Category: TV Reviews

Big Time Rush's 'Big Time Movie': 'The Monkees' for post-Millennials

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In writing about the death of Davy Jones last week, I made reference to "Big Time Rush," the Nickelodeon boy-band series that takes most of its formal cues, and many informal ones, from "The Monkees." Saturday coincidentally brings a feature-ish-length film (the series' fifth), "Big Time Movie," which takes the group, also called Big Time Rush, to London into what used to be called a spy spoof, a welter of Beatles references and a pocketful of Beatles covers.

In the least generous terms, Big Time Rush -- or BTR, which takes just as long to say though is quicker to text -- is an imitation of an imitation, but the models (which were temporally coexistent) are both solid, and the imitation is sincere. Those were different times, to be sure. There are too many avenues now, too many insular niches, too much possibility to create even a roughly cohesive counterculture that might find room for Beatles and Monkees under the same umbrella.

In the smaller world into which "The Monkees" was born, any music you could call "pop" was driven through the same narrow funnel of Top 40 radio; at its best, this system created an energetic mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, the avant-garde and the rear-guard, the carefully crafted commercial and unexpected left-field weirdness. (The Beatles, to whose songs "Big Time Movie" applies modern dance beats and the sanitizing filter of Auto-Tune, in a not totally bad way, were all those things by turn -- as were the Monkees, as they walked in their booted footsteps.)

"Big Time Rush" belongs to a new age of industrial kid-pop, when the circular formula the Monkees exploited -- the show sells the band that sells the songs that sell the show -- is just established good business practice. It's the engine that drives or drove "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana," "American Idol" and "Glee" and all their many variations. What's different about "Big Time Rush" within this context is that it's smarter and weirder than it needs to be, and creator Scott Fellows, who also thought up "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," remains fiercely protective of its profound goofiness.

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TV review: Keith Olbermann comes out swinging on Current's new ‘Countdown'

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There's really no reason to describe the new "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" that debuted Monday night on Current TV when, not surprisingly, Olbermann has that covered already. After first guest and brand-new "Countdown" contributor Michael Moore told Olbermann that no doubt "your parents are looking down tonight, very proud of you for keeping the good fight going," Olbermann used the potentially tender moment to lay out his manifesto.

"In the briefest of special comments ... this is a newscast of contextualization, it is to be presented with a viewpoint, that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation, that the nation is losing its independence through the malfeasance of one political party and the timidity of another and that even though you and I should not have to be the last line of defense, apparently we are so we damn well better start being it."

Just in case you were wondering if the political-news equivalent of Larry David had spent the months since his abrupt departure from MSNBC early this year mellowing on a beach somewhere, the answer would be no. He is the same fast-talking, hard-charging, unapologetically self-righteous defender of his version of liberal ideology that he always was. Only this time he has a platform with no commercial constraints -- Al Gore is the founder of the struggling Current TV and he has said that he went into his deal with the famously high-maintenance Olbermann with his eyes wide open (and this is a man who was Bill Clinton's V.P.). So what is the new "Countdown" like?

Olbermann Unleashed.

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Critic's Notebook: Judd Apatow's 'Undeclared' comes to IFC

Its re-airing of the divine high-school comedy "Freaks & Geeks" having concluded, IFC will now begin airing "Freaks" producer Judd Apatow's subsequent TV project, the 2001 college-set "Undeclared." (Back-to-back episodes of its single season air Fridays at 11 p.m., with Monday-night encores at the same hour.) It is not quite the thing of wonder that was "F&G": It's more conventional, with no support for the moments of existential dread the earlier series embraced, and poignancy of any sort would wither here in an instant. But it's just as funny in its way, and shares some of "Freaks'" best features: a respect for the real -- we are firmly in the realm of (at least) the probable -- and an abiding affection for, and amusement over, layered human strangeness: Here, as before, and after, Apatow is more interested in the crazy things that people feel than in the silly things that they do. His is a sweet, not a sour temperament. He believes in love.

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Video: Mary McNamara on the upcoming TV season

Times television critic Mary McNamara talks about some of this season's new TV, including its best new drama, "The Good Wife."



Review:'The Good Wife

Review: 'Hung' on HBO

Clearly the Obama administration needs to address the issue of teacher salaries and fast. On AMC's " Breaking Bad," Bryan Cranston is playing a science teacher making meth, and now we have Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a high school basketball coach turned male prostitute in HBO's "Hung."

Both are men of middle age who find themselves undone by fate -- Cranston's Walter White has cancer, Ray's wife has left him and he's lost his home to fire -- and a lack of ambition. Both are angry at a world that seems to have reneged on earlier promises so, with their personal landscapes scorched beyond recognition, they become, essentially, survivalists, reaching for whatever talents they have to create their own lawless, post-apocalyptic society. Recession-era Mad Maxes.

