

The thing is, I haven't been particularly inclined to watch the Olympics this year. I got sick of NBC's lackluster coverage after the London Games in 2012 and I've pretty much sat out this round. I suspect I haven't been alone. NBC's ratings for the Sochi Olympics have been down overall from the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Some point to the fact that the Americans haven't been particularly strong contenders in the major events, and there were few breakout stars to follow. And of course there have been the constant complaints about the state of the coverage, with plenty of the usual grousing about not being able to access anything live. Notably the biggest story to have come out of Sochi has been the infamous Bode Miller interview botch.

That doesn't mean that the Olympics haven't still been a ratings juggernaut though. FOX premiered the latest season of "American Idol" last Thursday, which was completely crushed by the Sochi coverage, attracting only 9.2 million viewers in its worst showing since its first season way back in 2002. The Olympics easily doubled that with 20 million viewers. Network ratings have been in decline overall recently, and major sporting events like this are some of the only programming that is still guaranteed to draw in large audiences. NBC has paid a hefty chunk of change to maintain exclusivity, and with results like this, it's not hard to see why. So it's no wonder all the other networks pretty much decided not to try to compete and have been filling their slates with reruns, saving their new content for the coming weeks. Even the Oscars were pushed back to March this year to avoid the Olympics.

I've been happy to occupy myself with Jean Renoir films and the backlog of episodes of shows I haven't gotten around to until now - expect a write-up on the second season of "Carnivale" soon. I'm nearly done with that one, finally. However, I do miss having any of my regular shows in rotation. I think the last current episode of anything that I watched was the pre-Valentines Day episode of "The Big Bang Theory." Cable shows don't seem to be as affected, because there's plenty of chatter about the current seasons of "The Walking Dead," "True Detective" and "Girls" going on - not to mention the new batch of "House of Cards" episodes - but after the past few months of content overload it feels unusually quiet out there.

The late winter and early spring months are traditionally slower times in the media world, with the box office still in the doldrums and little of interest going on the music and gaming spheres either. February television has traditionally been the exception, so this disruption has been more noticeable. I admit that it's been nice to have the break to play catch-up. However, I'm looking forward to things getting back to normal. Pretty much every major network show that was on hiatus will be out of reruns this week for the final few days of February sweeps and a good chunk of March. I'm looking forward to the new season of "Hannibal" and the return of "Community" in particular.

As for the Olympics, I think that the shine has officially worn off for me permanently. I used to look forward to the Games every time they came around, but the way they've been presented these last few years, watching them has become too much of a hassle and I'm not willing to put up with the aggravation of ads and puff pieces anymore. I just follow the post-mortems and highlights in the regular news now. This year I don't feel like I really missed anything by not watching the nightly broadcasts. Plenty of my friends and family have still been watching though, so NBC has nothing to worry about.

Ironically, my favorite thing to come out of Sochi was some decidedly non-NBC Olympics coverage: Stephen Colbert sending Scott Thompson's fabulously gay "Kids in the Hall" character Buddy Cole to Russia as an Olympics correspondent for "The Colbert Report." I've missed him.
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I've sidestepped talking about a lot of major media-related news items that have been circulating lately. For instance, I didn't bother writing a Superbowl post this year because I didn't see the game. I did go online afterwards and watch all the ads, but I didn't see much that was worth writing about. The movie spots in particular were lackluster, and none of them were for films I had much interest in seeing. Not many big summer films made an appearance. The biggest exceptions were "The Amazing Spider-man 2," which gave us a two-part look at one of the action sequences and "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which confirmed that Mark Wahlberg is indeed taking over hero duties from Shia LaBeouf. Neither were all that interesting.

So may bigger titles failed to make appearances, there's no point listing them all. Most of the movie ads were for spring releases like the new "Robocop" and "Captain America," and smaller action films like "Need for Speed," "3 Days to Kill," and "Pompeii." The most successful of them was for "Muppets Most Wanted," which had some funny digs at quote mining and Twitter users. Nobody was really using the Superbowl to launch a campaign or to show off anything really new. As a result there wasn't much buzz about any of these spots online after the game, the way there was about the 360 shot in the Superbowl ad for "The Avengers," for instance, or that one for "Independence Day" back in 1996 where Roland Emmerich sent a UFO to blow up the White House. Still remember that, don't you?

So why didn't Hollywood come out to play this year? Well, you just have to look at the premier of the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer yesterday on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Within an hour of broadcast it was all over the internet and the buzz for the movie went through the roof. Consider that the asking price for a 30 second Superbowl spot this year was $4 million. Consider that the new "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer ran well over two minutes and likely didn't cost anything to air, because Marvel and ABC, which airs Kimmel's late night show, are both owned by Disney. Consider that though Kimmel's audience is only a fraction of the audience for the Superbowl, the trailer has since been seen by exponentially larger numbers since it has gone viral on the internet.

Many marketers have decided that instead of piggybacking off of a bigger media event like the Superbowl or an awards show, they are better off being an event all by themselves. The internet has opened up marketing possibilities in recent years, and many film enthusiasts are more likely to see a new trailer online before they see it in theaters or before the ads appear on television. Not all films have the clout to do this, but when you're highly anticipated tentpole like a new Marvel movie, then the benefits of reaching the Superbowl audience may not be worth paying a premium for, especially as the price tag continues to climb higher every year.

Also when you're a movie with unfamiliar characters, a high concept premise, and a very particular sensibility like "Guardians," you need more than 30 seconds, or even a full minute to sell it to a broad audience. if you look at the new trailer, it spends the bulk of the time having John C. Reilly carefully introduce the five main characters. I suspect this is also why upcoming May releases "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" sat out this year's Superbowl. They're franchise films, but potentially too narratively complicated to get their pitches across so quickly. With "Spider-man" and "Transformers," all you really need is action shots and explosions.

