<p>&nbsp;'Big Love'</p>

 'Big Love'

Credit: HBO

Recap: 'Big Love' Premiere - 'Free At Last'

'Big Love' almost bites off more than it can chew in the season four opener.

The opening five minutes or so of the fourth season premiere of "Big Love" encompass so thoroughly everything I like about the show that it's kind of a disappointment that the rest of the episode has so much messiness to it. Granted, "Big Love" almost always has messy premieres and finales, as the show attempts to either set a million plot threads in motion or tie all of them off neatly enough to proceed into yet another hiatus. The show is almost always better in its middle episodes (as in next week's sterling second episode of this season), when the series takes the time to breathe and give its characters room to just be themselves and interact. Episodes like this one, where the show makes an attempt to incorporate every single one of its far-flung characters, can end up feeling exhausting, no matter how well-executed they are.

[Full recap of Sunday's (Jan. 10) "Big Love" premiere after the break...]

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<p>&nbsp;Yvonne Strahovski and Zachary Levi of 'Chuck'</p>

 Yvonne Strahovski and Zachary Levi of 'Chuck'

Credit: NBC

Recap: 'Chuck' -- 'Chuck Versus The Pink Slip' and 'Chuck Versus the Three Words'

As Chuck struggles to control his newfound abilities in the Season Three premiere, a new threat looms in the shadows.
In anticipation of recapping the first two episodes of the new season of "Chuck," I made sure to read Dan Fienberg's review in advance. After all, I didn't want to accidentally repeat everything he already said. But I was glad to see that Dan, like myself, likes this show in a way that bypasses critical faculty and directly hits emotional buttons. And to me, that's not the only way to enjoy the show, but it's perhaps the best. After all, Season 3 seems to be all about the best way for Chuck to become a spy: via the head or via the heart. So far, Team Heart is winning big time. 
 
[Full recap of Sunday (Jan. 10) night's "Chuck" premiere after the break...]
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Charles Barkley and Keenan Thompson on Saturday Night LIve

Charles Barkley is not impressed with Keenan Thompson's impression of him during the opening monologue of "Saturday Night LIve."

Recap: 'Saturday NIght Live' - Charles Barkely is back, but Alicia Keys steals the show

Watch: Keys teams up with Sandberg for a very funny SNL Digital Short


As a huge fan of Charles Barkley as both a player and a sports commentator, no one was looking forward to the NBA Hall of Famer's second stint as a "SNL" host than this pundit.  Unfortunately, as we've discovered this season, the legendary show's writers aren't up to this NBA Hall of Fame player's stature.  For the most part that is.  Worst of all?  Barkley even warned us in his monologue.  But let's get started...

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<p>&nbsp;Fran Kranz and Olivia Williams of 'Dollhouse'</p>

 Fran Kranz and Olivia Williams of 'Dollhouse'

Credit: Michael Desmond/FOX

Recap: 'Dollhouse' - 'Getting Closer'

'Dollhouse' closes off its latest episode with a big twist.

When "Dollhouse" started about a year ago, a number of critics (and by "number of," I mean Alan Sepinwall) wrote about how the series lacked a strong, central character to hold everything together, meaning that when one sought a center, the only character that could be found was Harry Lennix's Boyd Langton, a cool, calm and collected presence at the center of the Dollhouse's madness. On the flipside of that was Fran Kranz's Topher Brink, a character plenty of critics (including, yes, Sepinwall) found irritating, if not vaguely distasteful, as his sheer joy at rewiring people's personalities didn't seem to leave a lot of room to let in the horror of just what he was doing. Topher seemed like an exemplification of the show's biggest problems, its unwillingness to deal with the uneasy nature of just what was going on in the Dollhouse. (Now, of course, Joss Whedon has alleged that he wanted to push the horrors of the Dollhouse even further without really pointing out how horrific it was, but the network balked. Which makes sense.)

So now, of course, we've seen what appears to be the cornerstone of Topher's eventual descent into surprisingly sympathetic madness, and we've learned that Boyd is one of the two founders of Rossum, the two big bads of the series (and it would sure seem that Amy Acker's Claire Saunders is either working with him or the other half of the Rossum brain trust). The former is terrifically executed, a surprisingly moving portrayal of a guy discovering love and then losing it just as soon as he's found it. It's straight out of Whedon's big bag o' tricks, but it works almost as well as any other time he's pulled it off (see also: Fred, Wash, Jenny). Bennett Halvorson (Summer Glau) wasn't the best developed character ever, and had her death come in season five or something, it would have been even more affecting. But Glau made the most of the character in limited screen time, and the moment when Saunders shot her in the head was both shocking and saddening.

