Tuesday, Nov. 28
"Seinfeld" (KTVU, Fox San Francisco, 7 p.m.)
On reruns in San Francisco, the "Seinfeld" episode tonight is one of the show's quintessentially blithe mélanges: three story lines, each ineffable in its caustic elegance. Kramer is down in Florida with Jerry's parents, running for condo board president; he gets tripped up in a scandal unique to a retirement community. Elaine's going out with a guy who might be black; he thinks she's Hispanic. And George is caught in a lie by his dead fiancée's parents -- he doesn't really have a summer home in the Hamptons, but is trapped into driving the two of them out to see it.
Elaine and the boyfriend grope in a fog of inappropriate thoughts and actions; Kramer and Jerry's dad flail blindly in a humiliation of their own making, and pull a not entirely innocent bystander (Jerry) down with them. And George, well, George is on an existential drive into a fiction, accompanied by implacable in-laws from a marriage that never existed.
Frasier (NBC, 9 p.m.)
The Niles-Daphne romance is insane. Who wants to see a long-running unconsummated romance consummated? I hope "Ed" doesn't make this mistake. It's very important that Ed remain hanging in a romantic purgatory masquerading as his beckoning hometown. Anyway, Niles, Daphne and Frasier are being sued by Donny, who's still mad that Daphne jilted him -- jilted him big time, as Dick Cheney would say. Frasier flirts almost manically with his lawyer.
It's certainly true, as people have said, that Frasier Crane and his brother, Niles, are blatantly gay; Frasier's compulsive attempts to rut virtually every woman he comes into contact with is a sometimes discomfiting manifestation of a deeply closeted persona. In this episode there's something almost too bald about his urges; he's like a walking, talking phallus.
A phallus with money issues, that is. The plot complication is that Frasier thinks his lawyer charged him too much, a suspicion heightened once the family gets a sense of how she subtly overcharges clients for her time. This is a classic Seinfeldian dilemma: Sexual desires complicated other, sometimes stronger ones, generally involving money or food. (Jerry once started sleeping with his maid, who promptly stopped cleaning his apartment but not cashing his checks.) But "Frasier" is ultimately too superficial a show (and too dishonest about its main characters in its conception) to bear such an unforgiving subtext. When the lawyer sends Frasier packing, the comment is merely on the rutting male, not the human condition.
"The Geena Davis Show" (ABC, 8 p.m.)
Poor Geena Davis. Her TV show is a classic example of a star needing a vehicle, and ending up with a fast ride to nowhere. The shtick of "The Geena Davis Show" is that she's some sort of unspecified Type A suddenly part of a minifamily, in the form of her boyfriend and his two kids. There's something subversive in the conception: Davis and her two girlfriends, who form a bitchy Greek chorus to comment on the action, represent a resolute opposition to kids and family. But the show doesn't have the courage of this premise. The kids are cute, and Davis is always trying to endear herself to them: The joke of the show turns out to be that she's a supposed overachiever who can't get parenting right.
And besides it's all weighed down with clumsy sitcom conventions, an annoying laugh track and crude sets; there's an elementary-school auction, for example, staged with extreme cheese. (The extras look like mannequins.) Davis has an office sidekick who speaks in a really weird voice, roughly that of the cop in "Dumb & Dumber" when he drank the soda bottle full of urine. "I don't need to check with my psychic friend to know where this is going," Davis' African-American friend, somewhat stereotypically, says at one point. Neither do we.
Wednesday, Nov. 29
"Dawson's Creek" (WB, 8 p.m.)
Dawson thinks he's so smart.
Tonight he's watching an old black-and-white film noir movie with Gretchen, the older sister of his former best buddy. Dawson is gaping at the final frames of the film while Gretchen probes for his opinion. She really doesn't like it.
"I'd have to say," he counters, "that I thought it was a heartbreaking work of staggering genius."
You see? He was making a reference to a book by Dave Eggers titled "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." That book is, of course, about the horrible deaths of the author's parents, and it has nothing to do with an old black-and-white film noir. The book also happens to be very funny -- funny enough that you know that Eggers would appreciate the absurdity of it being invoked here, by Dawson, a character, and James Van Der Beek, an actor and -- apparently -- a writer, all of whom seem to have absolutely no idea of what they're talking about.
That's kind of how a lot of the cultural references -- even the vocabulary -- gets tossed around on "Dawson's Creek." I know it's never been a great show or anything, but I kind of liked the hourlong WB drama for a little while because it gave high school students a lot more credit than most shows that I'd seen. It was no "My So Called Life" or anything, but it was kind of exciting and different to hear teenagers use words like "mercurial" and phrases like "Strum und Drang" (both of which turn up tonight!).
And when the characters run around screwing up their lives they generally correct each other rather than getting it from the, you know, adults -- when they're even around. Actually, they are smarter than the adults, and way more mature. It seemed like the show wasn't talking down to teenagers, and that there was even some chance that it might have something to say at the same time it entertained with its preposterous plotlines.
