Showing posts with label Sound on Sight. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sound on Sight. Show all posts

May 11, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Beacon of Hope"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When evaluating the cast of each Amazing Race season, it’s easy to look at two strong guys and expect them to blow through the race. When this pair includes professional athletes, that chance seems even greater. The interesting part is that physical competitors frequently go out early. They could be poor navigators, struggle with intricate tasks, or just hit a run of bad luck. When an imposing team does get it together, the results can be predictable. Max and Katie won three straight legs heading into the finals, but it still feels like Bates and Anthony’s race to lose. They succeeded by following other teams and then rolling on the challenges. That’s hardly a bad strategy if they follow the right people (they did). Even with a few hiccups, the hockey players breeze to the finals and then turn on the after burners. They’re hardly the least desirable winners and gracefully take the top prize by a considerable margin. While no drama exists at the final task, there’s still plenty to like with the finale. The challenges feel more inspiring, particularly in the first hour. Caroline and Jennifer struggle in the second-last leg and lose despite more inept play from Mona and Beth. Both are clearly not serious contenders in the final leg, which becomes a two-team race between the season’s top competitors.

Teams begin by boarding a ferry and traveling to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Everyone wants Beth and Mona out, but there isn’t the same unity among the top three teams as last season versus the Beekmans. Everyone realizes that it’s an individual game. This is not a strong season, but the good-natured way they approach the game has been refreshing. Even when the stress picks up, there are few squabbles. The Roadblock is a unique activity called bog snorkeling that involves swimming through nasty water. This is a silly task that seems unpleasant but hardly impossible given the four-minute time requirement. Even so, it causes problems for several participants. Mona nearly has a breakdown because of her fears of the cold and dirty water, which make this a double whammy. Her struggles are nothing compared to Jennifer, who hurts her chances but jumping into a random pond for no reason. Quitting becomes a possibility, but she pulls through and finishes the Roadblock. They’re way behind and will need a lot of help to make the final three.

The top three teams race to the Detour and pick “Tray It”, which requires them to serve meals and recreate the final dinner of the Titanic. This is more than just a physical task and involves closely reading the sign. Max and Katie wisely discover the twist, but Mona repeatedly sends Beth with the wrong food. It’s a good reminder that sometimes it’s wise to slow down and figure out the challenge. Anthony also struggles with all the dishes and sends Bates into a rage. He seems ready to drop the gloves and brawl, but his partner saves the day. They finish second behind Max and Katie, and it comes down to a two-team race for the last spot. Caroline and Jennifer’s difficulties get worse due to bad navigation, but they recover and blow through the “Spray It” challenge. Painting a specific graffiti image takes time but lacks all the running and headaches of the food. The editors try to introduce drama into the finish, but it’s clear the roller derby moms will survive. The likable country singers hang in there right to the end, but it isn’t enough to avoid Phil’s wrath.

The remaining three teams go on quite a journey to drink a pint at the Euston Tap in London. After an eight-hour ferry ride, they don’t even finish the beer! The final destination city is Washington, D.C., and the first location is the Lincoln Memorial to the spot of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This serious moment is followed by a goofy joke where the clue tells the racers they’ll be meeting Barack Obama. Past seasons have used Wayne Newton, so who knows what will happen? Everyone feels dumb when they realize their destination is a hokey tourist spot where they’re “photoshopped” into a picture shaking hands with the president. They humbly exit and venture to the Tidal Basin for another Switchback. This Roadblock comes from the dreadful Family Edition and sends players through a swarm of secret agents to find the one with their clue. It’s very random for the finale and plays a key role in Max and Katie’s demise. He inexplicably falls way behind in this challenge, and they never recover.

The next step in this challenge-packed leg is a visit to Nationals Park for a high-flying game of catch. One player uses a zip line way above the field and drops a ball to their partner on the ground. The big obstacle is the mascot outfit worn by the receiver. It’s nearly impossible to see or maneuver in the bulky costume. Creepy mascots of George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt dance around and liven up the proceedings. Bates and Anthony have a clear edge at this point, and it only grows while the others struggle at the stadium. They venture to Hains Point for the final challenge in a giant ball pit full of globes. Certain balls spotlight the countries they visited, which needs to be put in order. It’s a silly task that could have been dramatic with direct competition. Instead, Bates and Anthony finish before the others arrive and win the million-dollar prize. This finale includes entertaining tasks that show more creativity than much of the season. Even so, the predictable finish makes it hard to go over the moon about this race. They producers need to go back to the drawing board and re-consider every part of the show. Using minor tweaks like adding an Extra Pass is hardly a game-changing move. It’s still entertaining television, but it will take some major upgrades to push The Amazing Race back to the pinnacle of its glory days.

May 5, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Working Our Barrels Off"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week’s Amazing Race splits the five remaining teams into two groups and forces one to scramble to avoid elimination. The interesting part is how they end up divided by several hours during the jaunt through Scotland. The leg begins with the warning that a U-Turn is ahead, but that plays only a minor role in the outcome. It’s the lack of diligence from Joey and Meghan and the roller derby moms that pushes them to the back of the pack. After grabbing what’s apparently the best flight, they celebrate and prepare to grab the top two spots. This type of error happens nearly every season, and it’s easy to understand why they feel complacent enough not to look for better options. The saving grace for Mona and Beth is the fact that they aren’t the only ones to make the mistake. They power through both Detours ahead of Meghan and Joey and live to see another day. It’s clear that the top three teams are working together and will make it difficult for them to make the final leg. The Beekmans proved last season that just surviving is enough, and there’s always a way even when the other remaining teams have banded together. The question is whether enough luck exists for history to repeat itself in back-to-back contests.

Teams fly to Edinburgh and drive yet another Ford vehicle to the Gosford House. This is the location for the Roadblock, which requires the players to play a note on bagpipes for several minutes while marching with the Royal Scots. It seems easy for Max and Bates, but Jennifer struggles mightily. The judges don’t seem to hold them to a very high standard; bagpipes are no joke. It’s nice to see a challenge that’s more of a cultural encounter than a nasty experience. The teams enjoy the experience of visiting the stunning castle, and that’s never a bad thing. The downside is that the task has little impact on placement, especially among the top teams. This isn’t a case where the trailing pairs have a chance to make up time. They’re in the back unless something crazy happens. Searching for the clue inside the fireplaces of the Craigmillar Castle is a fun touch but offers few opportunities for a change.

The Detour options are “Tasty Puddin’” or “Whiskey Rollin’”, and the choice is easy. Who wouldn’t want to eat some delicious pudding? Unfortunately, that task actually involves prepping haggis, but it’s still the better choice. Max and Katie realize the hockey players will go for the strength task, so they wisely go the food preparation route. For no reason other than being silly, the producers add a Robert Burns impersonator to do a stirring rendition of his poem “Address to a Haggis”. He’s an energetic character though slightly creepy at the same time. It’s probably impossible to extol the virtues of haggis without sounding a little strange. The other Detour involves rolling eight heavy barrels of whiskey to a party. It’s a task that seems faster, but even the hockey players take a good amount of time with it. Bates shows his crazy strength by lifting the barrel over his head, while others struggle to even move the bulky object. The country singers wisely choose the haggis, which may be grisly but seems pretty straightforward.

The remaining two teams both choose “Tasty Puddin’”, which means Meghan and Joey are in trouble if they can’t gain an edge with the haggis. They’re fit but lack the strength of Mona and Beth, so the Double U-Turn doesn’t give them a chance to slide into fourth. In fact, it takes both YouTube hosts to even move the barrels. That strategy isn’t going to gain any time. Max and Katie and the hockey players both exercise the U-Turn to knock out the other alliance. This makes sense on the surface, but it really doesn’t benefit Max and Katie to knock out a weaker team. They’re still facing off with Bates and Anthony, their biggest competition going forward. On the other hand, the spread between flights makes it a waste to try and take out the hockey players. Picking them would just antagonize the laid-back guys, who would still survive and maybe fall back a spot. Since a bunching is inevitable at the start of the next leg, the gain would be nonexistent. Going with their original plan is the right choice and keeps everyone happy.

