Archive | November, 2011

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Julie Benz

30 Nov

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

Not yet 40, Benz has already compiled an impressive career on television.  Her first role was in brief two season show Hi Honey, I’m Home! in 1991, whose first season aired during ABC’s TGIF block, and which had a concept far more interesting than most failed sitcoms.  The sitcom was about a family composed of fifties TV archetypal sitcom characters rescued from cancelled shows, who are now living in the real world.  Benz played popular daughter character Babs Nielsen and was the only actor from the show to experience any significant later success.  Next, Benz guest starred in a Married with Children episode as a girl who strangely wanted to lose her virginity to Bud.  In the mid-90s she participated in a number of television movies, including Hearts Adrift, Crosstown Traffic, Empire, The Barefoot Executive (as “Sexy Woman”), Veronica’s Video, and A Walton Easter.  She appeared in episodes of Hang Time, High Tide, Step by Step, Boy Meets World, Diagnosis Murder, The Single Guy, Sliders, The Big Easy, and Fame L.A.

She had a recurring role in the short-lived Ask Harriet, about a male sports journalist who pretends to be a woman in order to write an advice column (previously mentioned in the Willie Garson column). Around this time, in 1997, she also got one of her biggest roles as Darla, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Vampire Darla was intended to be a single episode character, but her role was expanded greatly.  Darla was one of the primary antagonists of the first season, as the main henchman to The Master, and died in the seventh episode, when it was revealed that she had a long-term relationship as partner in crime and lover as well as maker of Angel.  She rose from the dead in the last episode of the first season of Angel Season 1 as a human as part of evil law firm Wolfram and Hart’s plan to turn Angel evil again.  The plan didn’t work, but they turn Darla back into a vampire, and she and Angel fight before she eventually becomes pregnant with Angel’s baby, and kills herself, leaving the baby alive.  Over the course of her role as Darla, she appeared in TV movies Good Guys/Bad Guys, Satan’s School for Girls (another sign TV movies have the best names), and The Long Shot and in episodes of The King of Queens, Conrad Bloom, Glory Days and She Spies and in TV miniseries Taken.

Benz was a recurring character in the first season of Roswell as FBI agent Kathleen Topolski and she was a main cast member in one season CBS show Payne, starring John Larroquette and based on Fawlty Towers, moved to California.  She continued her TV work in the mid-00s, with TV movies Lackawanna Blues, Locusts: The 8th Plague, Circle of Friends, Held Hostage, and Uncorked.  She was in episodes of NCIS, Oliver Beene, Supernatural, CSI:Miami, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Law & Order:  In 2006, she got her biggest role to date as Rita Bennett in Dexter.

DEXTER SPOILERS BEGIN

Rita is serial killer killer Dexter Morgan’s boyfriend at the beginning of Dexter.  He feels damaged and thinks she is a good match for his psychological baggage because she suffered serious emotional trauma from sexual and physical abuse from her ex-husband Paul.  Paul returns and attempts to reassert his place in her life but Dexter frames him and has him sent back to prison.  Eventually the relationship between Dexter and Rita becomes more serious as she is able to get over some of her issues, and they get married and have a child, Harrison.  Shockingly, in the fourth season finale, Rita is murdered by the trinity killer.

DEXTER SPOILERS END

In 2010, Benz had a recurring role in five episodes of Desperate Housewives.  She plays Robin Gallagher, a former stripper, who wants to be a teacher.  She initially stays with Susan and Mike but moves in with Dana Delany’s Katherine Mayfair.  Later, it is revealed that she is a lesbian, and she and Mayfair begin an affair, eventually leaving Wisteria Lane together.  In 2010, she starred in ABC’s No Ordinary Family, about a family who gains super powers after being involved in a plane crash.  Benz, married to Michael Chiklis, is the mother of the family and gains the power of super speed.  Though heavily promoted, the series was cancelled after one season.  She was in an episode of Royal Pains in 2011 and can now be seen as a main cast member in CBS’s A Gifted Man, starring Patrick Wilson. Wilson is a talented but selfish surgeon who now interacts with the ghost of his ex-wife.  Benz plays his sister, a single mother who has trouble taking care of her unruly teenage son.  She’ll also be appearing in TNT TV movie Ricochet this fall based on a novel by Sandra Brown.