A few weeks ago I wrote about movie theaters cracking down on lengthy trailers, where guidelines were put forward that suggest trailers shouldn't run longer than two minutes. I don't think there are many previews that need to be longer, but you could make a case for some of them. Despite its length, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer is all intro and has no spoilers to speak of. However, you could edit it down to two minutes easily enough and keep the longer version online for those who are curious to see more. Extended internet-only previews are already fairly common. "Cloud Atlas," for example, released one that was nearly six minutes.

In short, the internet has had a big effect on the way movies are releasing new footage, and I expect that it will continue to. As marketing costs go up, television and theatrical previews will still be important, but they're being supplemented in a big way by internet previews, which may end up overtaking them in the long run. We'll always see some movies willing to pay for Superbowl ad space, but there are other ways to make a similarly big splash these days.

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It's hard to get across just how much of a cultural touchstone "Friends" was to my generation. I offer this anecdote: when I was in my mid-20s, while waiting in line at a sandwich shop, I overheard a conversation between two people about my age, discussing how strange it was that they were now the same age as the characters on "Friends" when the show began. I overheard almost the identical exchange multiple times over the next few years as the '90s kids started having their quarter-life crises. "Friends" remains one of the most successful and recognizable sitcoms of all time. So it's about time I wrote a Top Ten for it.

As always, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate. Lots of Chandler and Monica, and not much Joey. Sorry Dr. Ramoray fans.

"The One With the Lesbian Wedding" - In 1996 this episode caused an uproar for its then controversial subject matter, and two NBC affiliates refused to air it. And it's a shame because it is a fun episode, with Joey's first soap opera success, Ross finally getting over his ex-wife, and the wedding itself. I especially enjoy the guest appearance of Marlo Thomas as Rachel's mother, who gets to deliver some of the best lines.

"The One with the Prom Video" - The lobsters, fat Monica, Ross's perm - it's the first of the show's traipses into the past, and the most successful. It so wonderfully captures the embarrassment of early love and adolescence, while showing us a different side of the familiar characters. Ross and Rachel's romance always struck me as a little tedious, but this was one of the few times I found myself rooting for them to get together.

"The One with the Chicken Pox" - It's rare that you get an episode with multiple storylines going on simultaneously where all of them hit the mark. Monica stresses when Richard doesn't have any weird quirks. Joey starts working at Chandler's office and assumes the personality of a raging jerk as acting practice. And, my favorite, Phoebe and a sailor beau played by Charlie Sheen contract chicken pox and have to resist physical contact.

"The One Where No One's Ready" - A great example of a bottle episode, where the gang needs to rush to a museum function, but one calamity after another delays their departure from the apartment. Joey and Chandler have an epic fight over a chair. Phoebe has a wardrobe malfunction. Ross and Rachel have a spat. It's twenty minutes of character interaction and wacky wardrobe changes, resulting in some of the show's best moments.

"The One with the Football" - Thanksgiving was the holiday that "Friends" always had the best handle on, when relationship issues and old history would inevitably rear their heads. This time out it's sibling rivalry, gender relations and a spirited game of touch football that take center stage. Everyone's little disagreements and rivalries get amplified when they have the excuse to get physical, particularly Monica's legendary competitive streak.

"The One with the Embryos" - Phoebe is off contemplating surrogate motherhood, so she misses out on one of the greatest trivia showdowns in television history, with Ross as the inexplicable well prepared quizmaster and everyone's living arrangements at stake. The trivia quiz itself is riot. Weekend at Bernie's. Viva Las Gay-gas. Big Fat Goalie. Miss Chanandler Bong. And did anyone ever figure out what Chandler does for a living?

"The One With Ross's Wedding" - Two parter in London! Another wedding episode and an excuse for lots of mayhem. This one's a lot of fun to revisit now that I recognize more of the guest stars - the cranky passenger on the plane is Hugh Laurie, and Emily's bridesmaid is Olivia Williams. And of course the ending is a killer, where we see the start of the Monica and Chandler relationship, and the worst (or best) mistake that Ross ever makes.

"The One Where Everybody Finds Out" - Monica and Chandler are still trying to keep their couplehood under wraps, but Joey found out a few episodes ago, and now Rachel and Phoebe know too - and are determined to get Monica and Chandler to admit it. Cue the farce, with Joey in the middle, and lines like "They don't know that we know they know we know!" I also like the oft forgotten Ross subplot with the mini-muffins and Ugly Naked Guy's apartment.

"The One with the Cop" - The Joey and Monica subplot is fairly forgettable, but the other two storylines are a lot of fun. Phoebe cracks down on the inconsiderate with the help of a mislaid police badge that she found, eventually attracting the attention of a real cop. Meanwhile, Ross is too cheap to pay the delivery fee for his new couch, so he and Rachel have to move it up the stairs - his howls of "Pivot! Pivot!" still echo in my head to this day.

"The One with the Proposal" - Another two-parter, where the return of Tom Selleck's Richard and screwed up proposal plans put the Chandler and Monica relationship in jeopardy. The second half is what makes this for me, where Chandler is put through the emotional wringer, and when the proposal finally does happen, it feels more than earned. The show could have ended right there and I'd have been happy - and considering how little I remember of the last three seasons, maybe it should have.
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I thought we'd gotten to the point where movie actors taking on television work was no longer something to get worked up about. I mean, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are currently headlining HBO's "True Detective," Kevin Spacey is on his second season of "House of Cards" for Netflix, and even Philip Seymour Hoffman had a pilot in circulation for a Showtime series, one that a lot of the TV critics were buzzing about. Television has gotten a huge boost in artistic credibility in recent years thanks to a flood of highly regarded prestige projects. So it no longer seems like a risky move when you hear that an established movie star has agreed to lead a new cable drama, or a budding young talent is working on a comedy pilot. Everybody wants to be the next Lena Dunham.