Looking towards next week’s two-hour finale, it’s easy to put money on the hockey players because of their physical strength. However, that assumes the final challenges are based on that attribute. Other teams are better at navigation and have shown they can move quickly enough through challenges. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Bates and Anthony go out in the first hour. Mona and Beth are the clear underdogs and most likely to exit first, but anything can happen. They overcome a Speed Bump and problems with directions to survive, which shows their resilience. The extra task is a form of Scottish bowling called Skittles, which is easy but takes more time than other Speed Bumps. This isn’t on par with sitting on a block of ice or riding in a traveling sauna. There’s a little skill to rolling a strike using a ball without finger holes. Will their scrappiness be enough to win them the million? This prospect is doubtful, but there’s no clear favorite at this point. My pick is Max and Katie, though nothing would be shocking in this unpredictable season.

May 4, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "The Beginning of the End"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

In the very first episode of Survivor Caramoan, Andrea faced serious danger by playing way too hard. She went after Francesca and received four votes from the minority group. The favorites’ dominance kept her off the radar for a while, but she’s survived a few close calls. Andrea’s chosen a risky game all season, and she faces the music this week. Once the other favorites learn that she’s targeting Brenda, they turn the tables and blindside her in the episode’s second Tribal Council. When Reynold falls off the perch in the first immunity challenge, his fate is sealed. He exits gracefully, and Eddie seems like the obvious next target. Like the departing Malcolm last week, it’s Andrea’s attempts to make a move that doom her fate. Her chances of making the end were already suspect because she’s a gamer. Even so, the early exit is unexpected with an obvious boot remaining. Some of the best Survivor moments happen with seven players remaining, and tonight is no exception. Players can see the end and stop worrying about sticking with their alliances. Everyone is truly playing an individual game, which sets the stage for an intriguing final two episodes.

Andrea’s big mistake is trusting Cochran, who spills the beans about her plans to target Brenda or Dawn. He just passes along this news, and all the pieces fall into place. It’s impressive because it feels like a group decision and not the smart removal of a key opponent. If Cochran keeps that news to himself, the consensus against Andrea might not have grown. Her other error is saying way too much to clearly outline her final three plans. Eddie will vote with her right to the end and is a long shot to win the game. The blindside is compounded by the fact that Andrea has the hidden immunity idol. She wins the same clue that Malcolm read last week, and the group locates this elusive prize. Erik grabs the idol but immediately gives it to Andrea. At first glance, this act mirrors his infamous move to give away immunity in his first season. That’s being way too hard on the well-meaning guy, however. Erik has spent the entire season trying to stay out of the limelight, and selfishly cradling the idol would make him a bigger threat. If he acts like it doesn’t matter, he looks harmless. Of course, this reading might be giving too much credit to Erik’s strategy.

The episode begins with an immunity challenge that surprises the complacent tribe. It’s an old-school Survivor test of endurance and balance. Players must stand on a small perch out in the water and progress towards a more precarious spot. Hilariously, Eddie jumps off quickly for a plate of donuts. Erik joins him on the bench, but his decision makes a lot more sense. The focus is all on Reynold, and he holds out for a while. This challenge isn’t made for him, though. If they were throwing something, he’d be in great shape. Instead, Andrea and Brenda easily outlast him. They both want the other to drop, but neither is ready to concede. The battle lasts more than three hours, which is an eternity in the modern Survivor era. It’s so easy that the girls actually decide to make it harder by lifting up one leg. Take that, challenge producers! Brenda goes a bit overboard with the leg raise and quickly falls into the water. Her competitive nature raises Andrea’s warning bells, but this concern inadvertently leads to her demise.

The editors strongly push the idea that Reynold’s safe at Tribal Council, but it’s a smokescreen for the viewers. It makes no sense to leave a likable guy who’s strong at challenges in the game. If he makes it to the end, Reynold wins the million. He doesn’t give up the game for a plate of donuts. He seemed like an idiot in the opening episodes, but his persistence deserves respect. With two Tribal Councils this week, it recalls the quick exits of the doomed players in the South Pacific season. Thankfully for Eddie and the audience, these favorites are smarter than Edna and Rick. It’s clear that Andrea’s in trouble and has no idea she’s headed for Ponderosa. The stunned look on her face is classic and sends another strong player to the jury. It’s again refreshing to see a person exit and not look bitter. This show’s come a long way from the nasty departures in the original Survivor All-Stars. It’s clearly all about strategy and not personal for Cochran and his allies.

There are so many different possibilities for the remainder of the game. Cochran is the favorite to win it all, but Brenda and Dawn have strong chances. There’s even a scenario where Erik uses his “No Strategy” approach and takes it right to the end. He probably needs to sit next to Sherri and Eddie to grab the win, however. His immunity challenge victory in a physical contest raises questions about his effort in previous weeks. Was he holding back until Reynold and Malcolm were gone? Cochran has wisely navigated the tricky waters of being a strategic threat, but Andrea’s fate shows that he must be careful. He may need help from the remaining fans to make the end. A final three pact with Sherri and Eddie could be his best move to grab the victory. Brenda has shown her mettle and made few enemies, so she’s also in serious danger. This season is on a roll and poised to deliver one of the great finishes in recent Survivor history.

April 28, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "The Ultimate Fun House"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week’s action-packed episode of The Amazing Race reveals the best and worst aspects of the current incarnation of this long-running show. After 22 seasons, it’s impressive to see challenges that still feel creative and exciting for devoted fans. On the other hand, there are warning signs that the producers are drawing the wrong conclusions from the consistent success. They seem convinced the audience is fascinated by the showmance between the hockey players and Caroline and Jennifer. While mentioning it is fine, repeating the same types of conversations feels unnecessary when so much is happening in the competition. Even if they make the finals and are competing directly for the million, the story isn’t going anywhere. A much bigger moment has Bates waking up on the train to Dresden, Germany and realizing that his bag is gone. Thankfully, he keeps his passport and avoids that disastrous fate. Bates laughs off the challenges ahead, but it’s a pretty big deal to lose everything. This moment is only shown briefly yet has a lot more interest than flirting with the girls. The teams just aren’t that engaging to make a possible romance exciting.

Even so, there’s still plenty to enjoy in a brisk episode that ends with a tight footrace to the mat. This is obviously a non-elimination leg, which limits the suspense of nearly seeing Anthony and Bates finish last. They end up just edging Mona and Beth, who drop to the bottom after some serious navigation issues. Losing his bag could have given Bates the edge to keep the guys ahead. This leg’s show-stopper is a head-first drop from the top of the very tall Park Inn Hotel that looks terrifying. Teams hang from the edge of the skyscraper and are dropped mechanically like the elevators in the Tower of Terror at Disney World. It seems a bit safer than a bungee drop yet provides a more dramatic image. On the opposite end of the excitement is the trivia “challenge” inside their new Ford Fusion cars. This is a great change of pace in theory, but the questions are so easy that it becomes comical. The first question lists five presidents, so there’s at least a chance of missing them. Its follow-up is ridiculous because the answer is so obvious. The question asks about the Russian leader at the time of Reagan’s “tear down that wall” speech. The options include Mikhail Gorbachev and other choices that aren’t even people like the Brandenburg Gate. It’s like an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy! Amazingly, no one seems to struggle with this question.

The episode’s highlight is a wonderful maze under the Salon Zur Wilden Renate dive bar in Berlin that’s full of strangeness. While it freaks out straight-arrow racers like Max and Jennifer, it’s a truly inspired location. Only Joey recognizes the greatness and talks about wanting to return to that spot. The Roadblock forces players to crawl through tight spots and locate the white room for their clues. It’s a claustrophobic spot that includes light effects, mirrors, and even a creepy doll. Traversing it while drunk is not a good idea. The bar contains the expected silly denizens, and another trivia question forces racers to interact with them if they don’t know the answer. The “ich bin ein berliner” quote is pretty basic knowledge, but several clearly have no idea without some help. It isn’t multiple choice, so kudos to the producers for at least making it a bit harder. Beth and Bates end up in the maze at the same time, so their space is extremely tight. They work together to escape and both plan to win in a footrace. That’s a wise move for only one of the two teams.

