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Thursday, March 31, 2011

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger

Woody Allen’s amazingly consistent rate of production (the last year to pass without a new film from the Woodman was 1976) has gone from admirable to questionable, as his batting average has plummeted over the last decade or so. Many critics have complained that his movies feel a little undercooked, as though they are harmed by both a lack of collaboration (each is written and directed by Allen) and a lack of consideration (maybe with more time between movies his scripts would be sharper and more developed.)

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger is a film that these critics will justifiably use to prove themselves correct. It is something of an achievement in its own right that such a slapdash, unimpressive screenplay could even get made, let alone attract such a sparkling cast. This is surely due more to reputation than to merit. Stranger is either a comedy without a single laugh, or a drama without any dramatic tension. Either way you look at it, this is a bad film.

The plot is ludicrously unfocused, which necessitates that most unfortunate of narrative contrivances, the voiceover. The narrator introduces us in turn to Alfie Shepridge (Anthony Hopkins) an aging man convinced he can beat the Grim Reaper through strenuous exercise, his ex-wife Helena (Gemma Jones) who consults a fortune teller for comfort, their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) who works in an art gallery for Greg (Antonio Banderas) and fantasizes about cheating on her struggling novelist husband Roy (Josh Brolin). Roy does more than fantasize about cheating, falling for and courting the engaged young guitarist across from his window, Dia (Frieda Pinto).

The story, such as it is, concerns itself with Alfie’s sham second marriage to a prostitute half his age, Helena’s interest in fulfilling her seer’s predictions (one of which lends its name to the movie), and the extreme lengths Roy goes to due to his desperation to be a successful novelist. Only the Roy plotline really goes anywhere, though it is curiously muted for such a shocking resolution.

Honestly, I can’t think of a single thing to recommend this film. Of the performances, only Josh Brolin’s felt at all like it required any effort. There is by my count exactly one joke in the film, and that falls dreadfully flat. Maybe the whole movie is just a big joke on us.

MLB 2011 Predictions

Once again it is time for my public service of making predictions on the record that you can all mock me for when the time is right. (See also: my final four, Super Bowl picks, etc.)

I'm not going to go all PECOTA on you, with records and charts of player performance, but here's who I think will make the playoffs, and which players will win Cy Youngs and MVPs.

American League:

AL EAST: Yankees
AL WEST: Angels

MYP: Kevin Youkilis
CY YOUNG: John Lester

National League:

NL EAST: Phillies
NL Central: Reds
NL West: Rockies

MYP: Albert Pujols
CY YOUNG: Cliff Lee


ALCS: Red Sox over Yankees
NLCS: Giants over Rockies

World Series: Red Sox over Giants

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Going Young Goes to Far

Disney has cast Jennifer Garner to play Miss Marple in a series of films. This news seems so ridiculous that I can’t even be outraged. Befuddlement comes closer to capturing my reaction. This may not be the greatest compliment to Agatha Christie’s skills as a novelist, but the whole point of Miss Marple’s character is that she’s old. She’s an unassuming old village spinster, whose lifelong examination of human behavior has given her spectacular insight.

Whatever these Garner-led Marple films will be, they cannot by definition be true to the original source. It’s hard to imagine a big corporation making a faithful Marple adaptation, due to the lack of action sequences or love scenes involved. The minute young Miss Marple shoots a gun or kisses a man, any connection to the novels flies right out the window.

II guess the weird thing to so many people is this: aren’t there enough roles out there for young, sexy, American (an underrated consideration in my outrage, Jane Marple should be played by a Brit) actresses? Miss Marple was written specifically to be old because we live in a world that heartlessly devalues and disrespects the elderly, and Hollywood has proved yet again that it does the same. There have to be numerous older actresses who could do wonders with the role of Miss Marple, but we get Garner instead.

You want to put Jennifer Garner in a series of mystery movies? Great, I can get on board with that. But to cynically glom onto the cache of the Marple brand while simultaneously distancing your product from everything that made the original special? I can’t support that.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tamara Drewe

Tamara Drewe is a charming film from British director Stephen Frears. Through its clever multi-focused structure, it manages to overcome a dark, improbable turn in its concluding act and remain a lively, intelligent film.

Gemma Arterton is the title character, but far from the main focus of the story. Tamara is a young newspaper columnist returning to her hometown after her mother’s death. Tamara has had a nose job since she was last seen in town, and it is a marked improvement. (In flashbacks Arterton wears a comedically large beak.)