But then the news came in this week that Greta Gerwig, veteran independent movie actress and queen of the mumblecore movement, has signed on to star in CBS's new sitcom "How I Met Your Dad," the follow-up/spinoff of their long-running "How I Met Your Mother," which is currently in the middle of its final season. Gerwig is expected to write and produce the series as well as play the lead character, Sally. The role is described as a "female Peter Pan who has never grown up and has no idea of where she’s going in life," which is a description that could apply to most of the characters that Gerwig has played recently in films like "Frances Ha" and "Lola Versus." This could be a great opportunity for a promising young actress who has won a lot of praise this year, snagging her first major awards recognition for "Frances Ha."

What worries me is that "How I Met Your Dad" is not an HBO or FX or Netflix project. It's going to be a pretty typical prime time network sitcom, patterned off of a mostly agreeable, but unambitious hit show that CBS kept going for nine years. Fans of "How I Met Your Mother" tend to have a love-hate relationship with it, and most concede that it probably should have ended a couple of seasons ago. There's certainly room for creativity, but not the kind of bold, boundary-breaking stuff that characterizes a "Girls" or a "Louie." Gerwig's talents are probably not going to be very well served by the constraints of network television, especially on CBS, which is one of the more conservative networks. Occasionally FOX or NBC will turn out something idiosyncratic and unique, but CBS is the home of mostly formulaic meat-and-potatoes stuff like "Two and a Half Men," meant to appeal to very broad audiences. Sure, "How I Met Your Mother" takes place in New York, but it's not the same New York of Hannah Horvath and Frances Halladay.

Of course Gerwig being on a network show doesn't mean that her film career is over, or even on hold. "How I Met Your Mother" stars Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, and Cobie Smulders have both done a ton of film work during their tenures. Radnor has written and directed two films while Segel has worked his way up to comedic leading man status after "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "I Love You, Man." Gerwig's fellow mumblecore alum Mark Duplass also juggles acting duties on FX series "The League" with directing his own films and appearing in others. So there's no reason that Gerwig couldn't keep collaborating with Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman during her breaks, and pursue other projects. Plus, having a higher profile from "How I Met Your Dad" would probably lead to bigger parts. Currently, the most mainstream film she's done has been the Russell Brand remake of "Arthur," where she played the major love interest but was bumped off all the posters by Jennifer Garner.

CBS should get the kudos for pursuing someone like Gerwig for "How I Met Your Dad," and it is heartening to see the ranks of female creatives in television grow. When I first heard about the project, I was expecting that it would be a spinoff starring Cristin Milioti, who plays the titular "Mother" on "How I Met Your Mother." Instead, while the details are still pretty sparse, it looks like we're going to get something much more original, something I might actually want to watch once in a while. Part of me is still expects this will be another "Friends" clone, and we'll only be getting Gerwig-lite, but another part of me wants to hope for the best and root for the show to be a real showcase for her talents. Who knows? Maybe CBS has its eye on capturing a little of the prestige being showered on the cable networks.

And if Greta Gerwig wants to aim for being the next Tina Fey instead of the next Lena Dunham, that's certainly a worthwhile endeavor.
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Minor spoilers ahead.

I'm doing some catching up on my British crime dramas. The second series of "Luther" felt like a big step down form the first, because the overarching story simply wasn't as compelling and the new characters were less interesting. Fortunately the third series is a big improvement on both fronts. Luther gets a major new antagonist in DSI George Stark (David O'Hara), who with the help of DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is secretly investigating Luther for corruption and misconduct, a thread that carries through the whole series.

Like the last round, we get four episodes this time out, which can be neatly split into a pair of two-parters. Unlike last time, though, this series is much better paced and more cohesive. The first half has Luther juggling a pair of cases simultaneously, the murder of an internet troll, and multiple attacks by serial killer with some peculiar fetishes. His partner Ripley (Warren Brown) is contacted by Stark and Gray, who want his cooperation with their investigation of Luther, casting doubts on Ripley's loyalty. Luther also gets a new love interest, Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), who gets roped into the action in the second half of the series, where Luther is pitted against an attention-seeking vigilante killer who likes going after criminals he doesn't think have been punished enough.

"Luther" has always been bloodier and more gruesome than your average television crime drama, and that's certainly the case in this set of episodes, where we meet some pretty memorable, depraved perpetrators. There's about one gut-churning, avert-your-eyes moment per episode and plenty of high tension thrills throughout. Fortunately for the squeamish, this is well balanced by the character drama of the more thoughtful investigation storyline. Previous series have questioned how far over the line Luther can push before going too far, but the way the investigation story is framed, Luther is invariably shown to be in the right, and the focus is largely on Ripley and then other characters grappling with the decision of what side they'll come down on.

Luther himself has gotten cuddlier as a character, his demons still in residence but further beneath the surface. He has a few flares of temper when met with hurdles during his cases, but few moments of the truly uneasy ambiguity that made his morality such a puzzle in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the series plays out fine with Luther as a more typical good guy, but it makes the character and the series undeniably different from what came before. Idris Elba remains charismatic and appealing and so John Luther is still easy to stay invested in. If we take show creator Neil Cross's claim that this is the last series of "Luther" at face value, then I think it's perfectly satisfactory to have our hero close out the series on the side of angels for good.

"Luther" is not particularly sophisticated stuff, still dependent to a large extent on action and thrills, but the performances are good, the production values remain very high, and the writing is much stronger this year. The second series' sore thumb damsel in distress, Jenny, has been replaced with Guillory's Mary, who seems an unlikely love match for John Luther, but at least she's a more logically sound character with a good sense of autonomy. Warren Brown gets a good amount of the spotlight this year and sells several big moments. I also want to highlight the work of guest stars, Kevin Fuller and Elliott Cowan, who play this year's two most colorful murderers. I still miss Indira Varma and Saskia Reeves from the first season, but not nearly as much.

