<p>&nbsp;Lamar Royal of 'American Idol'</p>

 Lamar Royal of 'American Idol'

Credit: FOX

Recap: 'American Idol' - Atlanta Auditions

Mary J. Blige joins Simon, Randy and Kara in the Peach State

This is the fifth "American Idol" trip to Atlanta, a city that gave the show Fantasia, Clay Aiken and Jennifer Hudson. It also gave us Ryan Seacrest, but we can't hold that against the Dirty South, can we? Oh, we can? Well, it's back to the Peach State for Wednesday (Jan. 13) night's "American Idol."

We're going to play a game tonight. It's called Spot the Filler. Until late last week, this episode was only supposed to be 75 minutes, but when Mark Burnett yanked "Our Little Genius" for reasons that still haven't been adequately explained, FOX had to expand the show by 15 additional minutes, 15 minutes which, originally, we're going to be seen in primetime. So if some bad audition tonight doesn't feel quite bad enough, or if some good audition doesn't feel heart-tugging enough, you know why.

Click through...

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<p>&nbsp;Norberto Guerrero of 'American Idol'</p>

 Norberto Guerrero of 'American Idol'

Credit: FOX

Recap: 'American Idol' Premiere - Boston Auditions

Simon, Randy, Kara and a guest kick off the ninth season of FOX's juggernaut

Welcome, kids, to the final season of "American Idol," or at least the final season of "American Idol" as we know it, the final season of "American Idol with Simon Cowell."

Or maybe Tuesday (Jan. 12) night's "American Idol" is like a series premiere, or at least the series premiere of "American Idol without Paula Abdul." Yeah, that's probably the spin FOX would prefer. Tuesday night marked the beginning of a new era and, after a full day of ABC news and Conan O'Brien updates, I'm going to blog the "Idol" premiere in minute-by-minute format, because otherwise, I'll be up all night recapping this. And as you already know, if you know me, I'm not a big fan of recapping audition episodes anyway. There isn't enough structure. A live-blog counts as structure.

So let's get going...

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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 vs. the Angel de la Muerte'

It's a Devon-Casey episode, as saving a despot requires Awesome intervention
First off, good for "Chuck" delivering a 3.0 demo rating for Sunday night's two-hour premiere. By NBC standards, with five free hours of primetime opening up in a few weeks, that's verging on tremendous and it's the sort of success that could lead to an easy renewal if those numbers stay intact for Monday's (Jan. 11) show. 
So I hope people who tuned in on Sunday come back on Monday, because as much as I like Subway occasionally, I'd also enjoy a "Chuck" renewal that wasn't contingent on sandwich eating.
When I wrote my review of the third season of "Chuck," one of the things I mentioned was a growing maturity in the action-comedy's storytelling. One of the episodes I'd point to, illustrating that point, is "Chuck vs. The Angel de la Muerte," the kind of episode that a show can only do when it's reached a certain age and when it can count on its fans being willing to go along for the ride on new and unexpected territory.
"Chuck vs. The Angel de la Muerte"" was, oddly enough, a Devon/Casey episode, combining two pieces of the ensemble who rarely get to be narrative centerpieces. 
[More on "Angel de la Muerta" after the break...]
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Credit: NBC

Recap: 'Heroes' - 'Close to You'

As Peter reponds to a mysterious summons, Noah recruits an unwilling friend to trap Samuel.

Halfway through Monday's (Jan. 11) lackluster episode of “Heroes,” Samuel throws up a literal roadblock in order to stop Noah Bennett’s pursuit of him. It’s a fitting visual metaphor for the episode, in which most characters stood stubbornly in place, unable to move on to where they were should be going. And unfortunately, we the audience stood mired as well, wondering when (or even if) someone on this show might obtain the power of narrative propulsion to pick up the pace of this flailing volume. 

Let’s break down the various threads in “Close To You,” even if said threads seem to be unwilling to overlap in any meaningful manner. 

[Full recap of Monday's "Heroes" after the break...]

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<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?


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<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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