Prior to the Roadblock, teams compete in a Detour with a choice between “Train Trials” and “Font Follies”. The first task sends them to the Deutsches Technikmuseum to put together a toy train. Meghan and Joey pick it and realize it’s tougher than expected. They have fun with it and enjoy being away from the stress of the other players. Everyone else decides to transport large letters by foot to Berlin’s Museum of Letters. There’s a strategy to selecting the letters that are easiest to carry. Picking a lowercase “o” is much wiser than an “s” or a “k”. There’s also a chance of breaking their cargo, which requires them to go back to the beginning. Anthony’s letter falls over and does just that, which forces them to scramble and build the train tracks. They struggle even more than Meghan and Joey and seem destined for last place. It’s interesting to note that no one seems concerned with finishing last, so they probably assume this is a non-elimination leg.

This episode offers another reminder of how alliances can be a crutch on The Amazing Race  Caroline and Jennifer waste time trying to decide if they should stick with Bates and Anthony. They also have problems after losing the guys when following them to the next clue. With only five teams remaining, it doesn’t make sense to stick together. The chance of slowing down and ending up fighting for the last spot is too likely. Max and Katie are playing their own game and getting better as the race moves along. They blow through this leg and take their first victory by a sizable margin. Meghan and Joey recover well and grab second to show they’ve recovered from last week’s troubles. It’s still anyone’s game and should provide a lot of excitement in the impending battle to reach the final four.

April 27, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Come Over to the Dark Side"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

Survivor fans love players who make big moves and don’t coast to the end. They’d much rather see a strategist like Rob Cesternino jumping alliances and shaking up the game then watch a dominator like Kim Spradlin. It makes the game exciting and avoids the predictable boots that plagued the South Pacific and One World seasons. The danger for players is that going after the title often doesn’t work. The riskier strategy wins the love of the fans, particularly when it’s done without the arrogance of Russell Hantz. Can players win this way in the game’s current era, however? In a season of returning players, the paranoia is even higher. Telling the wrong person (i.e., Dawn) can ruin any plan. Last week, Malcolm executed a wonderful move that saved his alliance and turned the tables on the majority. They booted Phillip and were ready to shake up the game. Unfortunately, that approach only works if the remaining players feel a threat to their game. Unlike the tribe of new players in Samoa that self-destructed once Russell went on the attack, this group is more conservative. Malcolm is still in serious danger because he’s relying on swing votes to save his hide. When Erik and Sherri decide to play it safe, it boots the fan favorite until his definite third attempt at some point in the future.

What makes Malcolm such an interesting player is the choice he made at the merge to play a different game. Instead of following Erik and Brenda’s path and drifting behind the scenes to fifth place, he realized it would take a major shift to grab the victory. It’s common that a contestant who’s actually playing to win doesn’t get that close. Even so, staying in the background just delays the inevitable exit. While making for better TV, his moves also give him the potential to win the game. There are now eight players remaining, and only three (maybe four) have a real shot at the million dollars. The others are following in the footsteps of Carter, Rick, and other pretenders. There are a few weird exceptions like Natalie White and Fabio, but most winners have to stick their neck out in some way. Kim had the luxury of playing against a lot of goofballs, and smart players like Cochran are on a different scale. Malcolm’s only mistake this week is being unable to find the hidden immunity idol. That’s his only chance to survive, though he would have faced the same dilemma next week.

Auction time! It’s a Survivor tradition to hand players $500 and watch them go crazy for mediocre food. This one is especially cruel and brings back nasty food for unsuspecting players. Reynold barely avoids ending up with a rotten coconut, and Brenda isn’t so lucky. She receives a lot of attention from the editors this week and spends a lot of it crying. When her blind buy ends up being pig brains, she unsuccessfully tries to hide the devastation. It wouldn’t be shocking to see her quit in an upcoming episode, which might explain the “Purple Kelly edit”. If not, they may be trying to generate sympathy when she surprises and reaches the end. Other auction moments include Cochran buying the advantage at the immunity challenge while a clueless Eddie doesn’t bid. Malcolm gets a clue to the idol, but it does him no good in the end. It’s interesting that he’s found idols without a clue yet couldn’t decipher this mystery. It’s a nice throwback to a time when players had to dig and truly search for that prize. Andrea and Cochran catch Malcolm looking in the middle of the night, and she refuses to budge while he searches. It’s an odd standoff that is played up by the editors (Malcolm claimed today it only lasted 20 minutes) but is entertaining regardless of its impact.

The immunity challenge is a grueling and simple one that’s made less dramatic because of Cochran’s advantage. He gains a huge edge and plays it right to grab his second victory. Even with the odds stacked in his favor, it’s still charming to watch him knock out the big guys. Players must balance a lot of weight by holding onto a long rope, and it gets harder every five minutes. Eddie gives his best shot to outlast Cochran, but he they’re not on a level playing field. These wins give him more evidence to cite about deserving the million dollars if he reaches the end. The only warning sign is the fact that Malcolm plans to target Cochran because of his intelligence. If the other Three Amigos fall in the next few weeks, the focus will shift to strategic players. This could put the pressure on Cochran and Andrea to stay afloat. If the others are smart, they definitely won’t let him reach the end.

After last week’s fireworks, nothing could live up to that Tribal Council. Even so, there are still plenty of interesting moments this week. Sherri’s amazing delusion that she’s in control of the game is baffling. Most consider her a valuable swing vote but don’t give her credit for making it far in the game. It’s also interesting to note that only one fan has departed since the merge. This raises the likelihood that one of them could slide to the end. The jury would include three fans plus Malcolm, so a guy like Reynold might have an outside shot if he survives. The problem is that the target is solely on his back with Malcolm gone. He will need some serious help or a challenge run to even come close to reaching the ultimate vote.

April 26, 2013

TV: You Have a Go: Stargate SG-1 Saves the World at Cheyenne Mountain

This post was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When Stargate SG-1 premiered in 1997, it was a transitional phase for genre television. The episodic model was the norm and had been mastered by several Star Trek series during that decade. Even so, forward-thinking visionaries like Chris Carter (The X-Files) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) were experimenting with a different model. Adapted from the 1994 Roland Emmerich feature Stargate, this series balances the old-school formula with a focus on continuity. Creators Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright make limited tweaks yet stay rooted in the “mission of the week” structure. The foundation for this approach is the Cheyenne Mountain facility, the site for Stargate Command. Commonly known as the S.G.C, this high-security fictional location is set in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This base feels like it comes from another TV era, but it serves a key purpose in this show. The facility grounds the series in reality and connects it to this world in a different way than most sci-fi series.

Stargate SG-1 is a rare series that received the endorsement of the U.S. Air Force. Several actual generals make guest appearances, and military advisors play a role in supporting the show. While this might feel like a crutch, it works because there’s a sense of authenticity in the inner workings at the SGC. The producers clearly understand the value of this backing, and star Richard Dean Anderson has made appearances at Air Force functions. The danger is that this focus on the military would turn off viewers who don’t identify with that institution. Thankfully, it doesn’t become an issue because it’s easy to form an emotional connection with the characters. The writers still have room to take down the tunnel vision of some military leaders, so there isn’t such a rigid adherence to painting a glowing portrayal of the Air Force. Anderson’s Jack O’Neill is a great guy, but he’s going to disobey orders when it’s the right thing to do. Close-minded officers like Lieutenant Colonel Samuels (Robert Wisden) in the first season are portrayed as cowards when the battles get real. They lack the heart and fortitude of the heroes that embody the military ethic like O’Neill.

Given the static nature of the S.G.C, it could grind the pace to a halt. That happens a few times, but they typically mine great material from this spot. The main reason is the excellent work of Don S. Davis, who plays General Hammond. He faces the nearly impossible task of sitting in the control and meeting rooms and saying “you have a go” and other generic lines. Davis was actually a U.S. Army captain, and it’s clear that the experience makes him legitimate. His first major role was as Major Briggs in Twin Peaks, and he played Hammond regularly for seven seasons. The character works because he’s a stern military figure but recognizes the value of a wild card like O’Neill. It’s clear that Hammond cares for SG-1 and everyone at the facility like a father. They don’t leave men behind. When he gets the chance to step outside the base in season three’s “Into the Fire”, it’s refreshing to watch the old guy enter the fight. In “Chain Reaction” in season four, it’s heart-wrenching to see Hammond forced to resign temporarily due to threats to his family. When the action takes place at Cheyenne Mountain, Davis shines in the expanded part and shows his value.