Tamara’s new confidence makes her irresistible to the men of the town, including an adulterous mystery novelist who runs a writer’s retreat with his wife, a rock star idolized by two local teenagers, and her old boyfriend, whom she has hired to renovate her house.

The plot revolves around an awful lot of misunderstandings and miscommunications, but it hums along quite nicely. The two teenagers mention above, Jody and Casey, act as largely unseen interlopers, as their obsession with Tamara’s rock star lover has some disastrous consequences.

There are some great performances, too. Arterton doesn’t really have much to do besides look good in short-shorts (and she does) but she hits her few dramatic moments convincingly. Roger Allam is quite good as the unfaithful novelist, and Tamsin Grieg is even better as the wife stricken by her knowledge of his affairs. There are fine supporting roles, comedic and dramatic, filled out by the writers attending the retreat.

The movie takes a shockingly dark turn near the end and follows through on it by showing its flawed characters behaving in some morally dubious ways. This commitment to realism in character overcomes the slight silliness of the climax.

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Rivka Galchen’s debut novel, Atmospheric Distrubances, purports to be some sort of cosmically grand mystery, touching on love and relationships and change, with some meteorology thrown in to satisfy the quirk needs of the “modern novel”. In actuality the novel is just a tedious experiment in the art of the unreliable narrator, an experiment which provides very little joy to be had on the part of the reader.

Dr. Leo Lieberstein is a psychiatrist who is convinced that his Argentine wife Rema has been replaced by what he calls a “simulacrum”. Through a series of painfully ridiculous machinations, Leo winds up searching for the “real” Rema in Argentina, with the help of one of his patients, a man named Harvey who thinks that he can alter the weather.

Through Harvey, Leo begins to believe that the Royal Academy of Meteorology is in constant battle with a group of evil weather-changers named The 49 Quantum Fathers. In another too precious little quirk, the Royal Academy is an actual institution, and its leader, both in real-life and in the book, was once Dr. Tzvi Gal-chen, who, as you’ll realize if you hyphenate the author’s name, is Rivka Galchen’s deceased father.

Much of the novel consists of Leo’s incredibly tenuous applications of the science of meteorology to his relationship of Rema. These discourses may appeal to stoned Philosophy majors, but readers looking for compelling characters and a coherent plot had best look elsewhere. By the end, I was struggling just to turn the page.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Community- Critical Film Studies

I was going to write a longer review of this episode, but honestly, I just don’t care. It was a thoroughly disappointing half-hour of television, and it’s been a further disappointment watching TV critic after TV critic rushing to commend the show.

Look, I can buy the idea that the best comedies aren’t always the ones that get the most laughs per minute. Sometimes the best humor comes from knowing the characters and that takes time and buildup, and often that means introducing elements of realism into the show, things like sadness, depression, etc. That’s why I actually greatly enjoyed Mixology Certification, the episode where Troy turned 21 but had his party upstaged by his friends’ drunken realizations of their unfulfilled desires.

But Mixology still managed to find laughs to carry the emotional stuff, and that emotional stuff reached higher levels of poignancy than it does in Critical Film Studies. (See: The conversation/hug between Troy and Annie outside her door.)

Critical Film Studies wasn’t just unfunny. It was intentionally alienating and divisive. You can tell the intention in that the show set up the audience to expect a Pulp Fiction riff (note: I was not especially looking forward to another spoof, anyway) only to bait-and-switch with a small, cult-favorite artsy-fartsy indie movie about two people talking. I know the show has been renewed for next season, but this is the kind of thing that will keep it from ever having a larger audience. Trust me, if I’m alienated by an episode of Community, than the show is playing to a small percentage of the viewing public. (I don’t mean that to sound like a brag, just stating that I am a huge fan of the show most of the time.)

Luckily for Community, a large contingent of that fractional audience consists of people who review television for a living. (Reminder: I’m doing this for free.) These people probably see an uncomfortably large number of similarities between themselves and Abed, who is so obsessed with pop culture that it has rendered him practically incapable of forming authentic human connections.

But is he really incapable? At the end, the show tries to have it both ways, with Jeff and Abed having their “real” conversation, just at the Pulp Fiction diner instead. It’s supposed to be a grace note, but it didn’t register to me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Modern Family- "Boys' Night"

It felt like there were a few scenes missing from last night's Modern Family, especially the tragically absent scene where Jay and Pepper go record-shopping, but what they left in was so charming and funny that it's hard to pine for what isn't there.