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Ranking the Shows I Watch – 1: Breaking Bad

29 Nov

Note:  I know I haven’t put explicit spoiler alerts on these entries for the most part, but I’ll make the extra point that everyone should go out and watch Breaking Bad.  I’ve inserted a SPOILER ALERT for the biggest spoiler, but if you don’t want to know anything about the show, watch before reading any further.  And do watch.

Oh, where to start.  There are so many things I love about this show that I’ll have to limit myself to only talking about some of them.  First, I’d like to note that this show has improved every single season it’s been on the air.  I’ve talked with people who have only seen the first season and who aren’t that into it, but I encourage them to keep watching.  It isn’t that the first season isn’t good; on the contrary, it’s merely that the show keeps breaking its existing ceiling every single season.  Almost everyone I’ve pushed through into at least the middle of the second season has thanked me later.  There’s no better way to have someone remember a show in its offseason  fondly than to end with a bang and Breaking Bad always does that – each season builds to an epic last couple of episodes, leading up to a point which could be anticlimactic and easily disappoint, a la True Blood, but instead Breaking Bad rises to the occasion, giving us all time great television episodes.  In the most recent fourth season, however, that tag is hardly limited to the season finale.  Several of the episodes are instant classics, and the last five or so each left me thinking they were the best episodes yet.

Anyone reading this probably knows this already but Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth to provide for his family after he’s gone.  He partners up with an old student now selling meth on a low level, Jesse Pinkman.  The show becomes far more than this, but that’s where we start.

So much happens in a season of Breaking Bad that it sometimes seems as if the first episode and the last are from two entirely different seasons.  The fourth season was ultimately an epic battle between Walt and Gus, and what a war it was.  What was particularly brilliant is that for a few episodes in the middle of the season it seemed like Gus, rather than Walt was the main character and instead of being angry or confused I wanted more.  The show manages to invent back story which was clearly not intended when the show began and yet still doesn’t feel forced and some of the best Gus scenes of the fourth season revolve around this back story.

There are some conceits you have to buy to get on board with Breaking Bad.  It’s a show about broad strokes rather than details, and a show which is one step away from reality; it’s main characters are superheroes who are not exactly like regular people.  It’s not The Wire.  Some things happen in the show which aren’t “real” and that’s okay.  That’s not what’s most important.  What’s most important is that the level of reality and characters are consistent within the confines of the show, and they are.

Tension is the engine that drives Breaking Bad.  No show provides more tension over different periods of time; often there are three or four proverbial shoes waiting to drop at any given moment.  The single best example of that last year may be the ricin cigarette that sat in Jesse’s cigarette pack waiting to be used at any time, which hovers over the last few episodes of season 4.  My favorite small example of Breaking Bad tension is when Walt lights up the gas tank of a car in order to destroy it.  In most shows or movies, Walt would be running away immediately after he lit the fire, and the car would explode as he dived forward, barely missing the explosion.  In Breaking Bad however, the seconds tick by with Walt well out of the way until the car explodes.  Even just waiting for a car to explode, the tension is palpable.

The tension created by Breaking Bad doesn’t disappoint.  When Breaking Bad lays out a major plot element, it uses it.  What’s even more brilliant is that the vast majority of little plot strands the show has left dangling are in a wonderful place where Breaking Bad has built up a network of potential plots (Walt’s mother? Marie’s shoplifting? Ted’s death?) to call back on, but these strands wouldn’t feel unresolved if the show chose never to go back to them.

So many scenes in Breaking Bad are so perfectly executed that they could be wonderful vignettes even outside of the larger story.  For example, the scene in which Mike hides out in the truck and kills the cartel henchmen or the scene in which Mike and Walt talk at the bar and Mike knocks Walt out.  Both of these scenes are brilliant pieces of television even outside of their context.