And this is to say nothing of everything that followed, as Topher roused himself from his sadness over losing his true love to reconstruct Caroline's persona because they needed the memory she carried within her head of what Rossum's head looked like. (Another sidebar: How often do Whedon characters meet their true loves and seemingly become smitten with them almost instantaneously? This might be a function of how often his story arcs get truncated, but it's not quite like how the relationships grew organically in the early days of "Buffy.") Everything here was poignant and rueful, as Topher chased away Ivy, forcing her to leave the Dollhouse to go live in a place where she'd keep her brains in her head while he got back to work (and seemed to finish remarkably quickly). I love the framing Tim Minear came up with throughout this episode (like Echo and Adelle perfectly framing Caroline in video footage between them in the episode's early portions), but I'm particularly impressed with how he used the blood spatter in this scene, smeared across Topher's face, spattered against the glowing surfaces of the lab. It's a great scene, but it's never overplayed, always subdued.

I'm less certain on the Boyd reveal, however. It's not just because I like Boyd either. Revealing that one of the best of the good guys is actually one of the worst of the bad guys can be a terrific reversal, particularly if used sparingly and if done in a way that sheds new light on everything the character has done before. Theoretically, it works for Boyd here, but at the same time, it lacks the punch of previous times Whedon has used this particular trick. Every series he's done (save, perhaps, "Firefly") has had a moment when you've realized that one of the good guys is actually bad or has gone bad, and that moment can be thrilling when done right (see: Angel into Angelus). But here making Boyd evil ended up feeling just a bit too predictable and perfunctory. Heading into the episode's final scene, where the Rossum secrets would be revealed, it was just too obvious that at least one of the bad guys had to be Boyd. Adelle was too easy. Most of the other characters wouldn't have made sense in the show's timeline. And with the series' truncated number of episodes, there just wasn't enough time to develop a potential rogues gallery.

Indeed, when I saw the first of the two Rossum bad guys - a rather non-descript character actor - I was somewhat relieved. Perhaps, I thought, the show realized it hadn't had the time to really build to a massive reveal and was just going to cast some interesting actors to be the human face of Rossum. I probably should have known better. It's not that the Boyd reveal is bad, per se, since the show still has some time to make it work, and it is consistent with things we've learned previously about the character. Also, any actions he's undertaken while working at the Dollhouse were clearly undertaken to maintain his deep cover. (It's also worth pointing out that he could kill the Rossum board member in this episode because he knew that the guy would be in another body soon enough.) In the end, the whole thing just felt like it happened because it had to happen. I'm hopeful the show will figure out a way to make it all seem of a piece with what's gone before, but there's so little time.

 

On the other hand, this was a much better vehicle for delving into the past of Caroline before she became Echo than a similar season one episode. That season one episode made Caroline out to be a bit too much of a do-gooder, which resulted in the character seeming too bland to be worth investing sympathy in. Since that point, the show has realized that Echo's much more interesting when she's conflicted, and giving her conflict about returning to her former life has been one of the biggest conflicts the show could throw at her. Showing us the relationship between Bennett and Caroline ends up being the best possible way to illustrate the ambiguity the series has been ladling onto the Caroline character this season, even as it's careful to point out that she's not exactly bad, just idealistic. The character has developed more nuance, even as Echo has become something closer to superhuman, and this ends up playing better to Eliza Dushku's strengths.

 

In general, it was a good episode for all of the ensemble's members, as it darted between three years ago and the present. Maybe my disappointment over the Boyd reveal is just stemming from the fact that I don't terribly want him to be bad. I know, of course, that this all ends in tragedy, but a part of me is hoping that the LA Dollhouse can pull off this impossible mission, can bring down their corporate overlords. It's in moments when we can observe the quiet camaraderie between these people or when the Dollhouse sets the Dolls free or when everyone tries to figure out what to do about November or when the show circles back to "Epitaph One" in a scene that now plays much more sinisterly that I realize just how much the show has grabbed me in only a handful of episodes. I'd rather not see a "Save 'Dollhouse'" campaign succeed because I think the show's cancellation is one of the things that has made it so good, but it still doesn't mask just how much I've come to love this show and these characters.

 

Some other thoughts:

 

*** I try to think about celebrity pairings as little as possible, but something about the couple that is Eliza Dushku and (very brief) guest star Rick Fox strikes me as strange. Not quite sure what it is, though I have no real beef with either of them.

 

*** I'll miss Ivy, who was probably my favorite of the show's recurring players. Had she been the big bad, I might have been more charitably disposed toward the twist, though it would have made even less sense.