Modern Family often catches flak for its super-imposed themes, especially when they are reinforced through the moralizing end-of-episode voiceover. But "Boys' Night" overcomes this supposed deficiency in two ways: it's moral is not inherently simplistic or cheesy, and it is delivered in a humorous fashion, as Mitchell's narration is retrospectively revealed to be about Rob Lowe, and not his family. (This trick was also used in one of my favorite Modern Family episodes, when Jay's monologue was revealed to be from Manny's love poem.)

The moral of "Boys' Night" is that people can surprise you, not by changing or being different from themselves, but through your own perceptions of them becoming clearer. Mitchell dreads having Jay spend time with his gay friends (his "homo homies" as Cam might put it) but he realizes, after Jay is a big hit, that he's been unfairly keeping his dad out of that part of his life. The differences between "friends" Mitchell and "family" Mitchell were plain to see early on in the episode, and it was nice to see Mitchell let his father see that part of him.

Also nice to see? Phillip Baker Hall, one of the great "that guys" of all time. Most people probably recognized him as Bookman, the library cop who hounds Jerry Seinfeld for the overdue fees on Tropic of Cancer. Here, Hall plays the curmudgeonly neighbor that scares Phil and Claire. It was a nice inversion of the classic story that here it was the kid who was unafraid to go get his ball, and then chastised the old man for being mean to his parents. Hall showed his dramatic chops when he delivered the onions to the Dunphy house. "I used to be a fireman, I don't hurt kids" was a surprisingly moving line.

Most of the rest of the episode seemed like filler, but was not wholly without value. I didn't get much enjoyment from Alex's unexplained fear of random animal deaths, but it was great to see Dylan back. His explanation for how he could possibly leave his shoes behind was hilarious, as was his constant use of the word "uncleses" to describer Cam and Mitchell's house.

A very nice return from hiatus for Modern Family.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How I Met Your Mother- "Legendaddy"

All in all, a nice episode of HIMYM. Could have been a little better; could have been a lot worse. I liked the way the script played with the audience's expectations for this kind of storyline, using an unreliable narrator (Barney) inside another narrator's unreliable narration (Older Ted, natch.) Wheels within wheels, my friends, wheels within wheels.

Seriously though, I was kind of dreading Barney's Cool Dad leaving him behind and breaking his heart. What we got was more interesting and more realistic, which is a combination that doesn't often happen in sitcom-land.

Barney's shame that his father wasn't awesome (apparently writing two non-fiction books about asparagus "and one fiction!" isn't impressive to Barney, nor is being "the Lebron James of drapes") seemed petulant at first, but then the script was flipped yet again, in a poignant scene that somehow involved a basketball hoop and a screwdriver. Barney's plaintive articulation of just why he was so upset ("If you were going to be a boring suburban dad, why couldn't you have been mine!?) was great. It retroactively justified the rest of his behavior and kept the story from becoming too pat and obvious.

Also, a great job by the talented John Lithgow, playing both the imaginary awesome dad and the mild-mannered "real" person. I especially liked him at the dinner scene, as he tried to bond with Barney despite Barney's awful treatment of his other son.

The only problem I really had with the episode was what I felt to be the underlining of the plot connections. I felt like when Jerry handed Barney the screwdriver, the writers were jumping up and down yelling, "See that! We set that up in the open, give us credit!" Maybe a minor complaint, but it stuck out to me.

The other plot, in which the gang makes fun of each other's gaps in "knowledge" (the term is applied somewhat loosely) was a typically fun and light HIMYM subplot. I enjoyed that they used this as an opportunity for Marshall to announce that he's getting closer to being back to normal after his father's death.

P.S. I'm not writing a review, but I watched last night's Mad Love, so I'll share a thought. This show is a little too manic, a little too conventional, and a little too hammy, but somehow still enjoyable none the less. I have no idea if it is at all sustainable, and the premise beggars believability, but if you're like me and have a high tolerability for something that makes you laugh once or twice, Mad Love isn't terrible. Don't expect to see that on the back of the DVD set, but I thought I'd put it out there all the same.

The Day of the Locust

Sometimes a fictional character is so detestable that the question of their believability becomes insignificant. Their odiousness overwhelms the mere fact of their comparability to real people. Such is often the case in The Day of the Locust, a short Hollywood novel by Nathanael West, whose Miss Lonelyhearts I reviewed a short time ago.