When Anderson cut his schedule and Davis stepped down, it made sense to place O’Neill in charge of the S.G.C. The eighth season includes some of the greatest highs (“Reckoning”, “Threads”) but seems awkward because it’s frequently missing its star. Watching Anderson struggle to make the stay-at-home commander work reminds us about Davis’ abilities. The writers sell it by mining humor from O’Neill’s lack of comfort away from the action. When Anderson left the show after that season, the producers faced a major bind. They replaced him with the capable Ben Browder as the team leader, but they still needed a base commander. Beau Bridges does solid work as General Landry and has an imposing screen presence, but no one can match Hammond. There’s too much history for anyone to step in and make us forget about the general. The final two seasons are so different and almost feel like a new series. Stars Amanda Tapping, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Judge are still involved, but they’re working in a different framework. The S.G.C still plays a major role, but the focus has shifted away from space exploration and into a battle with the Ori. Landry is a strong military commander, yet the sense of mystery is missing.

Although Stargate SG-1 is about exploring other planets, there are plenty of episodes set in the S.G.C. A main reason is the limited budget, which doesn’t allow them to shoot outside in Vancouver every week. An early highlight in season two is “A Matter of Time”, an inventive episode with the Stargate connected to a black hole. The gravity field distorts time and threatens this world's fate. The time differences are handled well; Hammond returns after a few minutes and reveals the passing of a full day. It also shows the dangers of their missions when an entire team is lost in the black hole. The following season’s “Foothold” has a clever group of aliens doubling the humans and taking over the base. This is a strong example of an Earth-based story that doesn’t feel obviously designed to save money. In fact, some of the strongest episodes primarily happen on this planet. “Window of Opportunity” is one of the show’s most enjoyable yarns. It makes O’Neill and Teal’c (Judge) repeat the same day in Groundhog Day fashion, which leads to serious mayhem. On a different note, the two-part “Heroes” in season seven depicts a film crew shooting a documentary about the Stargate program. Saul Rubinek (Warehouse 13) is sharp as Emmett Bregman, a director who arrives in time for a tragic loss. It’s one of the show’s most emotional stories, and it spends a majority of the time with characters just talking with Bregman and his crew.

The Stargate universe was expanded with two follow-up series, Stargate Atlantis (SGA) and Stargate Universe (SGU). The former actually begins on Earth in “Rising” and sends a team through the Antarctica Stargate to the lost city. Since its first three seasons were shot concurrently with SG-1, SGA periodically used the S.G.C. in small segments. When the Atlantis team regained a connection with Earth after the first season, characters crossed between the shows. There is a slightly different tone to the second series, but it retains the ‘90s feeling of a team going on weekly adventures. It’s set in a different universe and has better effects, yet the adventurous feeling remains. The atmosphere is much different for SGU, which employs a modern feel reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica. The S.G.C. would feel more out of place in this setting, though characters like O’Neill still make a few appearances. Although there’s more emotional turmoil and less heroic characters, SGU still maintains touches of the original magic with a modern twist.

The S.G.C.’s rooms are spare in accordance with the military approach, but they have life because so much happens within those walls. The Gate Room, Control Room, Briefing Room, and others become characters since they’re so familiar. Daniel Jackson dies (sort of) in the Infirmary in “Meridian”, and that’s just one example of many key moments that happen there. The characters spend most of their lives within these walls, and it’s more of a home than their bleak residences outside the base. They seem lost in the real world and don’t usually enjoy vacations. When you’re exploring other planets, who would want to go home? That excitement carries over to the audience, who feels like they’re going through the Stargate with the characters. There’s danger in other worlds from powerful enemies, but it sure beats a mundane office job. Stargate SG-1 might seem out of date compared to today’s complex shows, but those limitations become its strengths. These heroes are exploring the universe and protecting this world from harm. It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that a place like the S.G.C. exists, and that’s a key factor in the show’s long-running success.

April 21, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "My Cheese is Out of Control"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

The challenge when analyzing teams on The Amazing Race is realizing that survival is all that truly matters. Pairs have bumbled their way across the globe but ended up winning it all because they never finished last. The latest players to fit this description are Chuck and Wynona, who have remained near the back of the pack throughout this season. Even when they’ve finished higher, it’s been the result of struggles from other teams. This week, their luck finally runs out because of a penalty at the mat. The amazing thing is that they almost survive once again. When an exhausted Joey and Meghan struggle to find the Pit Stop, it gives the Alabama couple another shot to grab a life boat. This time, they aren’t so lucky and face an unfortunate exit. Even when a team’s clearly overmatched by the competition, it’s rarely fun to watch them go out this way. Standing helpless at the mat, they watch as the YouTube hosts arrive and are awarded with the fifth spot.

The difficulty in watching Chuck and Wynona is noticing the huge disparity in their excitement about the race. She’s physically weaker, but that isn’t the main problem for them. Instead, it’s her downbeat attitude about every new task that makes it painful to watch them. This race includes some strong players, but there are few superstars within this group. Chuck is capable and willing to dive into anything, and they might have a chance if Wynona could take a different approach. She psyches herself out right away, and that makes their success nearly impossible. He has gotten nastier with his comments in the past few weeks, so that probably doesn’t help her outlook. Even so, it has to be frustrating to hear frequent complaints about her weaknesses. One of the best aspects of this show is watching teams go way beyond their comfort zones and overcome a difficult challenge. Chuck and Wynona could have been fan favorites with an attitude change. His outrageous mullet and unique skills make them prime candidates to achieve that label. Instead, they became frustrating and lose the underdog story because of a poor attitude.

The episode begins with a large amount of material that plays no role in the outcome. There’s a flight to Switzerland and multiple train rides, but the group ends up bunched together. The YouTube hosts and roller derby moms miss a connection, but later operating hours keep them even. Fifteen minutes have passed in the episode before a task separates the teams. Thankfully, there are some exciting challenges that make up for the slow start. Teams must choose a very cute St. Bernard rescue dog and deliver it by train to a rescue guide. This episode takes place among the Bernese Alps, and the scenery is amazing. The Roadblock sends players up the Eiger peak to retrieve a Travelocity Roaming Gnome. It’s a simple task of walking across a wood plank, but it’s complicated by the serious heights. Looking down isn’t wise. Most players roll through it, but Wynona struggles mightily. Her confidence is at an all-time low, and moving gingerly through this task keeps her downbeat. Chuck doesn’t help matters but harping on her slow speed either. They fall behind and slow down a waiting Joey and Meghan, so it’s clearly a two-team race to avoid elimination.

The week’s major challenge is a Switchback, which brings back a famous task from a past season. This one comes from the premiere of the Amazing Race 14 and involves transporting 50-pound wheels of cheese on a sled. The difficulty comes from the steep hill, which makes them nearly impossible to navigate. The extra fun this time comes from the deep snow. Climbing up the hill is even tougher than heading down, and it takes a rope to make the hike even possible. Unlike the Switchbacks in previous seasons, this one remains very difficult on the second run. Katie has an awful time climbing up the hill, and it’s even worse for Wynona. Most teams just ride the sleds and hope for the best, and they eventually reach the end. Anthony and Bates grab their third first-place finish in a row and are clearly pulling away from the pack. The top four teams finish strong, and Meghan and Joey pull well ahead of Chuck and Wynona. They decide to throw the cheese down the hill, which would be smart without the penalty. A lack of cabs and bad directions for Meghan and Joey almost knock them out. Even with these difficulties, they provide a model for the right attitude to have on the race. She is moving slowly and not doing well, but they keep moving and stay in the competition. He keeps supporting her and calls the race the best time of his life, so they aren’t just focused on the top prize.

Despite the craziness of this season, the five teams remaining are the right group. The hockey players may be the front runners, but they’ve had problems with navigating in the past. There’s no guarantee they make the final three given the unpredictable nature of this race. After a rough start, this episode provides good entertainment and a spectacular location. It’s easy to look at the massive peaks and call them “amazing”, which hasn’t been the case as often lately. Could the inconsistent show be heading for a strong finish? It’s hard to say at this point, but this episode reveals more promise for the season’s final act.