I could write thousands of words about this show, and I just might at another time. but hopefully this has expressed my feelings about Breaking Bad sufficiently.

Why it’s this high:  It’s the best show currently on TV and it’s only gotten better.

Why it’s not higher: It is in fact, highest

SPOILER ALERT

Best episode of the most recent season:  It’s so hard to choose, but it’s hard not to say the finale – there were a couple of major moments which I debated whether I liked or not – namely, zombie Gus straightening his tie and the decision to straight out show the plant in Walt’s backyard.  Even while I still can’t decide whether I think those moments were good decisions, the episode still stands as an absolutely brilliant piece of television.  I watched it late at night, and I couldn’t sleep for hours after I watched it, and I mean that in the best way possible.  One of the most brilliant aspects of this episode is the way it allows you reevaluate scenes from previous episodes.  This episode takes the scene earlier in the season with Walt spinning his gun around on the table in his backyard, which at the time looked like a scene of pathetic desperation where Walt perhaps contemplated suicide, into a triumphant scene where the plan was hatched that would lead ultimately to Walt’s success against Gus.

Power Rankings: Wings

28 Nov

(Power Rankings sum up:  Each week, we’ll pick a television show and rank the actors/actresses/contestants/correspondents/etc. based on what they’ve done after the series ended (unless we’re ranking a current series, in which case we’ll have to bend the rules).  Preference will be given to more recent work, but if the work was a long time ago, but much more important/relevant, that will be factored in as well)

Wings lasted for eight seasons and 172 episodes and I have never seen a single episode nor even knew it existed while it was airing, from 1990 to 1997.  Since then I’ve been made aware of the show and have picked up a couple of facts about it, like the name of the airline (Sandpiper) and the name of the airport (Tom Nevers Field), but still best know the show for a couple of actors who made their bones there before showing up elsewhere.

9.  David Schramm (as Roy Biggins) – After last week’s all around success story, it’s nice to get to a good old fashioned power rankings loser. Schramm has a mere one credit after the end of Wings, a voice role in an episode of Hercules in 1998.

8.  Crystal Bernard (as Helen Chapel-Hackett) – While Schramm’s work makes Bernard seem prolific, Bernard’s post Wings work pretty much consists of a series of TV movies – Grave Misconduct, The Secret Path, A Face to Kill For, To Love, Honor & Betray, Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus and its sequel Meet the Santas.  She appeared in an episode of According to Jim.  Yikes.  She also had a #25 single on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1999 with “Don’t Touch Me There.”

7.  Rebecca Schull (as Fay Cochran) – Almost 80 now, I’m giving her the tiebreaker against Bernard if for no other reason than for her age.  She has been in episodes of Frasier, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Damages, and three of Suits.  She’s also appeared in The Odd Couple II, Analyze This, Analyze That, United 93 and Little Children.

6.  Farrah Forke (as Alex Lambert) – Forke had the smallest role on Wings for anyone I included, as she was a main cast member for just one season and was off the show by 1995.  Afterwards, she had a recurring role as district attorney Mayson Drake on Lois and Clarke: The New Adventures of Superman.  She was a main cast member in two subsequent one season sitcoms, 1995’s Dweebs, as an office manager of a software company and as a guidance counselor on 1996’s Mr. Rhodes.  She was in an episode of Ned & Stacey, one of Jenny, one of the Fantasy Island remake and in three of Party of Five.  Since the turn of the century the only role she’s had is voicing heroine Big Barda in one episode of Batman Beyond and two of Justice League.

5.  Amy Yasbeck (as Casey Chapel Davenport) – Immediately after Wings, Yasbeck co-starred in the one season Alright Already which doesn’t even warrant a wikipedia page.  In 2005, she co-starred in the equally short-lived Life on a Stick.  She’s also been in episodes of It’s Like, You Know, Just Shoot Me!, That’s so Raven, Hot in Cleveland and Worst Week.  Yasbeck gets the nod over Forke for having appeared in person in a role after 2000.