Tod Hacker is the main character, an artist hired into as a set designer for the movies, although there is scant attention devoted to his profession. Tod never had any Hollywood dreams, so he has a sense of detachment from the desperate souls seeking stardom that surround him. He is working on a painting called “The Battle of Los Angeles” which depicts the dead-inside residents setting the place on fire.

Two of these fame-seekers are Harry Greener, an ex-vaudeville clown reduced to using his talents to peddle soap door-to-door, and his daughter Faye, who works as an extra and wants to marry someone with the money or power to put her in pictures. Tod falls for Faye but she won’t have him, to his ever-increasing frustration.

Instead, Faye traps a man named Homer Simpson (no, really. The book is from the 1930s) into an odd, sexless domestic arrangement. It’s clear that Homer is also smitten with Faye, but for aesthetic reasons she won’t have him either.

The plot of the novel basically just follows Faye as she becomes more and more cartoonishly evil and detestable, though West takes pains to make the rest of his other characters nearly as unlikeable. It’s nice reassurance that West is a complete misanthropist, not just a misogynist.

There’s also a lot of nonsensical stuff involving a fake cowboy and some cockfights described in excruciating detail. Improbably, the novel ratchets up the violence all the way through to the end. Throughout the novel West reveals his utter hatred of humanity, his belief in our basic stupidity, gullibility, greed, and evil nature.

What remains unclear is why he thought anyone would enjoy reading this, or astoundingly, why enough people do that this is considered a classic, albeit a minor one. I might not be much of a theorist about art, but it seems to me unlikely that really fine art can be produced through hatred and bitterness. It’s obvious those are the only motivating emotions behind The Day of the Locust.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Final Four

I don't really have an official Final Four this year, since I submitted two brackets into my office pool. I'm tentatively calling them Hope and Think. The Hope bracket has Ohio State, Duke, Florida and Notre Dame in the Final Four, with the Fighting Irish winning it all. The Think bracket has North Carolina, San Diego State, Kansas and Pittsburgh, with Kansas taking the title. "Think" is a misnomer, because I intentionally took more upsets to offset the chalky Kansas pick. I don't really believe SDSU can get to Houston, and I certainly don't have much confidence in my off-the-wall upset pick: 13 Morehead State over 4 Louisville.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Legs by William Kennedy

I don't have a lot to say about William Kennedy's Legs, the first novel of his Albany cycle. (I read two other novels in the cycle without realizing they were in any order. I don't feel like that lessened the experience.)

Legs is an episodic, rambling fictionalization of the real Upstate New York '30s bootlegger Jack "Legs" Diamond, who is remembered, if at all, for his amazing ability to survive attempts on his life.

In Kennedy's novel, Diamond's story is narrated by Marcus Gorman, a fictional creation. Gorman is a young Albany lawyer angling himself into position to run for Congress until a chance meeting with Legs leads to him becoming the gangster's personal counsel. Much of the novel seems to be an investigation into the magnetism and charm that a ruthless killer like Diamond can possess. Gorman knows exactly what Legs is. Legs' wife and mistress know about him too, and even know about each other, but still they can't help but be drawn in by him. Legs is even beloved by the general public, who crowd the streets around the courthouse and cheer his acquittal.

There are myriad problems with Legs as a novel. It's stream of consciousness plotting (Gorman relates events in Diamond's life as they come to him) does little to stir up dramatic tension. Also, Gorman the narrator leaves a lot to be desired. It's an inherent danger of first-person narration that the choice of narrator becomes so central to the way the story is told. As a character, Gorman is loquacious, garrulous, sarcastic, high-minded and witty. But these traits are deadly in a narrator, as it allows Kennedy the freedom to unnecessarily make his prose more wordy and philosophical.

Honestly, this novel was a rather stunning disappointment considering my love of the same author's "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" and "Ironweed". Those novels made better use of their Albany setting, and made greater use of humor and kept the high-falutin' prose in check.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pirate Radio

I’m sure that I liked this movie more than most people would, so I’m not so much reviewing it as I am selectively recommending it.

If you like stories about scruffy underdogs sticking it to the man in spite of long odds and little hope of success, Pirate Radio is for you.

If you listen to the oldies station on the radio much more than the Top 40 station, Pirate Radio is for you.