April 20, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Zipping Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week’s Survivor episode is thrilling for so many reasons. It forces players to make decisions on the spot at Tribal Council, which rarely happens. The dominant alliance loses one of its members and can’t take the easy route with the vote. The immunity idols actually change the game and knock out a comfortable player. A truly surprising idol play like this one hasn’t happened since Heroes vs. Villains. Those factors would be enough to deliver a truly great episode, but there’s a bonus that pushes it into the stratosphere. The ultimate victim is actually Phillip Sheppard, who put himself at the center of the alliance and has enjoyed running the show. Even if he was a figurehead, that doesn’t make his exit any less satisfying. He’s dominated the screen time for too long, and it’s refreshing to see the underdogs remove an obvious goat destined to reach the end. Phillip has not played an awful strategic game, but his social play has been awful and seals his fate.

Once Reynold wins immunity in a brutal swimming challenge, Eddie is the obvious choice to go home. The only chance for the three guys is to find a second idol, and that’s exactly what happens. Malcolm grabs it right in front of Dawn and Andrea, so they realize he’s safe. The excitement comes from knowing the majority alliance has no idea about his other idol. This is why revealing the idol is stupid! The editors hold back conversations where the guys discuss their plans, so it’s a surprise to the audience when they show their hand. Instead of trying to blindside Phillip, they inspire chaos by putting the idols in the open. This choice is brilliant, and it’s clear that Eddie, Reynold, and Malcolm are having a blast. Even if they don’t end up winning, this moment will stand out as one of the greats in this Survivor era, if not the entire show’s history. Cochran’s reaction says it all. He’s losing an ally but is giddy about such an incredible Tribal Council. He’s so endearing because he realizes it’s also a fun game. Malcolm has that same approach and loves messing around. True fans realize that this will be great TV and want to avoid the predictable outcome. Malcolm’s speech about getting rid of Phillip and making the game fun hits home and shows why he’s so entertaining.

The editors have telegraphed Phillip’s demise since the first episode and have gotten serious mileage in making him look ridiculous. He loves the spotlight and plays right into their hands. He provides fun television, but the lavish attention has grown old. His comfort level is clear when he sits out the immunity challenge due to a childhood trauma. Even if it’s a legitimate story, he could have gone through the motions and lost the first round. Putting a lack of concern front and center is rarely a wise choice. Once he steps out of the challenge, it seems more likely that he’ll be gone. At Tribal Council, only Erik flips on the Specialist and hilariously spells his name “Fillup” on the parchment. Even so, the other votes for Malcolm and Eddie are disallowed, so it’s just icing on the sake. It’s interesting to see Phillip and Brenda openly pushing for Andrea to exit, then not voting for her. Her place in the alliance is hardly secure and could be in danger if anyone flips to Malcolm’s group.

The episode begins with Dawn’s meltdown, which happens when she loses her retainer. It contains some fake bottom teeth, and she’s ready to quit the game without it. Brenda arrives to save the day and confirms her connection to Dawn. Also, she gets a confessional! Despite this recovery, Dawn’s paranoia remains due to lack of sleep and alliance concerns. Last week’s previews focused solely on her breakdown, but it doesn’t play a significant role. A revelation from Cochran that he’s not as concerned about going to the end with Dawn could be crucial. At the reward challenge, that duo joins Reynold, Erik, and Phillip to grab a fancy lunch at a resort. Phillip uses the pool as his bathtub, and it’s another example of his foolish antics. This could be the last straw for Erik, who’s been annoyed by Phillip since the start. Both challenges confirm that Reynold could make a serious immunity run. Erik is the only guy who’s on that level, and even Malcolm struggles in the reward challenge.

There’s far too much happening at Tribal Council to cover it in this recap. Erik brings up the wise point that Eddie and Malcolm could reveal their idols and then keep them. That tactic might work against novices, but it would have spelled their doom against these returnees. The guys wisely stick to their guns and live to fight another day. It’s amazing that Eddie and Reynold are now underdogs who have the audience on their side. They came off as tools in the opening episodes, and now they’re part of an outmatched trio. Their success makes for better TV and shows they won’t go out meekly like too many past Survivor contestants. Malcolm is the brains of the group, but they’re sticking with the plan and hanging strong against solid competition. It will be interesting to see if they can grab two players and flip the game next week. That vote will be critical in determining the direction of the season. If the majority alliance sticks together, this episode won’t be a game changer. Even so, it outshines last week’s excellent finish and reveals even more promise for the final weeks.

April 14, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Cut Off the Head of the Snake"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

There are many Survivor episodes where the outcome is predictable, and it’s fairly easy to describe what just happened. Those are the norm because players rarely stray from the safest move. Living in a different universe are the outliers that leave even the most able-minded fan yelling “what just happened?” This week is one of those wonderful episodes. Malcolm overplays his hand and seems destined to go home, but a desperate play to get Reynold’s idol keeps him safe. What he doesn’t know is that he isn’t getting any votes. Worried about her own security, Andrea leads the charge for a safer plan and gets the majority to take out Michael. They remove a less-threatening fan, but the shift ultimately saves her. The amazing highlight comes right after the vote, when Reynold stands up with intentions to play his idol. All it takes is a few sweet words from Malcolm to inspire him to pass the idol to his buddy. Even if Reynold keeps it for himself, it’s a wasted play because Michael is the target. The surprise is that he would jeopardize his success to save Malcolm.

From what the editors reveal at Tribal Council, it takes little convincing to change Reynold’s mind. It appears to be a spontaneous move by Malcolm after being spooked by Phillip’s words. This week’s excitement comes from watching so many players actively playing the game. Even the dim-witted Eddie takes a shot and tries to align with Andrea. It certainly doesn’t hurt for him that she’s cute. Inadvertently, Eddie’s bumbling chat right before Tribal Council gives her the information that changes their plans. Earlier, he awkwardly flirts with Andrea while claiming that he’s doing it “indirectly”. Oh Eddie. It’s possible that their connection might save him for a few more weeks, especially with Reynold losing his idol. The favorites are still running the show, particularly the “new Dawn” who keeps getting everyone to provide her with info. Barring the serious meltdowns promised next week, she could make the end. The question is whether it may come back to haunt her. Andrea’s in the hot seat in the dominant alliance because she’s playing so hard. That puts her in a more tenuous position than Cochran and even silent partners like Brenda and Erik.

The reward challenge is like a hockey shootout, and the goalies this time have the same chances as Martin Brodeur. Malcolm and Michael take turns flailing away as the shooters throw the ball into the net. Even Cochran scores a goal and does a dance right by Jeff Probst. An unseen schoolyard pick leaves Sherri as the odd person out. It’s too bad they don’t show these selections, which would have been interesting. There is plenty of footage of Phillip rambling about his silly alliance and the Redemption Island season. Many Survivor fans would prefer to forget about that installment and his constant references to it. The all-male team of Reynold, Eddie, Michael, Cochran, and Erik win and get the chance to rappel down a waterfall for a picnic. They have a “bro-down” and talk about how girls are icky and deceitful. Thankfully, Cochran isn’t swayed by the silliness from Reynold. His description of the “masculine tomfoolery” is perfect, and he seems amazed the “numbskulls” have invited him to join the cool group. Erik remains silent and may be gliding right to the finish.

Leading into the immunity challenge, it seems like Malcolm needs the win. The players must float in the water beneath a grated steel barrier as the tide rises. The last contestant to remain wins immunity, and it comes down to Brenda and Andrea. The aptly titled “Serenity” wins yet still doesn’t get a confessional. Will they even give her an exit interview? Brenda is having a great time and smiling, but that’s about all we know. She has voted with the majority since the merge, so she’s being considered as an ally by the dominant group. Like Cochran last week, the tribe is thrilled by her win. The question is how to ensure that a big threat goes home. No one knows about Malcolm’s idol, and he doesn’t recognize the danger until Tribal Council. He actually votes for Reynold, which is confusing even if he’s ready to turn on his ally. It will be interesting to see what happens with their relationship next week.