4.  Steven Weber (as Brian Hackett) – There’s a huge jump between Yasbeck and Weber.  The top four on Wings have all had exemplary post-Wings careers and the rankings would be almost more accurate listed simply in two tiers than in numbering further.  That said, we must rank on.  Weber was a voice in the All Dogs Go to Heaven TV series and acted in a number of TV movies including Thanks of a Grateful Nation, Love Letters, Late Last Night, and Common Ground.  He was in episodes of The Outer Limits, The Simpsons, Extreme Ghostbusters and Stark Raving Mad.  Weber starred in a failed sitcom fittingly called The Weber Show in 2000.  He had a recurring role in nine episodes of Once and Again as Billy Campbell’s friend. He was then in episodes of Monk, The Lyon’s Den, American Dad and Will & Grace.  He co-starred in high-priced flop Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as network head Jack Rudolph.  He appeared in one episode of Psych, three of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and four of Without a Trace.  He was in eight episodes of Brothers and Sisters, three of In Plain Sight and Falling Skies, and one of Desperate Housewives, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Party Down as a gangster of indeterminate eastern European origin who was just acquitted of murder.  He was in the main cast of unsuccessful 2010 midseason replacement Happy Town.  He’ll be voicing Norman Osborn in the upcoming Ultimate Spider-man cartoon series.

3.  Thomas Hayden Church (as Lowell Mather) – Church left Wings after the fifth season, after which he starred in sitcom Ned and Stacey alongside Debra Messing for two seasons.  He appeared in movies George of the Jungle, 3000 Miles to Graceland, The Specials, Spanglish and Idiocracy.  His most notable film roles may be that of Jack in Sideways and of Sandman in Spider-man 3.  He had voice roles in Over the Hedge, Charlotte’s Web and Aliens in the Attic.  He appeared in episodes of Lucky and Miss Match and in miniseries Broken Trail.  Most recently, he’s been in films Smart People, All About Steve, Easy A and will be in We Bought A Zoo.

2.  Tim Daly (as Joe Hackett) – After the end of Wings, Daly appeared in The Object of My Affection and in four episodes of astronaut mini-series From The Earth to the Moon as Jim Lovell, who Tom Hanks portrayed in Apollo 13.  He starred in Stephen King mini-series Storm of the Century which I watched while on vacation as it aired.  He voiced Superman in the popular ‘90s animated series, most of which aired after Wings ended.  He starred in several failed series including 2000’s remake of The Fugitive, where Daly played Richard Kimble, 2005 ABC private investigation series Eyes, and 2006’s bank heist drama The Nine.  He had a memorable recurring role in The Sopranos as J.T. Dolan, a drug-addicted screenwriter, who Chris bonds with in rehab and then has beaten up when Dolan doesn’t pay back money on time.  He was in episodes of Monk, Chasing Amy, and Commander in Chief.  He currently co-stars in Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice as Pete Wilder who has lots of crazy affairs and events over the course of the five year run of the show if his character’s wikipedia page is to be believed.

1.  Tony Shalhoub (as Antonio Scarpacci) – You might say Shalhoub’s done okay since Wings ended.  Before the ‘90s were out, Shalhoub appeared in films Men in Black, Gattica, A Life Less Ordinary, Primary Colours, The Siege, A Civil Action and Galaxy Quest.  He also appeared in an episode of Ally McBeal and starred in the short-lived sitcom Stark Raving Mad with Neil Patrick Harris.  In the 2000s, he appeared in Men in Black 2, the Sky Kids series of films, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Thir13en Ghosts, Life or Something Like It, 1408, and as a voice in Cars.  In 2002, he landed his biggest role as the star of USA’s Monk, which lasted eight seasons and starred Shalhoub as Adrian Monk, a retired but brilliant detective with obsessive compulsive disorder who helps the police solve murder cases in San Francisco.  He won three Emmy awards for the role.  Post-Monk he has so far appeared in film How Do You Know and HBO movie Too Big To Fail.

