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While the majority of October’s horror films have proven box-office disappointments or outright flops (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 and SAW 3D have not opened as I write this), terror on the small screen is doing better than ever. The fifth season premiere of DEXTER, for example, was Showtime’s highest rated debut in 15 years, while HBO’s TRUE BLOOD also saw its ratings set records last summer. On the CW, SUPERNATURAL has survived the move to Friday nights and seen its viewership jump. While I’ve never watched an episode of CSI, AMERICAN IDOL or SURVIVOR, you can count on my butt being planted in front of the boob tube when a fright series airs. (Grades for current season only and thus far.)
As addictive as its illicit drug V, TRUE BLOOD (HBO) ended a third season filled with more blood, more sex and more gore than ever before. Actually, it was a little too much “more” of everything. As fun as TRUE BLOOD was this year, creator Alan Ball got carried away big time. A proliferation of subplots deflected too much from Sookie’s ongoing story. For example, we already followed bar owner Sam (actor Sam Trammell) meeting his white trash family, did we also need flashbacks to him being a shapeshifting thief? And although I’m a splatter guy, every time one of the vampires died in a geyser of guts and blood, it left me grossed out…but not in a good way. Ditto the scene where Tara (Rutina Wesley) bludgeons the head of sleeping vampire Franklin Mott (James Frain). Things got a little too disgusting. Also, I’m all for gay equality, but TRUE BLOOD overdid that angle too; it seems like every other character on the show is gay now or getting into same sex clinches. It’s not fresh anymore, just gratuitous. And the backstory with Sookie (lead Anna Paquin) being part fairy (!) also jumped the shark for me. Here’s what salvaged season three: the werewolves (real wolves, not CGI) and the wonderful Denis O’Hare as the villainous Russell Edgington. TRUE BLOOD returns to cable in June. B-
After four seasons, Showtime’s DEXTER (Sundays at 9 p.m.) is still kickin’ ass. This series, about a serial killer (the superb Michael C. Hall) who targets other serial killers, just keeps getting better and better. Last year’s cat and mouse games between Dexter and his ultimate foe, the Trinity Killer (an unforgettable John Lithgow), emerged as electrifying drama (especially the Thanksgiving Day dinner blowup in “Hungry Man”), culminating (SPOILER ALERT) in the shocking and unexpected murder of Dexter’s wife Rita (Julie Benz). Season five has picked up the threads beautifully, with Dexter believably mourning his loss, raising a baby and getting back to old habits. The show’s new storylines—Dexter dealing with the survivor (Julia Stiles) of one of his victims, vicious cult murders and the suspicions of co-worker Joey (Desmond Harrington going all Doakes on Dexter)—make one count the days to each new episode. Feature film directors like JOY RIDE’s John Dahl and DEMON KNIGHT’s Ernest Dickerson, as well as a top-notch writing team (among the scribes, THE SOPRANOS/THE SHIELD vet James Manos Jr.) keep DEXTER edgy, dark and exciting on a consistent basis. A
Fox’s FRINGE (Thursdays at 9 p.m.) also boasts a few movie directors doing top-notch TV work, like Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST and SESSION 9) and Joe Chappelle (atoning for the sixth HALLOWEEN film and PHANTOMS). Created by that smart, innovative powerhouse of J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (LOST, ALIAS, new STAR TREK), FRINGE—about FBI agents investigating strange phenomena—could have been just another X FILES knockoff, but a terrific cast, outlandish stories and gruesome makeup FX (liquefied brains, tumor-ravaged faces, genetic mutants, overgrown parasites, etc.) have helped FRINGE find its own unique footing. In the program’s early days, its crazy science had just a sliver of plausibility. Not anymore, as season three has taken us deep into the alternative Earth, with shapeshifters running around and bizarre technology right off the pure sci-fi shelf. Fortunately, the wonderful performers (Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and especially John Noble as the nutty LSD-dropping lead scientist) keep FRINGE grounded and always entertaining to watch. I love how the writers think outside the box, like the episode this month told from the POV of the lead characters’ doppelgangers (“Plateau”) or the one where our sympathies are engendered for an evil family man shapeshifter (“Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?”). FRINGE is scary, fast-paced and unpretentious. Unlike X FILES, which kept tripping over its muddled mythology, FRINGE gets more interesting as it goes on. B+
I’ve been a champion of SUPERNATURAL (CW, Fridays at 9 p.m.) since it launched in 2005. This series—about two brothers on the road battling evil—has improved with age… until now. For all intents and purposes, SUPERNATURAL should have ended last year with the whole Apocalypse/Sam-going-to-hell arc. That’s what series creator Eric Kripke was apparently building up to as SUPERNATURAL’s ultimate finale, and both he and his leads actors (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) had the itch to leave the show and move on. You know, quit while they’re ahead? But contractual obligations—and good ratings—compelled the Winchester boys to stay on, though Kripke has abandoned day-to-day production duties. But where to go after the Apocalypse? Backward it seems, as now SUPERNATURAL has devolved to the ho-hum “monster-of-the-week” formula that marred the series’ first season. It’s not bad enough that Sam has inexplicably climbed out of hell and knocked on retired hunter Dean’s door a year later, but late Grandpa Winchester (the always welcome Mitch Pileggi) has returned from heaven and, along with another group of colorless long-lost relatives, is helping the boys with their demon hunting. Combined with a standalone Bobby (Jim Beaver) episode (“Weekend at Bobby’s,” directed by Ackles himself in the season’s best outing to date), it appears that the producers have deliberately lightened their stars’ workload to keep them happy. Whatever the reason, this year’s SUPERNATURAL lacks the dramatic urgency of the past. One thing I do like is how the dynamics of Sam and Dean’s relationship has flipped. I still have hopes that SUPERNATURAL will get back on course. C+
Like with TWILIGHT, I’m the wrong audience for the CW’s THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (Thursdays at 8 p.m.), but, strangely, I keep tuning in every week to keep the wife company. Now in its second year and still a Nielsen king for the network, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES owes way too much to the TWILIGHT SAGA with its lovesick vampires (the Salvatore brothers), but at least series co-developer Kevin Williamson (of SCREAM fame, though here he’s more in his mopey DAWNSON’S CREEK mode) allows his bloodsuckers to sport fangs. Taking a cue from Robert Pattinson, DIARIES’ Paul Wesley is a bit of a stiff as the lead vamp, and all the soap-operish stuff between him, girlfriend Elena (a fine Nina Dobrev) and evil brother Damon (snarky Ian Somerhalder) gets a bit boring and wearying after a while. Though predictable, I’m digging this season’s werewolf addition (I know, surprise), and I’m glad that Damon’s not the pure-evil dullard of season one. But why are people so stupid in Mystic Falls (especially the sheriff)? And isn’t that magical ring stuff, which allows the vampires to walk around unscathed in daylight, kinda silly? Also, why would any immortal figure want to keep repeating high school—the worst years of any kid’s life—over and over again? C-
On Halloween night, the TV/cable landscape will get even darker with the launch of THE WALKING DEAD on AMC. Would you believe, a series devoted to zombies?! Talk about must-see TV!
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