Along with providing great drama, this unpredictable episode produces intriguing questions. Can Reynold find a third idol? If not, is there any chance for him to stay afloat? Malcolm could claim he voted for Reynold because he’s with the favorites, but his move to grab the idol negates that claim. He’s shown an ability to rebound, and he still has the idol. That device gives him the chance to pull a blindside and stay alive. The question is whether that success will be enough to get him to the end. Losing a desperate ally like Michael who’s a guaranteed vote is going to be tough. His best chance is to hang around long enough and try to recruit Erik and Brenda to take out the leaders. Cochran remains the favorite to win it all, and Phillip’s antics make him a prime candidate to return to the Final Tribal Council. Even so, it feels like anything could happen in the rest of this season. That unpredictability has turned around this contest and could deliver a stunning finish.

April 7, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Be Safe and Don't Hit a Cow"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

In some of its best seasons, Survivor thrives on making its strong competitors look silly. Players talk about being in control and running the show, then they’re immediately booted by the “weaker” contestants. This trend rarely happens on The Amazing Race, which frequently has teams dominate the seasons. There are notable exceptions like the Beekmans’ win last season, but it isn’t uncommon to watch a team roll through challenges and stay near the top of the pack. The audience believes the smart and physically capable players will do well, especially in the race’s first half. Those expectations have been thrown out the window in the 22nd installment. John and Jessica rolled through the early episodes and then self-destructed in stupendous fashion. David and Connor were clearly a top team but were felled by a serious injury. On the other hand, a very limited pair like Chuck and Wynona have benefited and even found a way to advance in the standings. This week, Pam and Winnie join the list and fall apart in a pretty simple Detour. After finding their groove and becoming a contender in recent weeks, they’re quickly booted right out of the race.

Beyond the surprise exit, this leg includes plenty of strange moments that fit this race’s tone. Two teams receive speeding tickets and must go to a local station to pay the fines. Apparently, Botswana also funds its police departments with speed traps. Caroline and Jen try to flirt their way out of a ticket, but the stern officers aren’t fooled. They waste a lot of time exchanging money and quickly fall towards the back of the pack. Max and Katie start in last and continue their unfortunate run by also getting a ticket. This is a particularly grumpy week for a lot of racers, and Katie takes the cake. Max does make it easy by crashing into a pole leaving the station, so it’s clear that he’s feeling the pressure. Meghan and Joey also struggle with navigation and luck out by accidentally spotting Max and Katie on the road. If not, they might still be looking for the clue. This second leg in Botswana is a bit tougher than last week, but it remains small scale and confined to a fairly limited area.

Teams start by heading to Boro Village, where they immediately learn about the Fast Forward. This placement is frustrating because it basically hands the victory to the leading team. Since there are a limited number of Fast Forwards in this race, there’s no downside for Anthony and Bates to take it. Assuming it’s a doable task, they get a free pass that’s a lot more important than the Express Pass. This challenge involves water skiing for a mile in waters that could possibly include crocodiles. Bates wonders if he can stand up on the skis, a feat that is no joke given personal experience. His concerns are unfounded, and they roll through the task and win the Fast Forward. They’re clearly thrilled and are the definite front runners at this point. Getting the chance to relax at the Pit Stop while the others struggle should also give them an edge in upcoming legs. The remaining six teams head for the goofy Roadblock, which requires them to transport goats on a makaro canoe. It’s trickier than it looks because of the balance needed to keep such a slim canoe from tipping.

This Roadblock brings out the worst in some players, particularly Mona. Wynona seems ready to quit while trying to keep them rolling, but she powers through it. This task recalls the infamous moment when Flo was ready to quit in season three. Zach desperately got some locals to help them cross the water in an even trickier vehicle. Reminding long-time fans of this nasty scene isn’t wise. Pam and Winnie maintain their second-place spot up to the Detour, which gives the options of “Brains” or “Brawn”. These are strange titles, and neither is accurate. The former is really just about spotting cut-outs of 10 animals and remembering them. It’s hardly a complex mental puzzle. This is the wiser choice since it doesn’t involve actual living things. “Brawn” involves finding a way to get the donkeys to move once their cargo is loaded. Hilariously, the method involves dangling a carrot in front of their mouths. Pam and Winnie quickly realize this is challenging and switch to the other Detour. That feels like a wise choice, but that assumes they’ll have keen eyes in that task.

This episode feels designed to set up a final battle with Max and Katie trying to survive against Joey and Meghan. They’re scrambling through the donkey challenge, and it’s tense when the animals start revolting. That’s just a smokescreen once Pam and Winnie switch Detours again, however. It’s a stunning drop because they’ve rolled through most tasks. Without their struggles, Max and Katie would have been eliminated. They also face an easy Speed Bump of doing a ceremonial seduction dance after getting their face painted. It slows them down a bit and would have been the difference. Will they recover again? Beyond the hockey players, the remaining teams all have major issues. Limited players like Caroline and Jen and Chuck and Wynona struggle every time yet still avoid elimination. The unpredictable contest might go anywhere at this point, which should provide an exciting finish.

April 6, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Blindside Time"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

Brilliant. Thrilling. There isn’t enough hyperbole to describe the excitement of this week’s episode. It provides a clear reminder of why Survivor continues to shine. The editing has promised a showdown between Phillip and Corinne for weeks, and she finally makes her move. The problem is that she plays way too hard and trusts the wrong person. The favorites are set to vote out Sherri and give Corinne and Malcolm’s “Broliance” a key numbers advantage. It’s a superb move because it doesn’t show their cards like trying to take out Phillip. The failure reveals why it’s so hard to thrive at this game. Corinne is thrilled to make a power move and fails to recognize the danger. She underestimates Dawn’s resolve, which is becoming a theme this season. Revealing the entire plan serves no purpose at this point, and it starts the dominoes falling towards her elimination.

It’s interesting to note that Phillip simply lucks out because he chose the right allies. This result makes it clear that Andrea, Cochran, and Dawn are dialed in and determined to maintain their position. None of them are playing for third place in their second attempt. They lucked out this week, and the game would look entirely different if Corinne had survived. Malcolm would be in charge with a trio of fans in his pocket. Instead, he’ll need to scramble next week to regain his standing. The immunity idol should keep him around in the near future, but he’s no longer playing under the radar. Strategy is the focus this week, and having so many returning players leads to plenty of great discussions. Cochran and Andrea’s ability to regroup and grab Erik and Brenda shows their mettle. One of the night’s best moments has Erik just asking Andrea to point at the tribe flag about their target. This isn’t a guy who’s ready to take charge, but he’s a valuable swing vote. Brenda has been silent for so long that it’s starting to get comical. The editors give a shot of her smiling periodically but no confessionals. She was a major strategist and had plenty to say on her original season, so the lack of air time is baffling.

The episode begins with Phillip again talking about throwing last week’s challenge, which appears to set him up for a fall. The editors love making him look stupid, and that pattern continues once again. Then it’s merge time! A boat arrives to take the Gota tribe over to the Bikal beach, and everyone is thrilled to have a feast there. The real game begins this week, and Malcolm and Corinne prepare to take charge. The plan would probably go smoothly in a normal season, but this group of players is different. Also, Corinne isn’t that tight with most of them, so it’s easier to pull the trigger. She also makes a mistake by refusing to adapt to even better situation. When Phillip raises the possibility of splitting the vote, she continues to push for Sherri’s exit. What Corinne fails to recognize is that the split vote plays right into their hands. Four favorites would each vote for Reynold and Eddie, and their alliance has five committed members. They don’t even need Erik! They can easily remove Phillip and accomplish their primary goal right away. The best Survivor strategists are constantly adjusting to the best possibility and rarely have tunnel vision. Corinne believes so firmly in their plan that she dismisses an easier one that involves fewer people.

The gross food immunity challenge is a personal favorite because it requires different skills. Cochran proves that no one is better at eating nasty food, and his excitement at grabbing his first win is infectious. It’s remarkable to see everyone cheering for a guy who’s just won immunity. He’s in a solid position and clearly has strong allies. The chosen foods include pig brains, a duck egg, and even some live bugs. There’s nothing easy about any of the selections, even when players are starving. Cochran barely edges out Malcolm in the end, while others like Sherri and Reynold fail miserably. Malcolm even throws out an endearing Kobayashi reference to prove his dorky nature. This is why he’s a lot easier to like than a goofball like Eddie, who’s concerned that having to eat nasty food will hurt his future chances with the ladies. His lack of self-awareness reaches new heights each week. Cochran throws in a boxer dance after winning, and it’s clear to see why people like him. If he makes the end without committing any major errors, he has a great chance to win.