Show of the Day: Sesame Street – Snuffleupagus edition

25 Nov

There’s pages and books and so forth that could be written about Sesame Street, a kids show that’s run on PBS for over forty years and which several generations of children, including my own, have grown up with.  That’s way too much to handle in one entry.  Instead I’m going to focus on two moments both revolving around Snuffleupagus which I find particularly interesting.

Snuffleupagus (actually a last name – his first name is Aloysius) is a wooly mammoth-like creature with a trunk-like nose known as a “snuffle” (these are all technical terms).

The first moment is in regard to the ongoing question, which lasted for the first 15 years of the show, over whether Snuffleupagus (“Snuffy”) was real of merely a figment of Big Bird’s imagination.  Big Bird was constantly trying to convince everyone on Sesame Street that Snuffy was real, but there were many who didn’t buy what Big Bird was selling.  By the mid-80s, two camps had emerged – Snuffy believers and Snuffy non-believers.  As part of his attempts to persaude the adults, Big Bird would set up many scenarios to prove Snuffy’s existence, but Snuffy would walk away just before the adults could see him.  Kids and occasional guest starts sometimes saw Snuffy, but Big Bird was at loose ends trying to show the adults.

Eventually in episode 2096, airing on November 18, 1985, Big Bird concocts yet another plan to show the adults that Snuffy is real.  By now, he’s won some support to his side.  Gordon, Linda and Maria are in the Snuffy camp, but Bob and Susan still think he’s  imaginary.  Big Bird’s latest plan is to shout a secret word while Snuffy is present, in this case “food”, at which point the adults will run quickly and see Snuffy.  Bird tries it quickly once, but Snuffy has already run off to tell his mom about Big Bird’s plan.  Determined not to be foiled again, Big Bird assigns Elmo to watch out and ensure that Snuffy does not leave when Big Bird next yells the secret word.  Elmo does his job, hanging on to Snuffy’s snuffle, even as the snuffle goes flying back and forth, and just in time the adults come in and meet Snuffy for the very first time.  The disbelievers are surprised and very apologetic to Big Bird who reveals it was hard on him to know that his friends didn’t believe him.  Eventually all the adults introduce themselves to Snuffy, including Phil Donahue (what could be more ‘80s?) who was on Sesame Street to pick up his toaster from the fix-it shop.

The primary motivation to introduce Snuffy as real to the world was in response to a series of prominent child sexual abuse scandals in the early and mid-80s.  Sesame Street’s writers were concerned that the message they were sending, by having many adults not believe Big Bird, was that you couldn’t tell your parents everything because of the risk that they wouldn’t believe you and that it was better to just say nothing at all.  By showing that Big Bird is right, they were hoping to convey the opposite message, that parents will listen to their kids and that kids should not be afraid to tell their parents anything.  Secondarily, the writers may have been tired of constantly making up new ways for Snuffy to just avoid being seen by the adults.

The second pivotal Mr. Snuffleupagus moment is Snuffy’s parents getting divorced, which is part of an episode which never actually aired (colloquially known as “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce”) from 1992.  Sesame Street doesn’t do “very special” episodes very often, and whether you love the show or not, I think it takes its responsibility with young children very seriously, so when it does an important episode, it’s worth taking notice.  The most notable of these episodes is the death of Mr. Hoooper in 1983 but perhaps the second most is “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce.”  After years of debate, Sesame Street writers decided they wanted to attempt to address the issue of divorce on the program, and quickly decided that it would have to be related to the puppets rather than to any of the adults on the show.  Snffleupagus was chosen and the initial script was passed around to psychologists as well as members of the show’s advisory board.  Edits were suggested to quell the worry that children would think that arguments between parents automatically led to divorce.  The episode was filmed with these edits, but test audiences did not take well to the episode.  Even with the edits, kids still felt that arguments between their parents would inevitably lead to divorce.  They also were confused about whether Aloysius and his sister Alice would ever see their father again, and he was a rarely used character.  Maybe even worst of all, many of the kids watching got the idea that after divorce their parents would no longer love them.