And what about Alice Morgan, Luther's serial killer associate who remains one of the show's best creations? There's been some talk of spinning her off for her own show, which I'm behind 100%. However, "Luther" stays mum on the subject. Let's just say that she has a part to play in the new series, but how big a part and the nature of the part is a big spoiler. Ruth Wilson has been busy with film roles lately, so I'll caution fans of Alice not to expect much. The new series is a perfectly good watch without her contributions in any case.

The next we'll see of "Luther" is reportedly a theatrical feature, which sounds like a great idea. The character is in a good position to jump to the big screen, and a feature would be a great vehicle to push Idris Elba's profile higher. The recent series have been so short, they feel like features already to a great extent. If the show ends here, though, I wouldn't be all that upset. "Luther" has had a good run and the third series ends in a very satisfying way.

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And we're back with another semi-regular Miss Media Junkie Blog follow-up post, to provide you with updates on topics I've previously written about, but that I don't believe require an entire new post to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience.

The State of My To-Watch List - I'm down to about 30 films left for 2013. Several of the indies like "Under the Skin," "Night Moves," and "Narco Cultura" have been reclassified as 2014 films because their theatrical releases have been pushed forward to this spring. Of the remaining ones on the list, it's most foreign films like "Stranger By the Lake" and "Like Father, Like Son," which are only getting theatrical releases now, and some of the studio pictures I haven't prioritized like the new "Hobbit" and "Hunger Games" movies. Expect reviews eventually, but not until they hit the in-flight viewing or rental rotations.

"Batman" without Batman? - Oh dear. Looks like "Gotham" is going to be a more a "Batman" prequel than we thought. At a recent TCA press tour panel, Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly confirmed that a twelve-year-old Bruce Wayne will regularly appear in the "Gotham" series, and early versions of Joker, the Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman are among the "Batman" villains we can expect to show up too. This means that we're going to be hammered over the head with references and allusions to the future "Batman" continuity, exactly what I was hoping "Gotham" would try to avoid. Prequels only work if they can stand independent of the originals, and it's only going to be harder with so many familiar faces.

Making Peace With the Rumor Mill and The Obligatory Ben Affleck is Batman Post - And while we're on the subject of the DC comics universe, I suppose I'd better say something about the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. This is one of the only positive bits of news about the new movie I've heard so far, a really daring choice that indicates the "Batman v. Superman" creators are trying to move in a different direction. Luthor was always the embodiment of the evil businessman villain of the 80s. The 2010s equivalent of that would be someone more akin to Mark Zuckerberg, and Eisenberg was pretty good at playing him. Nearly everyone else involved still has me worried, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Is This the End of Facebook? - And speaking of Mark Zuckerberg, let's check in with Facebook. The video ads I discussed previously finally rolled out in December, and honestly they haven't been too intrusive. I've been on Facebook more often lately, and though the bandwidth drain has been noticeable, the actual ads are fairly easy to skip over in the newsfeed. This week marks the tenth anniversary of Facebook, and there have been a new round of doom-and-gloom articles discussing the company's dimming future prospects. Younger users are abandoning the site in droves, apparently. However, Zuckerberg being Zuckerberg, I wouldn't count them out yet.

The 2015 Showdown Looms - Despite the "Batman v. Superman" movie, "Independence Day 2," "Pirates of the Caribbean 5," "The Adventures of Tintin 2," and "Finding Dory" moving to 2016, and a couple of other projects with indeterminate status, the 2015 slate has gotten even more crowded. New entries into the fray include the delayed "Fast & Furious 7, Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland," and PIXAR's "The Good Dinosaur." Plus the "Poltergeist" and "Mad Max" reboots, Kenneth Branagh's "Cinderella" "Fifty Shades of Grey,"and Neil Blomkamp's "Chappie." At least the summer slate looks more manageable at the moment, with the big titles more spread out over the year.

An All Female "Expendables"? - This one looks to be in limbo. There's been no news about the project since August, when it was announced that "You're Next" star Sharni Vinson was joining the cast along with Gina Carano and Katee Sackhoff. Considering that these are the biggest names that the project has managed to land so far and there's no director attached, don't expect to see this one in theaters soon. Also, there's now a competitor project with the same premise, "The Expendabelles," from Millennium Films, the production company behind "The Expendables." They're aiming much higher, having landed Rob Luketic as a director and trying to court Meryl Streep.

My "Adventure Time" Problem - Finally, I've been watching more of "Adventure Time," and wanted to put down a few follow-up thoughts that don't merit a full post. My position hasn't changed. I like the series and admire what it's accomplished, but it's not one of my favorites. I do like Finn and Jake much more as characters, though not quite as much as their distaff counterparts. One thing that bothered me about the Fionna and Cake episodes was that they were so romance-heavy, but it made sense after going back and seeing all the episodes about Finn's relationships with Bubblegum and Marceline. I've also done a 180 on Lumpy Space Princess. A little of her goes a long way, but when she's done right, she's priceless.

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The long-awaited third series of the BBC's "Sherlock" is kind of a mess. It's not a bad mess, and certainly an entertaining one, but stakes are lower, the writing is more indulgent, and there's a definite sense that it's resting on its laurels a bit. While it avoids certain pitfalls and doesn't hit the lows of the prior series, it gets nowhere near the highs either. This set of episodes caters to existing fans of "Sherlock," but certain changes also move the show in a direction that some of them may not appreciate. Some mild spoilers ahead.

Of the three new installments, the first is the most successful because it's the most focused. Last series and two years ago, Sherlock Holmes faked his own death after a standoff with arch nemesis Moriarty, and so the premiere episode has to expend a great deal of effort to get everything back to the status quo. Sherlock is brought back to London on the trail of a new terrorist threat, and reconnects with his old circle of friends and allies, some of them in very different places from where he left them. John Watson has not only vacated Baker Street, but now has a serious girlfriend, Mary Morstan, played by Amanda Abbington. Patching things up between Holmes and Watson isn't easy, and for a while it seems that the rift may be permanent.