Tribal Council focuses on Corinne, and it’s clear that she has no idea the vote is coming. Sherri plays it right and talks about having no chance. She looked like a major player in the early going, but it’s clear that she’s just a pawn at this point. Even so, she doesn’t overplay it and wisely seems resigned to her fate. As the votes start piling up for Corinne, her “Oh my God” reaction is priceless and shows the right way to execute a blind side. By keeping it simple, the power players avoid any last-minute turnarounds and secure their spot. Even so, the presence of two immunity idols and swing votes like Brenda and Erik should keep the future weeks exciting. This episode feels similar to the wonderful post-merge chaos of the Philippines season, so more surprises are likely on the way. It injects serious life into a middling season and shows a lot of potential as the game heads towards the end.

March 31, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Scorpion King Hunter"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week’s Amazing Race opens with an apology for insensitivity towards Vietnam veterans in last week’s episode. Phil’s statement is a response to an outcry led by Fox News that included calls to boycott the series. While those claims seem over the top, it spotlights a challenge for a show that’s moving so quickly through other cultures. A downed B-52 bomber was used as the backdrop for a clue, and a goofy song described the wonders of socialism. The current version of this competition plays out so quickly and rarely takes a breath to consider whether it’s cheapening the countries on display. This standard may be unfair for a reality competition, but that’s the challenge for a show that’s using aspects of these locations. While the apology is understandable, it’s harder to take it seriously when it’s followed by yet another odd venture into Botswana. The local Bushmen play a key role and are used almost solely for laughs about their customs.

“Scorpion King Hunter” begins in Hanoi and sends teams flying a long way to Maun, Botswana. There’s a really simple task of determining where Maun exists before they can book tickets. Sadly, the increasingly dim Chuck and Wynona just start throwing out countries from all over the world like Australia and Paraguay. That doesn’t seem like the best tactic. Predictably, they end up on the last charter flight in Botswana despite all teams landing at the same time. The teams are only 15 minutes apart on each flight, so there are chances for improvement. After choosing three Bushmen at the Roadblock, the players must go hunting for a scorpion. These guys are very cute and fun, but it’s still a little awkward to watch the contestants interacting with them. Admittedly, most city dwellers would have a similar reaction, so it’s hard to be that tough on the racers. A notable exception is Katie, who complains about the smell while standing right next to them. That’s not cool.

The Roadblock does include the striking moment when a Bushman puts the scorpion inside his mouth. Explanations include putting it to sleep or cleaning it so the player can hold it, but he’s really just showing off for the cameras. Several contestants nearly lose it with fear, particularly Joey. His over-the-top expressions aren’t winning him a lot of fans among the cast, but he’s charming on screen. Wynona finally does another Roadblock and spends a lot of time complaining. They head for the Detour in last place and need something positive to give them a chance. Thankfully, it’s time for a challenge that’s tailor-made for Chuck’s unique skills. The Detour options are “Fire” and “Fowl”, and the latter choice is the perfect solution for an outdoor tinkerer. The task requires them to set a rudimentary trap, which seems a lot easier than making fire with zebra manure. Along with Pam and Winnie, they leap from the back of the pack and into second and third place. The reason is the much greater difficulty of the fire challenge, which only the hockey players can master. Anthony and Bates are clearly strong competitors and finally pull it together to grab the top spot.

This is one of the most glaring examples of a serious discrepancy between the Detour options in a while. Making fire requires a delicate touch and isn’t easy to master, while putting together the trap seems pretty straightforward. Four teams end up switching Detours, which shows the surprising gap between the choices. Max and Katie stick took long with the fire, and it causes their doom. While it’s a non-elimination leg, it gives a reminder that no team is safe with this cast. Because of the double leg and David and Connor’s quick exit last week, it feels like this race is running in place. It’s surprising that this is the season’s first true non-elimination leg. The lack of a departing team adds to this episode’s very light tone. When you have three barely clothed Bushmen hanging out in the back seat of a modern SUV, it’s hard to take anything seriously. The teams are having fun playing around in Africa, so it’s a breezy leg. It’s also a major shift from the tense battle to avoid the U Turn in the previous week.

The Amazing Race frequently visits famous locations, including the Hanoi Hilton and the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The difference in more recent examples is the breakneck pace, which doesn’t give them a chance to show reverence. In season six, Gus was moved to tears by a visit to a Slave House in Senegal, and it was a touching moment. Hearing Ian talk about returning to Vietnam in season three after fighting in the war was also handled well. The producers aren’t willing to slow down the pace to take a moment and prefer to go for silliness over depth. It’s still an entertaining series, but something has been lost over the years. The latter seasons are starting to flow together and don’t have the same classic moments. It’s still a popular show that draws viewers, so it’s hard to fault them for sticking with a proven formula. However, there’s definitely more wiggle room for them to do something more. They’d rather draw a goofy laugh about Bushmen than teach us about their culture, and that’s a shame. It’s more easily digestible and provides some thrills, but the issues just offer a reminder of the much greater past achievements.

March 30, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Tubby Lunchbox"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

The “Fans vs. Favorites” concept on Survivor is tricky because there’s such a big difference in playing as a newbie. The returnees are savvier in both game play and hogging the camera, so it pushes the fans into the background. Such is the case with Julia, a quiet 21-year-old who seems nice but lacks the big personality. It seems unfair to be too critical of her; not everyone can be Phillip. Despite the editors’ attempts to show dissension in the favorites’ ranks, it’s clear that none of them are going home. Their numbers advantage makes it a foregone conclusion, and even volatile players recognize the importance of proving their trustworthiness. Cochran wisely explains that their former allies are going to be skeptical if they don’t follow the plan before the merge. It’s down to Michael or Julia, and it’s a mild surprise that she’s the one to exit. He seems like the more capable player and is more interesting for viewers, but it might not help the favorites to retain him.

“Tubby Lunchbox” is a light episode and spotlights the delusions of Phillip. Not since Coach’s first season in Survivor Tocantins have the editors found so much enjoyment in making a player look ridiculous. The problem is that it’s taking time away from other players. Under-the-radar challengers like Brenda and Erik are still rarely getting to speak, and they could play a major role in the outcome. Phillip does provide one of the season’s best moments when he claims to have thrown the immunity challenge. Because he failed to dethrone Reynold and be the hero, he obviously wasn’t trying to win. The camera closes in on Cochran’s face as Phillip rambles on, and it’s priceless to watch him struggle to not laugh. Corinne also takes more shots and calls the specialist a “tubby lunch box”, which is a new favorite phrase. Her snarky comments remain in full force this week, though her game play is questionable. She’s so focused on aligning with Michael that she’s missing the danger. A bold prediction: Neither Phillip or Corinne even makes the final eight. Both are the obvious targets if a favorite wants to flip on the alliance and take charge.

Speaking of seizing control, the rare Gota scenes show Malcolm building a relationship with Reynold. This is clearly not an equal meeting of the minds, which benefits the returning player. Reynold giddily reveals that he has the idol, which gives all the power to Malcolm. He can’t believe his good fortune and starts plotting to make a big move after the merge. His “alpha male” alliance is smart because it puts other strong guys in front of him. They’ll be the targets first, particularly fans like Reynold and Eddie. Malcolm learned that it isn’t wise to be the strong guy battling weaker players near the end. His chances of winning the top prize are much higher with similar foes at that time. With only four fans remaining, they could still play a huge part in determining which favorites move forward. If Malcolm can find a way to get Michael and Corinne to join their group, then it just takes one more vote to change the game. The immunity idols could also flip the numbers and create serious havoc when it becomes an individual game.

The tribe swap last week created a serious discrepancy in challenge skills, and Bikal goes down hard twice. The reward challenge is a personal favorite, but it never gets rolling because one tribe is so much better. Teams must run around a water course carrying 20 pounds while chasing the other group. If anyone drops out, another player must hold their weight. It’s a brilliant challenge because it’s simple and requires strategy of when to pick up the pace. Phillip ruins any chance for Bikal to compete by putting himself in front and refusing to run. It’s a ridiculous moment and shows his delusions. Corinne is ready to explode, and everyone else wisely holds their tongue about it. Gota wins coffee, cookies, and other goodies for this challenge. Dawn wonderfully undercuts their win by claiming it will lead to a “diarrhea fest”. Apparently, that grisly mess was left on the cutting room floor.