The entire episode was scrapped and replaced with a storyline about Oscar’s brother visiting Sesame Street.  It was a noble attempt, but the writers decided that divorce was outside of the realm of issues they could address to kids of the age Sesame Street is aiming for.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 2: Game of Thrones

24 Nov

To say I’ve become obsessed with Game of Thrones recently wouldn’t be that much of an understatement (it would really just be an accurate statement I suppose). Long ago, my friend sang the praises of the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin; they were among his favorite books, but aside from Tolkien, I knew just about nothing about fantasy and stayed away. Maybe a year and a half ago, I saw the news that there were talks to make a  fantasy series for HBO, and put together that it was based on the Martin books and told my friend, and then forgot about it for a while. Later, as the air date for the series neared, he warned me that I should get the books ahead of time, but I again put it off. It even took me a couple of weeks to watch the pilot and the first couple of episodes. When I finally did, though, I was blown away, and after a couple more episodes the TV series wasn’t enough for me, so I began reading the books. I was on to the second by the time the first season ended and since I’ve finished all five.

Of course, this article is about the TV show and not the books, but the show is incredibly faithful to the book, more so than almost any other adaptation I can recall and enjoying the books so much only makes me look more forward to seeing my favorite scenes and characters come to life during the series.  Let’s stick to what makes the first season in and of itself great. The first touchstone for many people in regard to Game of Thrones is Lord of the Rings, but that’s really only because they’re the two biggest fantasy series to cross into the mainstream over the last decade or so. Other than both being fantastic fantasy series, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Lord of the Rings is an epic battle on the biggest scale imaginable between good and evil. Game of Thrones is set in a fantasy universe, but it’s really a political thriller hiding underneath the medieval facade. Set in the fictional continent of Westeros, Game of Thrones is an all out battle for power amongst aristocratic famlies attempting to outmaneuver each other to place their chosen king on the throne. The beauty of Game of Thrones is that nearly every character has understandable motivations; once you see their side of things their actions make a lot more sense. There’s very little absolute good and evil in this world; with the exception of one or two truly psychotic characters, every character has a reasonable motivation even if you can’t stand them.

The cast of characters is large and will continue to grow and grow as the series goes forward. This creates an intricate web which can be hard to keep track of but which creates a complex universe for the show, allowing characters to change in importance without feeling like they came out of nowhere.  There are so many wonderful concepts within the Game of Thrones universe that it would take pages to explain all of them.  One major one is the The Wall, a giant ice wall which separates the land of Westeros from the wilderness of the frigid north. The wall is guarded by an organization called The Night’s Watch composed of members who are sworn to protect the wall; they are forbidden wives or inheritances.  Behind the wall are wildlings sworn to no king, but also a mysterious group of “others” who can reanimate the dead and are a threat to the entire kingdom.  This sounds ridiculous but it all works and leads to many interesting conflicts – the benefits and detriments of the monarchy inside the wall and the lack of it outside, the desire and importance of remaining loyal to the watch weighed against avenging your family, and the political system’s inability to focus its resources on a shared problem while fighting against itself.

The beauty of the Game of Thrones is that it incorporates major fantasy elements like dragons and magic, but in fairly limited and pointed uses. Its focus is squarely on the humans, with use of these fantasy elements to supplement the human story rather than to replace it. The series uses these concepts to explore human emotions and social and political concepts.

Why it’s so high: No show, with the possible exception of the show above this, had me so excited to watch each week and so excited to talk about what I saw immediately after I watched

What it’s not higher: One season against four seasons of the one ahead – they’re both best, it’s so hard to make choices here

SPOILER ALERT

Best episode of the most recent season:  “Baelor” – The biggest single moment in the entire first season shows everything this show is about – the execution of Eddard Stark, which is handled so well visually.  Game of Thrones is setting us up for the long run and letting us know that nothing is sacred by killing the main character less than a season into the series.  From killing Stark, there can be no other option but all out war for the iron throne.  It may be frustrating to many that the show takes essentially a full season to even get to the point where the central conflict for the throne begins in earnest (it starts after King Robert dies but it isn’t in full motion until Stark dies) but for me the journey was enjoyable in and of itself and I see nothing but long term possibilities in terms of where the story can go (obviously having read the books I know a lot of that and am excited more by the fact that there’s a plan in place unlike some shows (cough, cough, Lost).