The biggest change in the new series is that Sherlock Holmes has softened up and gotten more human. He's still capable of being incredibly selfish and thoughtless, but his concern for his friends is transparent now, and there are several examples of him really trying to be more considerate towards people like Molly Hooper. The bromance with Watson gets downright sentimental at times, as they both have to acknowledge multiple times in these episodes how much their partnership means to them, particularly as the threat of further separation keeps rearing its head. We get more material referencing Sherlock's past, with regular appearances by older brother Mycroft and couple of great comedic scenes with their parents. It all serves to demystify Sherlock Holmes as a character, which I rather enjoyed, but may set other fans' teeth on edge.

All the emphasis on character exploration means that the mysteries get rather shortchanged this year. The first and second installments both feature exciting, but uninvolving cases that aren't presented in a particularly engaging way. They feel incidental to everything else that's going on, and a little slapdash in basic construction. It's only the finale that features a pair of strong villains that feel like real threats, one of them a blackmail artist played with great panache by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen. Unfortunately, that installment gets tripped up by a particularly poor ending, especially compared to the previous series' cliffhanger. Also, there are many more self-referential moments, which don't add much to the stories.

The season still features plenty of its trademark inventiveness, lots of little clever bits of plotting, and some really good dialogue. I especially liked the way that the first episode offers multiple theories and explanations for how Sherlock Holmes faked his death, starting with a totally unrealistic one straight out of a Hollywood action movie. The problem is that the scripts are overstuffed and too ambitious, juggling lots of different disparate elements that fail to cohere as well as they have in the past. We zip from comic scenes to sober ones to action beats to bromance at a lightning pace. Though I saved them up, I found couldn't watch more than one installment at a time.

If you set the twisty mysteries aside, however, and focus on the character drama, "Sherlock" is still very consistent and a lot of fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both excellent, and their rapport is as good as it ever was. They handle this year's lighter material with ease, and both seem to enjoy the sillier moments. Cumberbatch manages to make a particularly long and unwieldy comic sequence in the second episode work seemingly by sheer force of will. Amanda Abbington's a great addition to the cast, with such an easy chemistry with Martin Freeman that it comes as no surprise that they're romantic partners in real life.

I hope "Sherlock" doesn't end here, because it would be a very unsatisfying place to stop. The third series feels like a transitional one, a stepping stone to a different phase of the show's existence. However, considering the difficulties with the production of "Sherlock," juggling the schedules of two much in-demand lead actors, I'm a little worried about this approach. If we have another two-year wait before the fourth series, it doesn't help that we've been left with a set of episodes that ended so weakly. I really hope the last twist was a red herring.

Oh well. There's still every reason to stay optimistic, considering the level of the talent involved. The wait begins for Year Four.
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We are six episodes into the fifth season of low rated but still chugging "Community," which is now on hiatus for the duration of the Sochi Winter Olympics, so I'm taking the opportunity to take stock of how things are going. Yes, showrunner Dan Harmon is back at the helm, and yes, it feels like the show is on track again, not only correcting for the muddle of the Harmon-less fourth season, but also taking a few steps back from the occasional overcomplications of the third season as well. There have been other changes to the status quo that have been handled well so far, but it remains to be seen if the show can sustain them in the long run.

First and foremost, it's clear that this is not going to be the same show going forward that the fans have grown to love. Jeff Winger graduated at the end of last season, so the premiere was dedicated to getting him and the rest of the gang back to Greendale. Jeff is now installed as a teacher, and the study group is now a "Save Greendale" teacher-student committee whose members eventually include Professor Duncan and the reinstated Chang. There's also a new face in the cast, criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by "Breaking Bad" vet Jonathan Banks, the replacement for the not-so-dearly departed Pierce, who bowed out last year. Banks has been pretty good so far, though considerably less prone to absurdity than Pierce.

However, the biggest change to the show's dynamics is that Donald Glover left after the first five episodes of the season, and the character of Troy Barnes was written out - but not without a big, crazy sendoff proportionate to his contributions to "Community." How will the rest of the group, and especially Abed move on from this? We've only had one post-Troy episode so far, but it was a decent one that gave Abed a lot to do, so hope springs eternal. My guess is that the writers will let Abed come out of his autism spectrum informed pop-culture shell a little more and put the bouts of mental instability behind him for good. As entertaining as his afflictions were, they ended up taking "Community" to some odd places I'm not sure it should have gone.

Other characters are also being adjusted. After a string of nutty subplots, Chang is a teacher again, but still the low man on the social totem pole. Jeff is very much a work in progress, adjusting to his role as a new teacher and licking his wounds from another round of recent failures. With their romantic entanglements either resolved or shelved, Britta is back to being the well-meaning meddler and Annie is once again the idealistic overachiever. There's a big emphasis on grounding storylines back in community college life, which I'm very happy about. While it was nice to see the characters outside of Greendale, the school is really the heart of the show, and the characters work best within it.

Individual episodes have had their ups and downs as usual. The premiere was mostly about setting up the rest of the season, and I found the two "normal" episodes so-so, about on par with similar ones from the first season. However the two more conceptual installments, "Cooperative Polygraphy" and "Geothermal Escapism," dealing with Troy's departure, are "Community" at their best. These are episodes that you couldn't have had without Dan Harmon. It's one thing to have everyone at Greendale playing a giant game of "The Floor is Lava," but it's another to use it to turn the school into a surreal post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" version of itself, and also simultaneously have it double as a metaphor for Abed's fears of letting go at the same time.