I guess my real weakness was that I still remember how smart I was in high school. A shoplifted copy of "Notes From Underground" made me an expert in nihilism. The Cure song "Killing an Arab" made me instantly fluent in both the works of Camus and the finer points of racism and alienation. And following the still ascending career of U2 made me an expert in international politics. (How long must I sing this song? How long?)
"Dawson's Creek" brings all of that back, but unfortunately it never realizes the kind of distance that would allow these characters to mouth off like know-it-alls while letting us know that they're actually full of shit. Tonight Dawson's trying to rekindle his love of movies. He used to be crazy about them, but then he got distracted when his childhood sweetheart, Joey, ran away last summer on a boat with his friend, Pacey. (I hated when that happened to me in high school in suburban Denver, but at least Joey never had sex with Pacey while they were at sea all of that time. My childhood sweetheart was a slut.)
Now Dawson's got this important essay to write about why he wants to go to film school at the University of Southern California, where his idol, Steven Spielberg, learned how to make movies. But he's stuck, talking around that central question. He's having, as he says, "a crisis of faith."
He explains this to a crusty old man who also happens to have directed the film noir "picture" that Dawson was watching at the start of the show. (The guy is an old-timer who quit the movie business and moved to Dawson's town, Capeside, Mass.; Dawson swears that in his day he was "like a combination of Sam Fuller and Cameron Crowe." Another pair of references!)
Fittingly, the old man whom Dawson appeals to mocks him for having a "crisis of faith" at 17. But Dawson becomes petulant, and the man wilts. Later Dawson's faith is restored when he decides that he'll make a movie about the old man.
Sometime before that, though, the show lost me. See I got really hung up on all of those references -- all that vocabulary even. Because it's distracting -- even when they use the reference correctly or pronounce the word right. Because the show misses one very important part about being a teenager and about being in high school. It actually tells a lie, and it's the same lie that I told myself.
As the kids run about talking of true love or soul mates or faith -- bolstering their soliloquies with talk of "Little Women" or "Rebel Without a Cause" or the Brontë sisters (all mentioned on earlier shows) -- the series confuses knowledge with wisdom.
The truth is that teenagers blunder around, wielding grand concepts that they really don't understand, couched in works of art or pop culture that they just found. "The Scarlet Letter" might stand for Oppression, "Romeo and Juliet" for Love, "On the Road" for Freedom. But the kids don't necessarily see that those are shaded works of complex meanings, or, more importantly, they themselves really don't experience these things. Or at least I didn't.
"The West Wing" (NBC, 9 p.m.)
Pat Caddell was on "Hardball" on MSNBC again tonight, bashing Democrats with all the fervor of the reformed sinner. Funny how's he's playing such a prominent role in "The West Wing," the searchingly written, acted and directed TV show whose only flaw is that its explicitly stated thesis each week is that liberals are better people than you or I. Even Ainsley Hayes, the motormouthed Republican lawyer whom president Martin Sheen easily co-opted a couple of weeks back, has attested to this after just a few days of exposure to the deep-feeling residents of the titular office.
But Ainsley's AWOL, for the second week in a row. The thesis tonight is that liberals are hella smart, too. Sam, the Rob Lowe character, demonstrates that he can compose a deeply moving presidential introduction off the top of his head. He sure shows that NASA functionary! The president, given to mooning about exploration, is monitoring an unmanned mission to Mars; talk of SAT scores abounds as the male characters dispense rapid-fire aerospace trivia and the female residents act just a bit befuddled. They don't even know that Oregon is a big green-bean-producing state and likely to be deeply offended when it's published that the president doesn't like green beans! C.J. is reduced to proclaiming her prowess between the sheets, not once but twice. Liberal babes are better in bed, too.
The president is briefed about an explosion in Russia. One of the briefers is Frances McDormand's husband in "Fargo," the guy who drew birds.
"Felicity" (WB, 9 p.m.)
File this under life's little ironies. Just as Felicity and Noel successfully pitch a Web animation project to Icebox.com, Icebox (in real life) lays off half its staff the same day the episode airs. Rumor has it that former staffers received computers as their severance pay. Ouch! Guess there will always be an inherent obsolescence to any pop-cultural reference to the New Economy.
Hope the writers rejigger the upcoming story line so that our wide-eyed heroine witnesses the kaboom times in store for dot-coms now that an industry-wide recession looms. But props to the "Felicity" creators for jamming the same episode with a multiplicity of themes: sex and drug addiction (Molly, Ben and Felicity), negotiating lifestyles in a committed relationship (Meghan and Sean) and the ethics of student-professor sexual relationships (Elena). It is a measure of the denseness of the episode that in the course of just 60 minutes, Sean manages to wear both a yarmulke and assless pants!