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Geoff Pierson

23 Nov

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

Today we spotlight Geoff Pierson, who got his start in the 1980s, watched his career progress in the ’90s and who has been active as ever in the ’00s.

Pierson’s first role was in 1980 TV movie The Mating Season.  He then appeared in eight episodes of Texas, a daytime soap which existed only in the early 80s and 15 episodes of soap opera Ryan’s Hope as Frank Ryan, a district attorney.  He was just dipping his toe into the television waters in the 1980s, which he finished out with appearances in The Equalizer, Search for Tomorrow, Married with Children, Kate & Allie and Days of Our Lives, and in TV movies Necessary Parties and Mutts.

The ‘90s began with more bit roles, including one episode stints in Alien Nation, Against the Law, Another World, The Adventures of Pete & Pete and New York Undercover.  He was in two very early Law & Order episodes, two of Party of Five, and in TV movie Murder in Black and White as “Father with Boat.”  The rest of the ‘90s were taken up by his two biggest roles.  In 1994, he began a recurring role in Brett Butler’s Grace Under Fire, appearing in 30 episodes over the course of the show’s five season run as Grace’s ex-husband Jimmy.  Jimmy was alternately a trouble-maker alcoholic and a clean romantic intent on winning Grace back, and while that didn’t happen he managed to befriend Grace and deal amicably with their kids.  A year after Grace Under Fire began, Pierson began starring in WB’s Unhappily Ever After, a show about a dysfunctional family which lasted for five seasons.  Originally intended to showcase the mother, portrayed by Stephanie Hodge, within a few episodes the show was changed to focus on Pierson’s father character, Jack Malloy, who was a schizophrenic alcoholic depressive who frequently interacted with a talking rabbit, Mr. Floppy (voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait) who only he could see.  The talking rabbit was one of the only two things I knew about Unhappily Ever After, along with Nikki Cox, who played daughter Tiffany and became the breakout character who took the lead along with Pierson.  The other kids were played by Kevin Connolly, who went on to play Eric in Entourage, and Justin Berfield who later played Reese in Malcolm in the Middle.

After Unhappily Ever After ended, he appeared in episodes of Cosby, The Divison, Becker, three of Nash Bridges, two of Popular, and one of Friends.  He was in two of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and then appeared as a regular in the short-lived That ‘80s Show as R.T. Howard, the father of two of the other main characters, who owned “Videx” a small company which sells personal fitness equipment.  His son is portrayed by Glenn Howerton, now best known as Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  The show lasted 13 episodes.  After its failure, he was in episodes of The District, Touched by an Angel, The O’Keefe’s, and The Drew Carey Show.  In three episodes of The West Wing, he played Senate Minority Leader Wendell Tripplehorn, who briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination before withdrawing.  He appeared in Comedy Central original movie Windy City Heat and TV movie Deal and episodes of Monk, NYPD Blue, and Eyes.

He was in 18 episodes of 24 as President John Keeler.  In Season 3, he is approached to help blackmail President Palmer so that he would have an easy road to the presidency, and after Palmer withdraws, he is president at the start of Season 4.  His reign is short-lived as Air Force One is fired at while he is on it, killing many of the passengers,  He survives but is in critical condition, and Vice President Charles Logan takes over his duties.  It is never revealed if he died or was just too injured to serve again.  Next, he was in episodes of Desperate Housewives, Criminal Minds, NCIS, Numb3rs, and Medium.  He was in two episodes of Veronica Mars as Stewart Manning, Meg Manning’s father who was abusing Meg’s younger sister Grace.  He was in TV movies The Poseidon Adventure, The Valley of Light, and Sweet Nothing in My Ear.  He was in three episodes of Rodney, two of Life and one of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as a prison warden.