 

*** Wait ... Whiskey's the one that sends the gang from "Epitaph One" off to find Caroline. Does this mean that she's leading them into a trap? Hrm ...

 

*** Speaking of shows about women being subjugated by massive cultural monoliths that slot them into predetermined roles they're unable to break out of and speaking of blatant self-promotion, come back on Sunday for the first of my "Big Love" recaps for Hitfix. (I wouldn't bring it up here, but I've found the "Big Love" audience is surprisingly wide-ranging and has substantial overlap with science fiction fans for some reason.)

 

This week's question: What's up with Saunders? Sleeper agent? Or the other half of Rossum's no-goodnik team?

 

<p>&nbsp;Milo Ventimiglia of 'Heroes'</p>

 Milo Ventimiglia of 'Heroes'

Credit: NBC

Recap: 'Heroes' - 'Upon this Rock' and 'Let It Bleed'

As Claire starts to learn the true nature of Samuel's plans, Peter struggles to deal with Nathan's death.

Last time on “Heroes”…yea, you got me. Considering the refresher course I had to put myself through to remember what was going on with this show, I fear for the fates of shows like “Glee” and “V” that have much longer breaks between episodes. In short: Claire was at the carnival, Mohinder was in the madhouse, Hiro was cuckoo for cocoa puffs, and the Nathan/Sylar combo pack split up and went on solo tours. Unfortunately, Nathan’s tour went to heaven. There. Caught up. Let’s move on. 

Tonight’s return featured not one but two episodes back-to-back. Hey, if it’s good enough for “Dollhouse,” it’s good enough for “Heroes,” right. Did the show make like Rob Base, proving that it takes two to make a thing go right? Hardly. As per usual, the first hour (“Upon This Rock”) bore little character continuity to the second (“Let It Bleed”), with only Claire and Samuel having decent face-time in both. Maybe this volume’s end will feature a bloodbath under the big top that will clear out the cast to a more manageable size, assuming that “Redemption” isn’t the show’s swan song.  

[Recap of Monday (Jan. 4) night's "Heroes" double-dose after the break...]

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<p>&nbsp;Russell of 'Survivor: Samoa'</p>

 Russell of 'Survivor: Samoa'

Credit: CBS

Recap: 'Survivor: Samoa' Finale

Brett won the big Immunities, Russell was the dominant figure, but would either of them win the million?
It's finale time for "Survivor: Russell." After more than two hours of programming on Sunday (Dec. 20) night, will the season's dominant player come out ahead and win the million bucks? Or will a stealthy underdog like Brett or Natalie sneak in and upset the presumptive champ?
 
[Click through for two hours of recapping exhaustion.]
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<p>James Franco was back for his second stint as a host on &quot;Saturday&nbsp;NIght Live.&quot;</p>

James Franco was back for his second stint as a host on "Saturday NIght Live."

Credit: NBC

Recap: 'Saturday Night Live' - James Franco does James Dean and kisses a dude

Plus: Muse and Mike Tyson makes an appearance

It's been a strangely inconsistent "SNL" season so far and it appears the show's writing staff is suffering from major burnout.  Could the promise of a two-week break and the return of previous host James Franco end things on a positive note for 2009?  We'll see...

The Lawrence Welk show - Christmas Edition

Fred Armisen returns as Lawrence Welk and gets ready to introduce a famous Latin singing sensation (Franco) joining that familiar quartet, The Merryll Sisters.

Welk: "You know what they say, 'You can take the girl out of the finger lakes, but not the finger out of the girl"
(Pause)
"There was supposed to be a 'lakes' in there."

Can you imagine what transpires?  Oh yes you can! It's the same old formula: Franco's seducer sings with each of the pretty sisters until he gets to Junice (Wiig) who freaks him out and he keeps trying to get away from her.

Lawrence, 'Is it me or does one of them have a forehead that looks like the side of a cave?  Oh, and one more thing.  Live from New York...it's Saturday night!"

Grade: B.  Well, this is getting old, but extra points for not doing yet another political sketch as the opening.

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<p>&nbsp;Eliza Dushku and Reed Diamond of 'Dollhouse'</p>

 Eliza Dushku and Reed Diamond of 'Dollhouse'

Credit: Carin Baer/FOX

Recap: 'Dollhouse' - 'The Attic'

'Dollhouse' accelerates even more in one of its best episodes yet.

 

"The Attic" is like "Dollhouse" played on 78 rpm or something. It takes the contours of a normal episode, layers on one of Joss Whedon's favorite conceits (the dream episode), spices the whole thing with a liberal dose of mythology and then speeds it all up until head-spinning revelations are whirling by so fast that it seems hardly possible this is the same show that once spent an entire episode on Echo infiltrating a girl pop group. There's big, Earth-shattering stuff at work in "The Attic," and that brings it up to the level of the show's best episodes. And it's entirely possible that all "Dollhouse" had to do to get to this point was get canceled.