Best of all, I like that I don't know where the show is going from here. The most damaging of the dangling plot threads left over from seasons past have all been cleared away. Jeff's four-year deadline is gone, and he's essentially starting over from scratch. The rest of the gang hasn't committed to any new recurring storylines yet, though I suspect we'll be seeing some soon. Harmon and company could go anywhere they want, and with ratings holding steady they have the time to get there. Six seasons and a movie is looking like a real possibility since the rest of NBC's Thursday schedule has tanked so badly.

I'm sorry to see Troy gone and I'm not totally onboard with Hickey yet, but the future of "Community" looks pretty good right now. There aren't many television shows that have managed to pull out of a nosedive like this, and the fact that "Community" managed it so well is very heartening. I'm glad I decided to stick with the show through its bumpiest stretch and look forward to even better to come.
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Thanks to a Superbowl yogurt commercial that reunites the three male stars of "Full House," Bob Saget, Dave Coulier, and John Stamos, there's been wave of nostalgia for the '80s family sitcom that ran for eight years on ABC. Jimmy Kimmel had the trio on a few nights ago for a "Full House" themed sketch. Morning show appearances, interviews, and all the usual media stops have followed. And personally, I'm doing my best to ignore it all. I hated "Full House."

You watch a lot of television as a kid for no better reason than it's on and your parents don't mind that you're watching it. Somehow, "Full House" was ubiquitous in my household, even though I wasn't very fond of it and I distinctly remember that my father couldn't sit through five minutes of any episode without rolling his eyes. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, "Full House" was a sitcom about a recently widowed father, Danny Tanner (Saget), left to raise three young daughters by himself, one of them an infant. So he did the sensible thing and recruited two down-on-their-luck male friends, Uncle Jesse (Stamos) and Uncle Joey (Coulier) to move in with him and help out. And to make sure this situation didn't seem too strange, Danny's co-worker Becky (Lori Loughlin) was always around in some capacity, eventually becoming Uncle Jesse's girlfriend and then spouse. Plots were typical things like trying to save a bad Thanksgiving and the guys trying to balance their love lives with parenting obligations.

"Full House" was the anchor of ABC's TGIF family viewing block, and was meant to be watched by children with their parents, so the stories were always simple, the humor repetitive, and the every story ended with some wholesome family bonding and a pat moral, usually delivered by Danny Tanner to the same "serious moment" musical cue in every single episode. I credit "Full House" for being the show where the schmaltzy formula was so obvious and so lazy that it was the first one that I could identify as being a Bad Show and point out a lot of recurring schtick. Nonetheless, I watched it for years and I remember the plots of many episodes and the names of all the main characters. I wish I remembered so much about "The Cosby Show" or "Family Ties," which I know I was watching in roughly the same time frame. But no, it was "Full House" that somehow stuck.

I can certainly understand the nostalgia that some people have for it. "Full House" was a ratings monster for years and it seemed impossible to avoid. Every kid in school watched it if their parents let them watch television, though I never met anyone who really seemed to be a fan. If there was any comment on it at all among my friends, it was usually to complain that there were too many episodes centered around the youngest daughter Michelle (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen), which were the ones that got really saccharine. I haven't seen the show in years and I'm sure it would probably be totally unwatchable to me now the same way that TGIF's successors, the Disney Channel originals are.

Pop culture seems to have mostly forgotten about "Full House" too, up until this point. John Stamos, Bob Saget, and the Olsen twins have stayed fairly visible in the industry, but avoided sitcom work. Saget has notably become notorious for very adult comedy routines that are a complete 180 from his years as on "Full House" and as the goofy host of "America's Funniest Home Videos." When the show does come up now, it's usually as a target for ridicule, often pretty meanspirited. Despite not liking "Full House," I bear no real ill will towards it. The series was a product of its time, well-meaning in its aims, and pretty harmless. So I don't get much out of the mockery. I'd rather just forget the show existed.

I have seen the Dannon Oikos Greek yogurt ad, which joking alludes to the unorthodox "Full House" living situation, hinting that the trio's "bromance" was more serious than the show lead on. I fail to see how this brief reunion is worthy of all the media attention, but whatever. It seems like every half-forgotten bit of '80s detritus requires some kind of cast reunion these days, and this is at least more amusing than last year's "Ferris Bueller" car ad. And at least they didn't drag the kids into this - Candace Cameron Bure sure doesn't need any more attention. I don't think she'd appreciate the gay-friendly overtones anyway.

But between this and the "Boy Meets World' spinoff, it looks like the nostalgia wave is hitting the TGIF generation full force. I guess we'd better brace ourselves for the inevitable return of "Mr. Belvedere," "Perfect Strangers," "Step By Step," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and - gulp - Urkel.
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I've gone on something of a movie theater binge over the last couple of days, thanks to a couple of gift cards I got for Christmas and an unusually strong Oscar season. Expect the flood of film reviews to continue over the next few weeks. However, there's also the very strong likelihood that this is the last Oscar season I'm going to be able to really be able to fully participate in for quite some time. You see, I've got a major life change coming my way this year that's going to mean my ability to go out to see movies in theaters is going to be drastically, drastically curtailed. I'm looking at my once-a-month habit going down to maybe one or two special trips to the theaters a year for the next couple of years.

This doesn't bother me too much, really. I've known it was coming for a long time now, and there really aren't all that many movies that I'm anticipating so much that I feel I have to see them in theaters. I've been going out less and less often anyway. Ticket prices have been going up in my area again, to the point where the cost of my usual morning matinees finally broke the $8 mark - that's a month of Netflix or Amazon Prime, remember. On the horizon, the next "Star Wars" movie in 2015 is probably the only title I'd seriously consider making an effort to see in a theater with a big audience. And in that case, thanks to Disney's content deal with Netflix, I expect it should show up on the usual streaming services no more than two years later, before the inevitable sequel comes down the pipeline.