If you’re a fan of hi-jinks, pranks, and sexual misadventures, (at least, a fan of these things in films) then Pirate Radio is for you.

Pirate Radio is based on the off-shore British radio stations that played rock and roll music in the 1960s, when the BBC and establishment stations wouldn’t do it. The film opens with young Carl being sent to live onboard the Radio Rock ship with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), the foppish proprietor of the station. There he meets the station’s popular DJs The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Dr. Dave (Nick Frost), and Gavin Kavanagh (Rhys Ifans). Carl soon discovers that Radio Rock may be the worst possible place to go to straighten out.

The movie could fairly be criticized for being shapeless, but I think its episodic nature is a positive. Indeed, upon watching the deleted scenes I was disappointed that they had been cut in an effort to tighten up the plot of the film. One hilarious sequence featured The Count challenging his fellow disc jockeys to drop curse words on the air without being noticed.

What plot there is consists of a British government official (Kenneth Branagh) and his office’s attempts to shut down Radio Rock. Branagh plays his part broadly to encourage mockery. He’s an outrageous caricature of the “stiff-upper-lip” type of Englishman.

It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed the film that I watched all the deleted scenes. I liked the characters so much I just wanted to live a while longer in their world.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Carter Beats the Devil

Glen David Gold’s 2001 debut novel is an immense, immersive trip into the 1920s and the last days of vaudeville. The titular Carter is a successful performing magician (based on the real Charles J. Carter, aka “Carter the Great”) who, in the novel’s prologue, finds himself wrapped up in the speculation over the untimely death of President Warren G. Harding. You see, in Gold’s reimagining of history, Harding dies just hours after being brought on stage to participate in the mysterious third act of Carter’s show, Carter Beats the Devil.

As Gold’s novel goes from Carter’s early days in pre-20th century San Francisco through the aftermath of Harding’s death, he weaves in an astonishing number of real life people and events. (Indeed, perhaps proving the axioms about history and fiction, I only realized some of these were historical after having finished the book.) Aside from the President, real life multi-millionaire Francis Marion “Borax” Smith is a major character, as is BMW founder Max Friz. The Marx Brothers are in the same troupe as Carter, in the days before they changed their name. And most importantly, much of the plot surrounds the attempts by Carter, Smith, and other forces to get their hands on the invention of a young man from Idaho named Phil Farnsworth.

All this history is impressively weaved into the fictional story, and must have required diligent and time-consuming research. However, it does seem to have overwhelmed the prose and plotting of the novel. What there is of Gold’s story that is not borrowed from the history books sags as the book draws toward its conclusion. The novel is an easy read (despite its 650+ pages, I finished it in the course of a week, reading mostly during my commute) but ultimately a surprisingly forgettable one. None of the fictional characters are of the kind that stays with you after reading.

The fictionalized Carter goes through quite a lot, from childhood torment, to tragic loss, and a long road back to happiness. Yet if forced to describe his personality I would struggle for adjectives. After spending so many pages with a character I should think this was a problem.

Carter Beats the Devil is perhaps a good book for what it sets out to do, but it might not have its priorities entirely in order. You’ll marvel at the amount of detail, and its historical accuracy, but you might wish there were a little more fiction in this work of historical fiction.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Free to BYU and Me

The other day Brigham Young University, which is a private university operated by the Mormon church, announced that the third-leading scorer on its basketball team, Brandon Davies, would no longer be on the team due to a violation of the school’s Honor Code. Late last night the story broke that the violation consisted of having consensual sex with his girlfriend. This has caused something of an uproar, as some have said that it is none of the University’s business what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms, and that BYU is wrong to punish Davies since he did nothing wrong.

I disagree. I think BYU is well within their rights to punish Davies as they see fit.

I do not support BYU’s Honor Code. In addition to the prohibition of premarital sex, the code also forbids such pernicious social ills as tobacco, swearing, and drinking coffee. As of this writing it is unclear whether students are expelled for using the word “ain’t” or if they are merely issued warnings.

You are free to find this ridiculous, as I do. But I do not think that means you are free to take BYU’s money and then flaunt their rules. This is essentially what Davies did in accepting a basketball scholarship. Nothing about Davies punishment comes as a surprise to him. Like 98% of BYU students he is a Mormon, and in fact was raised in Provo, Utah, home of the university. BYU is very upfront about who they are and they are committed to their principles. Their athletic teams will not play on Sundays, for example.