Around this time, he began his recurring role in Dexter as Deputy Chief Tom Matthews, showing up in 25 episodes.  Matthews is an officer who was best friends with Dexter’s father Harry Morgan and buried the fact that Harry’s death was a suicide.  He constantly battles with Maria LaGuerta, fighting over credit and blame, haranguing her over her affair with Angel, and being blackmailed by her to be promoted to captain in the most recent season.  Pierson has over the course of Dexter also appeared in episodes of The Mentalist, Better Off Ted, Fringe, In Plain Sight, Glory Daze and Castle.  He appeared in two episodes of Rules of Engagement as David Spade’s character’s wealthy father and so far in three episodes of Boardwalk Empire as Senator Walter Edge, based on a real life senator from New Jersey.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 3: Mad Men

22 Nov

Mad Men was victim to a phenomenon that happens sometimes when shows are in between seasons, especially when the off season is long.  After the third season, I somehow got the notion in my head that maybe Mad Men wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.  I talked with some people who were down on the show, and though I was still eager to catch the fourth season as it began, I had convinced myself that it was a fine show, but nothing to be inducted into the television hall of fame.  The fourth season began, though, and I was immediately pulled back in and wondered why I had ever doubted the show.  Impressively, the show, which was excellent right out of the box, made the fourth season its best yet.

Boardwalk Empire bears a lot of similarities to The Sopranos, but if The Sopranos was to have a successor, Mad Men would be the most logical choice.  (Of course, it’s unfair to compare everything to The Sopranos – but with Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire creators Matthew Weiner and Terrence Winter having worked on The Sopranos previously it’s hard not to.)  Don Draper deals with the same battles at home and at work as Soprano did (well, different businesses but some similar battles), serially cheating on his wife.

SPOILER

Unlike in The Sopranos, the Drapers actually do get divorced and Don’s choice of women becomes a major plot point in the fourth season, as he engages in romantic entanglements with both the career oriented market research consultant Faye and secretary Megan.  While it seemed temporarily like Don was ready for a relationship with an equal, he goes off to California with his young secretary, and after she gets along well with his kids, proposes to her, in the final episode of the season.

SPOILER OVER

The fourth season has a number of outstanding individual episodes, including “Waldorf Stories” in which we deal with  multiple compelling storylines.  Don is forced to hire Roger’s wife’s cousin Danny after inadvertantly stealing a tagline from him (Danny is portrayed by Danny Strong, best known as Jonathan from Buffy), and then embarks upon a lost weekend celebrating his Clio award win, while Roger remembers meeting Don Draper for the first time.  Peggy works with the new art director and tries to fight her image as uptight.  The episode showcases the strengths of Mad Men.  The acting is as good and the characters are as well developed as any on TV.

My only serious issue with Mad Men is that the portrayal of Betty Draper which by the end of the fourth season is just absolutely over the top.  While most of the other more ridiculous characters have become more reasonable over the years (see: Pete Campbell), Betty has become an insane monster.  She moves from a character with whom I had much sympathy, being cheated on all those years, to one who acts like an overgrown child.  I understand Betty may have never been the most mature character, but the last couple of seasons take it too far.

Why it’s this high:  When it’s on, it’s TV at its best, and it’s on more often than not.  The writing and characters are about as good as it gets.

Why it’s not higher:  It’s hardly an insult to put it third – if push comes to shove, I find the two shows above here slightly more compelling at the current time.

Best episode of the most recent season:  Another show with a clear winner – “The Suitcase,” which almost exclusively involves Don Draper and Peggy Olson, and was the type of episode that had people declaring it an all-time classic television episode right after it aired.  Maybe it’s the obvious choice, but it’s the obvious choice for a reason; it really was that good.  After Peggy and Don had been so close earlier, they’d drifted apart and this episode gives them a chance to really spend some quality time together.  Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss are both outstanding.