[Full recap of "The Attic," Friday (Dec. 18) night's second "Dollhouse" episode, after the break...]

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<p>&nbsp;<span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande'; color: rgb(27, 27, 27); white-space: pre; ">Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman of 'Dollhouse'</span></p>

 Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman of 'Dollhouse'

Credit: Carin Baer/FOX

Recap: 'Dollhouse' - 'Stop-Loss'

'Dollhouse' gets more political as Victor finally gets to leave the house.

Let's talk a little about Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt.

In recent weeks, I've been a little surprised with two things. I've been surprised with just how complex Adelle's motivations have become and how little hand-holding "Dollhouse" has done to explain this to us (indeed, sometimes TOO LITTLE hand-holding, which almost never happens on network TV). And I've been surprised with how little buzz there is around the character among the few people still buzzing about "Dollhouse." When it was announced that Joss Whedon's latest series had landed Williams to play the mysterious head of the Dollhouse, this was seen as a great coup. And yet, even though Williams is turning in work this season that should land her on Emmy's short list, she almost never gets the big praise from critics or fans. Perhaps that's because the writing of the character is so cagey, playing to the actress' strengths at only letting out raw emotion after just too much of it gets pent-up. Perhaps it's because Adelle does some bad, bad things. Or perhaps it's because it's just easier to empathize with the Dolls. But make no mistake: DeWitt is an evil woman, doing evil things, but for complicated and understandable reasons. And that's hard to do well (much less play) on a weekly TV series.

[Full recap of the "Stop Loss" hour of Friday's (Dec. 18) "Dollhouse" double-bill after the break...]

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<p>&nbsp;Mick of 'Survivor: Samoa'</p>

 Mick of 'Survivor: Samoa'

Credit: CBS

Recap: 'Survivor: Samoa' - 'Two Brains Are Better Than One'

God takes a side in the Reward Challenge and Immunity forces a difficult choice for Russell

Pre-credit sequence. Welcome to the season's penultimate episode of "Survivor: Russell," featuring Russell, Shambo and a group of other people. Oh and some guy named Brett, who suddenly became really important last week after not opening his mouth for the first 31 days in Samoa. Monica has just been eliminated. It's night 33. And for some reason, Brett is doing the grossest thing I can imagine, massaging Shambo's mullet. She keeps moaning. It's really unfortunate. Meanwhile, Brett is celebrating being the Last True Galu. Russell knows that Brett still has to go, since there are too many Galus on the jury. 

Proper Mullet Maintenance. Brett is quoting from Ephesians. I don't know why. But Natalie's digging on his scripture. I can't tell if he's thinking he wants to sleep with Natalie, ally with Natalie or go door-to-door selling Bibles with her after this is over. It appears that he's hopping to do a little of each. But back to Shambo's hair, which she insists needs to be cut. "She should shave that ho-head," Russell cracks. "Mullet went out in the '70s." He accuses Shambo of hiding large quantities of food in her hair, including peanuts and coconuts and banana. Ick.
 
God is deeply invested in "Survivor." In two teams of three, the players have to do some task involving pulling ropes and keeping coconuts from falling. Want to know what they're playing for? It's time for the season's anthropological reward, specifically the feast with villagers. Russell and Natalie are captains. Natalie selects Brett first, while Russell takes Jaison. Natalie adds MickDreamy, meaning that Shambo's last and joins Russell. At Jeff Probst's prodding, Shambo admits that her hair is "Shambolicious" and she's had it since 1986. Nothing Shambo says anymore makes any sense. It's all a combination of Marine cheers and '70s pop songs. As Brett, Natalie and Mick bond as Prayer Warriors, Russell's beginning to be concerned. Something is working for the Prayer Warriors, as Natalie's team gets out to a huge early lead. Mick, apparently not a Prayer Warrior brings things closer, but the Island Gods love Mick compared to Jaison, who single-handedly drops 47 coconuts. Natalie posits that God has supported her, at least until she drops 58 coconuts in one pull. God actually appears to favor Russell, who in a key moment pulls a rope without dropping a single coconut. Can Prayer Warrior Brett keep his team in the game? No. He cannot. God chooses Russell's team. 
 