This is not to say that "Hung" is simply a sexed-up version of "Breaking Bad." Certainly there are similarities, but the same river runs through "Weeds": the belief that the old economic system is broken, that a decent living cannot be made through decency.

Read the full story.

Review: 'Top Chef Masters'

The knives are out -- but at least they're in nobody's back.

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Reality television gets a lot of mileage out of bad behavior; framed as comedy or drama, strife is the fuel on which it runs. ("Coming up! Something awful!") Over the last week and a half, for instance, NBC has been making hay from the hash that narcissist-provocateurs Spencer and Heidi Pratt have made, or attempted to make, of "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!," its bungle-in-the-jungle survival contest. That the pair are trouble is what makes them valuable to the network, which has worked hard to keep them on board, even though the sensible thing, in "real life," would be to keep them away.

Like many other reality TV stars, the Pratts -- who got famous on "The Hills," MTV's semi-nonfictional version of "That Girl" -- inhabit a world where notoriety, indeed the mere luck to be noticed, passes for accomplishment. But there is another sort of reality television that celebrates actual excellence, although -- as in "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" -- it often surrounds that celebration with boasting, backbiting and interpersonal discord.

I am that perhaps odd duck who thinks that amity, cooperation and achievement at no one else's expense can be exciting to watch. Indeed, it seems to me that television, scripted and unscripted -- postscripted might be a better word -- is far too heavily invested in manufactured, or at least artificially enhanced, conflict and crisis. And so I find “Top Chef Masters,” a spinoff of "Top Chef" that premieres tonight on Bravo, a real mental vacation. A thing of pure delight, it takes all the ego out of the equation and leaves only the art.

Read the entire review.

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo: Tim Love, left, and Christopher Lee battle it out on the collegial “Top Chef Masters.”  Credit: Bravo

Review: 'I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here' (updated)

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"I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here" -- or, as I like to think of it, "Get Me a Celebrity, I’m Out of Here" -- is NBC’s belated sequel to an ABC series from 2003 which was itself based on a British show whose ninth edition will air later this year, and which has also fathered France’s "Je suis une celebrite, sortez-moi de la!" and Germany’s "Ich bin ein Star – Holt mich hier raus!" Like "Survivor" it drops people into a harsh environment in which they are forced to do tricks and win friends to stay in the game; and like "Big Brother" it watches them cohabit in something like real time; and like any show with the word "celebrity" in the title, it features mildly famous people who have nothing more pressing to do.

Most are not new to reality shows; a few owe the whole of their fame to them. The 11 players airlifted into the Costa Rican jungle several days back include actors Stephen Baldwin and Lou Diamond Phillips; former pro wrestler Torrie Wilson; former pro basketball player John Salley; Patricia Blagojevich (wife of and stand-in for impeached Illinois Gov. Rod); the comedy team known as Frangela; quirky "American Idol" contestant Sanjaya Malakar; and Janice Dickinson of Oxygen’s "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency," and a veteran of the British "Celebrity" -- a fact not mentioned here, perhaps to bolster the impression that this is an original idea. (It may account for her calm, and for some jungle knowledge about rats and campfires.)

None of those contestants are as beholden to reality television as the now-departed Spencer and Heidi (Montag) Pratt, from MTV’s "The Hills," collectively known as Speidi. Spencer Pratt, an alienating force who strives mightily to live up to his surname, may be the Most Hated Man in Pop Culture right now, to judge by the comments appended to any online article or video clip that features him. On Monday night’s opener, he didn’t promise amity: "I’m not the kind of person that has friends," he said, declaring that he would take things to "the next level of supervillain that they think I am."

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Review: 'George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All-Star Concert'

Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Alan Jackson and others honor the country music hit maker, and it all makes for good TV.

Georgestrait3_kk87q6nc Honoring elders always has been a cornerstone of country music, a trait that makes for good TV in "George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All-Star Concert," airing tonight on CBS.

The two-hour program, filmed last month in Las Vegas the night after the Academy of Country Music's latest awards ceremony, is packed with current country stars who were in town for that event, among them Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Brooks & Dunn, Miranda Lambert and Toby Keith.

They even roped in Jamie Foxx, introduced as "a man who has won absolutely no Academy of Country Music awards," but who turns out to have been a Strait fan as a kid growing up in Texas.

"Black fans too, George; you got black fans too," Foxx says, addressing the evening's honoree in the side-stage box from which he and his family watch the parade of artists who sing his songs. "I'm from a good old town called Terrell, Texas. . . . You came to Terrell, Texas, one time when I was 14 years old, and I told everybody, I don't care what side of the tracks I gotta go over, I'm going on the other side of the tracks to see George Strait.' I took a big risk that night."

Strait was chosen in part because of his unmatched  total of 57 No. 1 country singles dating back nearly three decades.