What Davies did is certainly not illegal, and for most of us is not even unethical. His actions in no way mean that he is a bad person, it just means that he has chosen to live outside the code established by BYU and the Mormon church. The University has a right to establish guidelines and hold people to them, even if they go beyond the scope of law. There are other universities where this is true. Army, Navy, and Air Force routinely dismiss students, even student-athletes, for behavior that would not constitute an offense at any other school.

The interesting aspect of the outrage over Davies’ suspension is that so many people felt free to mock BYU for its supposedly outdated and unhealthy values. Many people can’t just disagree with the views of the Mormon faith but feel a need to try to prove them wrong. A lot of these people are the same sorts who claim to promote tolerance and “open-mindedness”. Somehow, being open-minded seems to mostly apply to people who’ve chose the same value systems that you have chosen.

I stated earlier that I do not agree with the provisions of the BYU Honor Code. My response was to not even consider going to school there. Davies freely chose to do so, for reasons we can’t know for certain, but whatever they were, his choice came with the caveat that he had to live by the rules. For many people, the rules at BYU are an enticement to enroll there. A truly open-minded person would respect their philosophy and allow them to practice it in peace.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Look, I'm no saint, and I get that it is of general interest that the star of the most-watched sitcom on TV is in a tailspin entailing intoxicants and adult film stars, but Enough Already!

No matter how big of an asshole Charlie Sheen may be, and I'm certainly willing to believe he is a big one, this has passed outside the realm of amusement. The delight that this one man's breakdown is causing is sickening in its extent. Is there no limit? What are people going to do if Sheen dies? For make no mistake, that possibility is certainly in play. This is a dangerous situation. Sheen is an addict who has been a high-functioning addict for years. He has been enabled probably his whole life, and he is delusional enough to think that all the attention he is getting right now is a sign of the righteousness of his cause.

Thankfully there is at least one person with a visible platform who has come to his senses. Craig Ferguson, of CBS, stated the other night that he will not joke about Sheen and his situation any longer. He said the situation reminded him of the infamous Bedlam Hospital, where gawkers would pay money to mock the helpless lunatics. It's an apt comparision.

So please, stop retweeting his inane ramblings, stop turning his statements into catchphrases and memes, bottom line, stop giving this guy what he wants and ignore him until and unless he gets the help he so evidently needs.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Change of Heart/The Kate Gatsby

Last night's How I Met Your Mother was over-reliant on improbable contrivances, but still delivered an effective episode capped off with a resonant emotional event, ironically enhanced through the use of a contrivance. It's not quite Inception, but for a sitcom it was a nice little bit of complexity.

Let's get the aggravating contrivances out of the way first. It was a little off to use a health scare like Barney's arrhythmia for some cheap heart-related jokes. The heart monitor that registered his emotional responses was just tacky. I also disliked the way they handled the man-dog story. It was too obvious for Robin to bring up wanting a dog right before she met Nate "Scooby" Scooberson. It would have been better if the gang had made the connection after meeting him.

This storyline was saved by the gang's marathon riff at MacLaren's, using dog puns to query Scooby and Robin about their relationship. The pot aspect of the story was really only mildly entertaining, if just for Marshall's "I know Paul Schaeffer's sandwich guy" line.

As to Barney and Nora, well, the episode showed its true hand with the meaningful resolution. It seems Barney might want to change after all, but even if he can imagine it, he might be too scared to try. It was a lot better that way than having the character suddenly find inspiration and change right away.

Okay, I watched Mad Love last night and I have to say, "Not bad." It's got a charming cast, and gets by on that for the most part. The premise and the plot aren't going to surprise anyone, but sometimes it's not so bad to coast by for 21 minutes. This episode featured an obsessive Connie (Judy Greer) driving away her best friend Kate (Sarah Chalke) while planning Kate's birthday. The annual names for KateFest were quite funny. (From the Nixon-themed "WaterKate" to the current year's Kate Gatsby.)

The men's story this week involved Ben (Jason Biggs) needing to strike the right balance in buying a gift for his brand-new girlfriend, and finding out inadvertently that his first guess won't make the impression he was hoping for. Biggs is surprisingly okay in this, but his plots are enhanced by Larry (Tyler Labine) who's caustic humor and lazy everyman personality make for a likeable sidekick.

Mad Love may just be for people like me who are too lazy to find something else to watch for the half-hour after another show, but it's got enough to get by for awhile. No one ever lost money betting on the laziness of the general population.