Or there are always rentals, which I've been depending on more these days. Netflix and Redbox discs have been a pretty good substitute for Blockbuster. Itunes and I have been getting along, though I still have some quibbles about their selection. Most mainstream films are available by disc in four to six months these days, though as always the indies and foreign films take much, much longer because of different release patterns. However, more and more I've seen the proliferation of VOD, the "second pay window" that lets you watch a relatively new film from home for roughly the same price as a theater ticket (the first pay window is the theatrical run). I expect that this is how I'm going to end up watching a lot of the movies that I usually go to see in theaters - PIXAR and Disney films, superhero movies, and science-fiction spectacles.

Initially, I didn't really understand the appeal of VOD, but it does provide a nice middle ground between going to the theater and waiting for rentals. It didn't make sense to me not to wait an extra few weeks for a movie to hit the rental shelves that I didn't care enough about to see in theaters. However, I've found that I do place a value on seeing certain films in a timely manner. Oscar season's no fun if you haven't seen a good chunk of the major contenders and have the knowledge to form your own opinions and argue them. There aren't many movies that become real cultural touchstones anymore like "Inception" or "Avatar," but when they do appear, they tend to get cycled through the media and people's conversations at a much faster rate these days. If theater trips are out for the foreseeable future, then VOD is the next best thing. Waiting three months for a VOD release isn't too bad of a delay, but six months? Everyone else has moved on, and extra vigilance is required to avoid spoilers people will assume are common knowledge already.

Am I even going to be able to stay at all current with the media landscape though? Is it worth it to try? Probably not. I'm not even sure I can continue this blog in its current form once the major life change happens. Updates are probably going to be drastically reduced and irregular for a few months, but I am determined to keep this blog going, if only to keep my writing skills up. I don't think there should be much of an impact on the content though - I don't review many new movies and shows to begin with, and older content is often much more rewarding to write about than the blockbuster of the week. I'm usually not current with the television posts anyway. The more general media gossip isn't hard to keep up with, and speculation requires fairly little context if you've got a solid idea of how the industry works.

So watch this space for more changes, and be assured that though your friendly neighborhood Miss Media Junkie has some real life to deal with, she is still going to be hanging around in some capacity.
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I want to get into some spoilers for the first season of this show, but since this is my first post about "Orphan Black," I'll write up a spoiler-free review first. The spoiler section will be clearly marked below.

It's been a while since I've really been hooked on a good genre show, and "Orphan Black" pushes all my buttons. It's a very tightly written, plot-intensive mystery serial where as soon as it looks like there's a status quo, events barrel forward that throw everything into uncertainty again. The characters are very, very strong, particularly the main character, Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany.

The early episodes follow Sarah, a young con-artist and thief, who sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide one night. Sarah seizes the opportunity and the woman's purse, and slips into her identity to empty her bank accounts. She then gets herself thoroughly entangled in the life of Beth Childs, who it turns out is a troubled police detective in the middle of a messy internal affairs investigation. Sarah has to fool both Beth's boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) and her police partner Art (Kevin Hanchard), but she's hoping to scam enough money to start a new life for herself and her seven year-old daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), currently under the care of Sarah's former foster mother, Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Sarah's only real ally is her gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), who is doing his best to keep Sarah's scumbag drug dealer ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) from stumbling across the scheme.

"Orphan Black" is a science-fiction show, but one that keeps the genre elements fairly light until well into the show's second half. This is not a very high-budget production, so it's not very flashy and relies heavily on character and story to deliver the thrills, and deliver it does. The writing is smart, the plotting is well-balanced, and it's a joy to watch Sarah finagle her way out of one bad situation after another, relying mainly on her wits. She's a great character, smart and sympathetic, but also very much a crook at the outset, prone to making selfish and shortsighted decisions. I'd have been happy if "Orphan Black" was just a con artist show, but as we learn more about Sarah and Beth, there's this whole, rich series mythology that gets introduced, a little at a time. At the end of the first season, there's still a lot more to uncover.

Tatiana Maslany is the backbone of "Orphan Black," and here's where I get into spoilers, because it's impossible to talk about her contributions to the show without getting into its secrets. So I urge you stop reading now if you haven't finished the first season yet.


I was initially worried that there were only two credited actresses in the main titles, but of course Maslany ends up playing seven different characters, and three of them can be counted as major protagonists by the last episode. It is absolutely astonishing the way that she differentiates the clones. It would have been so easy to rely on the different accents, or to pigeonhole Allison as the soccer mom or Cosima as the nerd, but these are fully fleshed out personalities who change and grow and have big, big arcs. It's especially apparent in the scenes where the clones are passing themselves off as each other - Allison trying to be Sarah, or Helena trying to be Beth. I often forgot that Maslany was playing multiple parts in many of these scenes.

The big conspiracy elements are fairly typical science-fiction stuff. Evil corporations and religious cults are familiar antagonists. So while I was glad to see the clones' origins being explored, it helps immeasurably that the show has set up all these other conflicts that are playing out at the same time. We have Art and the police investigation, Mrs. S. and Kira's part of the puzzle, and the subplots being developed for Cosima and Allison. The rate that revelations and information sharing happens is fanastic, so it always feels like thing are in motion. I'm sorry we lost Helena so soon, because she was one of my favorites, but then it would have been too easy for her to outstay her welcome.

There were a couple of things that didn't work as well as they could have. Vic was fun at first, but they're seriously going to have to rework him if he's still going to be a regular next year. Paul was initially my least favorite part of the show, but he got a good boost around the midpoint when he brought out the mercenary training. His future success really depends on how they use him though, because I'm not really sold on him as a love interest yet. The lack of romance has been one of the strengths of "Orphan Black." Far more successful were characters like Felix and Cosima's new girlfriend who grew on me as time went on.