Read the entire review: 'George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All-Star Concert'

-- Randy Lewis

Review: 'New World Order' on Independent Film Channel

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“New World Order,” which premieres tonight on the Independent Film Channel, is a film about people battling with phantoms. They are volunteers in an "information war" who see as clearly, as John saw his four Apocalyptic horsemen and seven trumpeting angels, that 9/11 was an "inside job," that the military-industrial complex killed Kennedy, and that an international "power elite" is plotting to enslave us all, excepting for those it will kill outright.

They are hard to pigeonhole politically, these conspiracy adepts, trusting neither the "socialist Democrats" nor the "fascist Republicans" -- Ron Paul seems to be their man, if anyone is -- yet sounding as often like '60s leftist radicals as right-wing militiamen. They take the 1st Amendment as seriously as any card-carrying member of the ACLU, styling themselves muckrakers and speakers of truth to power, often through a bullhorn.

The man with the biggest bullhorn is Alex Jones, an Austin, Texas-based syndicated radio host and maker of such films as "Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement" (116 five-star reviews on Amazon.com) and "Martial Law 9-11: The Rise of the Police State," and the point through which all the strands connect in this unexpectedly affecting, nonjudgmental documentary by Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel. Meyer and Neel don't get in the way of their subjects; there are no talking heads or title cards to contradict their worldview, or even

Read more: Review: 'New World Order' on Independent Film Channel

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo: Texas-based radio host Alex Jones.  Credit: IFC

Review: 'Blueprint America: Road to the Future' on PBS

Streamlining the country's transportation infrastructure presents a daunting challenge, but one that must be met, says this one-hour documentary.

Blueprint America: Road to the Future,” airing tonight on PBS, is a half-inspirational, half-frustrating report that addresses the question of infrastructure through the prism of transportation in three American cities. It's a dull word, "infrastructure," but one that becomes suddenly sharper if you apply it, say, to that traffic you're sitting in. We don't just live on the land; we live on the things that separate us from the land, and move us across it.

Host Miles O’Brien, late of CNN, locates the source of our metropolitan gridlock in a 20th century historical predilection for highways over rails and cars over streetcars -- and to the sprawl it allowed, to the delight of real estate interests and postwar homesteaders alike.

Denver is put forth as the downside of this desire, a spreading sea of houses that has eaten up smaller towns and ever wider circles of open land. New York is noted as a fundamentally green city (building goes up and not out, people walk and ride the subway), but with room for improvement. And Portland, Ore., is, if not quite heaven, as near to transit nirvana (streetcar-rich, bike-friendly) as you can find between the shining seas.

Not everyone agrees on what constitutes quality of life, which makes progress slow. ("I don't like planners planning my life," says one Oregonian of state laws that limit development.) But the hour's overwhelming assertion is that something must be done.

-- Robert Lloyd

Review: 'Glee' on Fox

The musical set at a high school has its dark side, but these students with a song in their hearts are fun to watch

Glee2_kjppninc The only real problem with "Glee," Fox's new musical comedy, which premieres tonight, is that viewers will have to wait four whole months for the next episode.

That's a long time but wait we will because wait we must: "Glee" is the first show in a long time that's just plain full-throttle, no guilty-pleasure-rationalizations-necessary fun.

Heaven knows why it took a network so long to cash in on the "High School Musical"-generated frenzy. Nickelodeon took its shot earlier this year with "Spectacular!" and "Glee" unabashedly holds the best of both shows up to the dark mirror that is the mind of creator Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck," "Popular")..

His McKinley High is real high school, a place where moments of shining exultation are surrounded by pits of despair, tripwires of petty rivalries and pathetic hierarchies -- a place that leaves such a permanent imprint on the collective psyche that "high school" has become an adjective and its own genre.

Read the entire "Glee" review and watch video

-- Mary McNamara

Photo: Fox

Review: 'American Experience: We Shall Remain'

Of the many elephants occupying the room that is the history of the United States, none is larger than the official mistreatment of the Native American by the new neighbors from over the water. Like slavery, it is a subject at once much discussed and somehow fundamentally ignored, and because the story has been so sensationalized on the one hand and romanticized on the other, there is a continual desire to tell it right.

Truth being the elusive thing that it is, however, this amounts to an ongoing project rather than a completely achievable end.

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The latest attempt is “We Shall Remain,” an ambitious, largely gratifying series of five feature-length documentaries that begins airing weekly tonight on PBS as part of "American Experience." They do not attempt to encompass the whole of that history, a task for which many more documentaries than five would be needed, but pick signal stories, beginning with Thanksgiving 1621 and ending with the 1973 Indian takeover of a small town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Except for the last, which chronicles a moment and a movement, the series focuses on powerful individuals, telling the story of the many by way of an important few: Geronimo, the Apache raider; Tecumseh, who wanted to establish a kind of United States of Native America tucked up against the Great Lakes; Massasoit, who befriended the Pilgrims; Major Ridge, who helped modernize the Cherokee government but signed the treaty that led to their relocation.

Read the entire review: 'American Experience: We Shall Remain'

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo: Webb Chappell / WGBH

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