Even though Bikal does better at the immunity challenge, they still lose and are headed for another Tribal Council. Reynold proves that no one in this world is better at throwing things. His grappling-hook skills push Michael and Julia to the brink. Phillip and Corinne continue to fight, particularly when she disputes the idea to split the vote. Her theories are incorrect, but he handles it badly. Cochran and Dawn act as mediators and are playing nearly flawlessly. Although she’s known as being nice, Dawn throws Julia under the bus without a second thought. She seems intent on being more strategic and won’t hesitate to backstab other players if it gets her further. The first vote is a tie, and Julia becomes the target on the re-vote. Michael handles being on the chopping block well, and there’s a strong possibility he won’t be in danger when the merge happens. This season hasn’t been great so far, so it’s going to take a serious improvement to make it a classic installment. Jeff Probst claims this is an excellent season, but that praise feels misguided so far. It’s mostly just setting the stage for the time when the favorites battle. The fun should begin next week.

March 29, 2013

TV: The Walking Dead Podcast: "This Sorrowful Life"

Earlier this week, I was thrilled to join the trio of passionate critics on Sound on Sight’s Walking Dead Podcast. We discussed this season’s penultimate episode “This Sorrowful Life” and dug into what’s happening at the prison. Will they go to war with the Governor (David Morrissey) or flee to fight another day? That question will be answered on this Sunday’s season finale but didn’t play a huge role this week. Instead, Merle (Michael Rooker) takes matters into his own hands and nabs Michonne (Danai Gurira). The fallout from his decisions is tragic and sets the stage for an exciting finale. Even so, there are some concerns that the show’s writing still leaves a lot to be desired. I joined Ricky, Simon, and Kate to delve into all these issues, and there were some major disagreements of this episode’s success. You can check out this enjoyable conversation through this link.

I’m a fan of The Walking Dead and have watched since the beginning, but there are some story issues that have existed throughout the series. Characters act inconsistently, and the pace meanders too much during certain stretches. The most prominent example was during the second season, which spent too much time at the farm. Lead characters like Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) grew irritating and were nearly impossible to take. This season began with a stunning group of episodes that represented a high point for the series. The vicious battles in the prison with the hordes of walkers were paced well and frequently surprising. Unfortunately, the recent episodes were a mixed bag and focused too much on Andrea (Laurie Holden) and the Governor. It still could be an exciting finish, but there’s cause for skepticism because of these characters. He’s become a one-note psychotic villain, and her ability to dismiss obvious warning signs has been frustrating. Even so, I’m maintaining hope that we’ll get an exciting conclusion that leads well into the fourth season.

The Walking Dead is immensely popular, and their success grows with each new season. Even so, there’s been a lot of turmoil behind the scenes. These leadership changes are rarely positive because they can dramatically alter the creative direction. There are exceptions to this trend, but it’s generally a sign of greater issues. The fact that the show has reached such heights and built such a fan base is remarkable given these struggles. The zombie storyline doesn’t hurt, but I can’t dismiss the skills of the actors to sell the material. Norman Reedus is the breakout star as Daryl, and Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohan do excellent work as Glenn and Maggie. One of my favorites is easily Scott Wilson as Hershel Greene, who joined the cast in the second season. Even the frustrating characters aren’t the fault of the actors. This group can sell even the more inexplicable moves from the group.

If you check out this podcast, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m also interested in your speculation for Sunday’s finale. Who’s going to take out The Governor? Will all the main characters survive? With a title like “Welcome to the Tombs”, the signs aren’t great. Regardless of what happens, I’m sure they’ll be plenty to discuss after a high-flying finale.

March 24, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Your Tan is Totally Cool"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

Looking at the best episodes in Amazing Race history, many take place in crowded cities that knock racers out of their comfort zones. Dropping teams into a foreign culture and forcing them to maneuver adds an extra layer to the challenge. This week, the remaining eight teams head to Hanoi and clearly feel the pressure of the unknown environment. With the added weight of the impending Double U-Turn on their shoulders, everyone brings their best effort to avoid last place. Well, almost everyone. Vietnam isn’t on par with India in terms of culture shock, but there are still enough obstacles to create an entertaining leg. It may not be one of the greatest episodes, but it’s easily the best of this season. The stakes feel higher as the number of teams gets smaller. After David and Connor choose to exit the stage, removing two teams seems possible. Even when Chuck and Wynona are spared, it doesn’t lessen the excitement of this fast-paced episode. She’s a weaker physical player, but the sour attitude is the real problem. She grumbles about him for the entire leg and doesn’t recognize that he’s been working tirelessly to compensate for her shortcomings. If they’re not on the same page, Chuck and Wynona are doomed very soon.

Teams depart Bali and fly to Hanoi, and David realizes they must stop after talking with his orthopedic surgeon. They travel to Vietnam but immediately locate Phil for an emotional departure. David and Connor are likable and strong, so it’s too bad that fate dealt them a rough hand. Pam and Winnie join Max and Katie on an early flight, but they miss the operating hours for the Roadblock by a short window. Everyone catches up and starts on equal footing the next day. There’s plenty of talk about the alliance and putting the target on the roller derby moms and Joey and Meghan. John’s negative impact on the game remains, and a few players take a shot at his idiotic choice to keep the Express Pass. The editors are sparing him no mercy. The problems for his alliance show the pratfalls of separating from the main group on this show. It’s better to just play it straight and be nice to everyone when U-Turns come into play. The Roadblock involves memorizing some phrases from the performance of a song depicting the wonders of socialism. No one has a huge problem, and everyone ventures on for a special blessing as they jump through a small course. It is one of those cultural tasks that is easy to complete, but Chuck and Wynona still have issues. They repeatedly try it and don’t focus on why they’re failing. It’s pretty early for killer fatigue, but it’s really set in for the Alabama couple this week.

The big showdown comes at the Detour since the U-Turn chance awaits them after finishing. Pam and Winnie arrive first and maintain their lead right up to the end. Despite their navigation struggles several weeks ago, they’re looking like front runners at this point. They stick with the plan and pin the U-Turn on Meghan and Joey, who have a charming sad face in their picture. The You Tube hosts are the second team to complete the Detour, but they’re forced to choose the other option. They’re frustrated but thankfully avoid the frequent nasty behavior from victims of this tactic. Megan and Joey make the perfect choice for the second U-Turn and pick a weak team that is definitely behind them. Chuck and Wynona are unlikely to blow through both Detour options in time to pass them. It’s rare to see teams make the right pick in this situation and is a refreshing change of pace. They fall back to sixth place but prove their mettle by handling the adversity well.

The Detour options are “Make Your Move” and “Make Your Meal”, and both are complicated endeavors. The first requires players to set up a Chinese chess board using human pieces. If they figure out the pattern, it’s simple and the better choice. However, it could lead to confusion if they miss the general idea. The other option could take longer but is straightforward. Teams must buy a large amount of ingredients from a local market and cook a popular Vietnamese dish. The challenge is purchasing the right quantity from sellers who don’t speak their language. Max and Katie are lucky enough to locate a “Fern” (a local who speaks English and is willing to help) and move into second place. Chuck and Wynona aren’t so lucky and forget the important step of grabbing some chickens at the start. He’s running off in every direction, and she’s sitting back and grumbling to the camera about him. In fact, they’re still doing this Detour when Joey and Meghan arrive there from the U-Turn. Chuck adds to the silliness by saying “Muchas Gracias” after receiving their clue. Poor guy.

With David and Connor out, it’s hard to say who will make the final leg. The most likely trio is Pam and Winnie, Max and Katie, and Anthony and Bates, but each team has a flaw that could doom them at any time. The hockey players repeatedly do well at challenges and arrive behind other teams at the next task. Either they have a slow-moving camera guy or are really bad at navigation. They end up fifth this week and must have gone through quite an ordeal based on their relief. Although the Double U-Turn doesn’t kick out anyone, it raises the drama and delivers a very good episode. The energetic pace and intense competition are really kicking into gear and delivering one of the better recent seasons.