Looking forward to year two, coming in April.
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I resisted doing a "Simpsons" list for a long time for the usual reasons. It's been too long since I've seen many of the episodes. I quit watching regularly around the ninth or tenth season (though it seems like nearly everyone else did too). And my picks are heavily influenced by nostalgia since I saw most of the early seasons in junior high. However, I don't hesitate to call myself a "Simpsons" fan and we've got history together. So I'm adding the caveat that these are my favorite episodes of "The Simpsons" from the '90s. The 1999-2000 season is when Maude Flanders died and Apu had octuplets, to give you an idea of where the cutoff point is.

As usual, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate.

"The Way We Was" - The story of how Marge and Homer got together is one of the absolute essentials, the bedrock on which so much of their relationship and the show has been built. In the early years "The Simpsons" was still very much about the family's dynamics, and even though it spoofed on the tropes of suburban life sitcoms, it was still part of the category itself. The episode is simple, straightforward, and still mighty heartwarming. It didn't hit me how much until the Carpenters' callback in "The Simpsons Movie," really the only thing I liked about that film.

"Kamp Krusty" - There's always that one episode of a syndicated show that you love, but they only seem to play very rarely. For me it was "Kamp Krusty," the wonderfully twisted tale of Bart and Lisa being sent off to Kamp Krusty, which turns out to be full of death traps and forced labor. I always loved when "The Simpsons" got twisted and outrageous with nostalgic childhood activities, and "Kamp Krusty" is so lovingly detailed in its catalog of horrors that it's still one of my favorites. This was the fourth season premiere, which is by far its greatest year and the most well-represented here.

"A Streetcar Named Marge" - Where do we even start? The "A Streetcar Named Desire" musical with a melancholy solo for Apu as the paperboy? Marge as Blanche DuBois? Ned Flanders as the world's sweetest Stanley Kowalksi? The musical director played by Jonn Lovitz? The Maggie subplot at the Ayn Rand School for Tots? I bought the "Simpsons" album that had all the songs from this episode and can still sing most of them to this day. And I'm willing to bet that most of the former kids of my generation only know "A Streetcar from Desire" because of this episode.

"Marge vs. The Monorail" - The town of Springfield has become as important to the chemistry of "The Simpsons" as the Simpsons family. Mob mentality isn't just a phenomenon here, but practically a way of life. By the time this episode came around we had already seen the town's casual corruption and willingness to embrace the bizarre, but "Monorail" took it to new, wonderful extremes. Also note that while everyone remembers the extended parody of "The Music Man," but this was also the episode that started out with "The Simpsons'" take on the opening of "The Flintstones."

"Selma's Choice" - I honestly felt for Selma and her plight, but it's Duff Gardens that I love this episode for. The theme park experience was spoofed more thoroughly in "Itchy and Scratchy Land," but I thought Duff Gardens did it better with the beer-themed mascots and their alcohol-shilling version of "It's a Small World." Better yet, it gives a much more grounded version of a day at a theme park gone wrong with Bart on a malfunctioning ride and Lisa the Lizard Queen. This also contains one of the greatest "Simpsons" gags ever, Homer's epic relationship with a spoiled hoagie.

"Homer's Barbershop Quartet" - It would have been easy for the show to do a "Behind the Music" style parody, but by specifically mirroring the ups and downs of The Be Sharps on The Beatles gave it so many more dimensions and cultural resonance. In addition the the obvious references like Barney's conceptual artist Japanese girlfriend and the rooftop reunion, the installment is chock full of little details that any Beatlemaniac would appreciate. And then of course, there's "Baby on Board," a legitimately catchy earworm sung in part by Disneyland's Dapper Dans.

"Cape Feare" - The best of the Sideshow Bob episodes, and one of the last to be written by the show's original writing team. Now I've never seen either version of "Cape Fear," but Sideshow Bob makes such a great villain, I found him legitimately threatening (and terribly funny) enough for the plot to work. The show's gags never got better, defusing a lot of the tension with a lot of "Looney Tunes" silliness, including the beloved stepping-on-rakes bit. And the "Pirates of Penzance" ending is one of the most absolutely brilliant moments of time-stalling nonsense I've ever seen.

"Treehouse of Horror V" - Like many viewers, I tuned in for the yearly "Simpsons" Halloween specials long after I stopped watching the other episodes. My favorite of them was the fifth one, which contained "The Shinning," "Time and Punishment," and "Nightmare Cafeteria." So that's a parody of my favorite Stanley Kubrick film, a parody of a short story from one of my favorite science-fiction writers, and possibly the sickest and most gruesome concept the "Simpsons" writers ever came up with. Throw in the running gag with Groundskeeper Willie, and it's a classic.

"And Maggie Makes Three" - "The Simpsons" may be prized for its comedy, but it could also deliver moments of real warmth and poignancy. And even though the creators joked that Homer got dumber year after year, he was often at the center of the show's most heart-tugging episodes. In another of the great "Simpsons" flashback episodes, we get a look at the kind of life that Homer wanted, and learn about the sacrifices that he makes for his kids. It's not an especially funny episode, though I love all the stuff with Mr. Burns, but it's without question one of the very best.

"El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)" - You gotta love a "Simpsons" episode that is essentially one long drug trip, though one brought on by Guatemalan insanity peppers instead of the more traditional mind-altering substances. This has some of the show's most wild and wonderful animation, as Homer journeys through beautifully surreal desert landscapes on a spirit quest. The Space Coyote he meets is voiced by Johnny Cash, of course. "The Simpsons" rarely got so wildly experimental, so it was great to see them really cut loose and break a lot of rules.

Honorable Mentions go to: "Bart the General," "Krusty Gets Busted," "Bart Gets an F," "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish," "Bart the Daredevil," "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," "Brush with Greatness," "Flaming Moe's," "Radio Bart," "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," "Lisa's First Word," "I Love Lisa," "Whacking Day," "Lemon of Troy," "Bart Sells His Soul," "Treehouse of Horror VI," and "Homer's Enemy."


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