Jaison gets jiggy. Jaison hasn't been on a reward all season, so he's initially reserved about this opportunity. Or he's reserved until he sees the shellfish, the pig and the noble natives, drumming and juggling flames just for their entertainment. Russell tears into the food with the appetite of a dozen natives. He's especially pleased that Brett and Mick will be hungry and dehydrated for the next challenge. A seemingly hammered Shambo proposes a toast to the people of Samoa and then falls on her back. As the music swells, Jaison rises and announces, "I've been fortified by the power of food and I'm about to get jiggy with it." Sadly, Jaison's getting jiggy is every bit as pathetic as you might guess.
 
Look at that S Car Go. Back at camp, Brett proposes that they should go get snails and chill on the beach, eat snails and watch the sunset. My boy Brett knows how to party. "I don't play this game overly aggressively," admits Brett. We know, man. Suddenly, though, Brett is something of a Chatty Cathy, going on and on about the Foa Foa infiltrators. Natalie is happy with Brett, but she's been tied to Russell since Day One. "It's the hardest thing to balance your heart and your head," she observes. 
 
Pillow talk with Shambo. Back at the Reward, Shambo and Russell and Jaison have pillows, sheets and a mattress and Shambo is pretending to be a seven-year-old. They're having childlike fun until Jaison asks about Natalie's quick selection of Brett before the Reward. Russell is planning to spend two hours taking to Natalie when they get back to camp, or that's what he tells them. In truth, he says he's certain that Natalie is secure. Russell makes it clear that the next person out has to be either Brett... or MickDreamy.
 
Security exchange. The next morning, the tribe is reunited and Russell tries to make sure that Natalie is secure. He also throws out Mick as a secondary option for elimination. "I'm in control of it all," Russell gloats. Natalie is confident that Russell's being truthful with her and that she's been truthful with him. Their goal is still to get Brett out first. "There's gonna be no argument..." Russell says of Brett.  He's a little punk. He's 110 pounds. He's not faster than me. He's not stronger than me." He says several other things, but who can really keep up? Russell talks a lot.
 
Counting on Immunity. It's a fun challenge for Immunity. There are a number of objects, including pigs, crabs, octopi and fish. Contestants have to remember the number of each object and then combine the numbers to open a lock. There are six stations. Each lock has a different combination. In the pouring rain, Mick begins work on his combination first, followed quickly by Jaison and Russell. "We got a race," Jeff yells. Several contestants get their combinations wrong as the challenge goes from interesting to monotonous almost instantly. Brett's combination is correct. Again, Immunity goes to Brett. Jaison knows that Russell wants Mick out, but he's turned on Shambo. Meanwhile, I'm confused: Why would God want Brett to win Immunity, but not Reward? How fickle!
 
Suspicious minds. There's a rainbow. And a red bird. And a coconut with a knife stuck in it. I'm not sure what that means. Jaison pulls Russell aside and says that his vote is Shambo. At just that moment, Shambo walks up and Jaison turns away, raising Shambo's suspicions. Russell is caught off guard and has to scramble and scrambling Russell makes Shambo nervous. She's sure that she's contributed enough to be safe, but she doesn't think anybody is beyond the chopping block. It turns out that Shambo also has bad breath, something Russell brings up with MickDreamy. "We ain't buddy-buddy," Russell says of Shambo, which surprises MickDreamy. We've now reached the point at which everybody is suspicious of everything said by everybody else. Russell explains that if he keeps Shambo, she won't write his name down, she sucks at challenges and she won't get any votes for the million bucks. Russell's wearing his Immunity Necklace to Tribal Council, just for fun. Because he's cocky like that.
 
Tribal Council. The jury enters, looking clean and content and Galuvian. Jeff brings up Shambo's betrayals almost immediately. Russell explains that we've moved into the End Phase of the game, which comes down to who will get the most votes for the million bucks. Jaison raises the possibility of Brett sweeping the jury. "My strategy is just win the next few Immunity challenges like I've won the last two," Brett says. MickDreamy insists he's played as aggressively strategic a game as Russell and that he'll be pissed off if he's voted out. Russell pretends that his vote tonight will be "pretty tough."
 
The vote. Mick writes Shambo's name down. Shambo writes Mick's name down. Shocking. It's the last night for Russell to play his Idol and he says, "You know what, Jeff? I think I'm going to keep it for a souvenir." The first two votes are split between Shambo and Mick. The next three go against Shambo. I will not miss Shambo. On the jury, Danger Dave rolls his eyes. In the end, Jeff and Brett share a moment. It's a dimple thing. In her exit interview, Shambo is almost hilariously gracious, saying that Foa Foa just stuck together, as they should.
 
Don't forget, kids. Sunday (Dec. 20) is finale night. I'll be there. Unless I forget.
 
Did the Foa Foa alliance make the right vote? Should they have turned on MickDreamy? And what do you think of Jaison steering the vote?