Review: Parade’s End (Episode 5)

Tonight is the last hour of the miniseries! Usually I am sulky and weep when series are so short, but for once I’m okay, if not glad, to see Parade’s End come to a close. I know I was a bit iffy after the first episode, but if you missed an episode or missed the series  completely, it’s worth checking out later (although I’d probably watch it over a week, not a few days).

I wish episode 2 had been cut and we could have gone right into the war and events seen in episode 4, or they’d focused that hour into episode 5. It was nice to see Sylvia put some of her stubbornness to better use when she went to visit Christopher. These scenes were probably my favorites of Hall’s. I finally came to accept Sylvia as a well-rounded character, not just some crabby opposite for Christopher. Despite her uncaring and seemingly airheaded ways, she is smarter than most give her credit for (as seen in discussing Campion’s war career).

The battle scenes were fairly short, but wonderfully done. Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Christopher in the middle of such chaos, having hallucinations and being so tired and stressed were perfect, and part of me was a bit sad when Christopher’s moment was cut short.

In the end I can see why Christopher and Sylvia’s mismatched relationship worked at times (however weird it was, they did have some sort of connection and genuinely did care for each other), but I’m glad we get to see how the love triangle is resolved. We see an even more brash, irrational and cruel Sylvia than we’ve seen (oh, poor Goby House!) in the past. Her actions are exceptionally awful and they seem like kind of a jolt in the story, but Hall does a nice job of making it work, smirking and playing things off as if they were silly little things.

One of the most powerful and in my mind most important scenes of the entire series between Sylvia and Christopher is one without words-and it’s all of three seconds (although her very bold outfit certainly makes it clear what her thoughts are). The brief look they share makes it clear both parties see how much each one has changed and is an oddly quiet end to their crazy relationship.

Despite all the unhappiness that seemed to weigh down the series I am glad I stuck with it. The acting and writing were well done, and the attention to making the sets, costumes, props and cinematography will surely make Parade’s End another British drama that will be loved years from now.

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Review: Parade’s End (Episodes 2 to 4)

If you decided to stick with Parade’s End two hour long showing last night on HBO, you might feel worn out (I’m right there with you), and despite the end of the second episode being more interesting, you might want to give up. Don’t. Things actually pick up!

To recap, the second episode gave us a better peek into the social & cultural obligations surrounding Christopher and Sylvia when they get back together (like Sylvia’s mom saying a public outing is necessary or Sylvia dressing inappropriately at the funeral), but their marriage is really for public show only, something made painfully clear when he goes to talk to his wife in the bath and freaks out seeing her naked for all of four seconds. Christopher still refuses to divorce her so they continue with their separate lives.

Sylvia was a little less brash and insane, trying to be chaste in hopes of winning her husband back. I did feel bad when she excitedly hopes it is Christopher who has returned on New Years, only to find out it’s the maid and then frantically tries to hide her disappointment and embarrassment. She also buys the perfect painting for him (to “annoy him” she claims) and the moment she shows it to him, she looks truly happy, like she realized what she’s missed all the years. I was finally able to believe that maybe she really does love and care for him. It became clearer to me why the way she was/is: Women hate her for her man stealing ways and still hate her when she doesn’t want their husbands. She’s sort of forced to continue to be someone who is cruel, unloving and flirtatious–what’s left for her to be?

Christopher quits his job and goes off to fight for the place he loves so dearly, while everyone is oblivious to the war–a huge step for him! In a weird way, him telling Sylvia he’s off for war sort of brings their relationship a bit closer, or at the very least makes it more real for Sylvia. The thought of losing him causes her to be extra needy then lash out in an attempt for some sort of emotion or sign that he loves her too. But, he still decides to be miserable and refuses to let his wife into his life in any way (and when he does try, he seems shocked when she freezes him out), and refuses to act on his feelings for Valentine but he FINALLY starts to act more human!

So, what can you look forward to in episodes 3 and 4, besides more amazing sets, props and costumes?

-A few more deaths occur, throwing more gossip and social expectations into Christopher and Sylvia’s lives. You finally start to see where Parade’s End is trying to go, and you’re actually interested to see how things play out and how the characters have grown.

-What it’s like to be in Christopher’s family, his relationship with his brother & father and exactly what being a Tietjens means: all those social rules and his obsession with honor are actually explored!

-What Christopher means to the two ladies in his life, Sylvia and Valentine: he’s caught between his old life in London where the high society have thrown him out of their circles, but he still kind of wants to be part of their group (making Sylvia realize how much she loves him, despite her going back to some of her old habits) and becoming a new “modern man” who has seen war and has a chance at a life that might hold actual happiness for him.

-What war does to a country: most of the characters (except the brilliant Christopher of course) are in total denial of the war happening, and never saw it coming, so when it does hit, it hits them hard. But, instead of showing us how much it’s changed their lives, Parade’s End takes a unique view and kind of brushes over the war, almost ignoring it to a certain degree, focusing instead on character development (a very wise move in my mind).

-Valentine continues to add a bit of fresh air and life into the plot. She’s no longer “just a suffragette,” but still modern and crazy enough to show the stark contrast between the old ways and their current life. I love the job she ends up with, it really suits her!

Review: Parade’s End (Episode One)

Downton Abbey is done for the season, and the wait for Sherlock is slowly ticking by (at least I think it is…), leaving me wanting some sort of British drama to fill my time. Sure, I have a few I’m watching, but they weren’t cutting it, so when I saw Parade’s End would be debuting in the UK in August (it starts tonight on HBO for US viewers and runs through Thursday night), it seemed it would easily fill my need for a British drama and lack of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based on the novels by Ford Maddox Ford, the five-part series focuses on a love triangle between Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch), his wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) and a suffragette named Valentine (Adelaide Clemens). Adding to the drama and confusion, everyone is coping with World War 1 and an ever-changing Europe for both the wealthy and poor. Sounds promising, right? After watching the first episode, I can’t decide if I like it or not, or what is possibly “wrong” with it, but it was clear it didn’t really fill the Downton hole and lacked the wit and insanity I love in Sherlock.

Like most beginnings, the first episode is kind of dull, filled with introductions and a lot of backstory, which jumps around a few times, and flashes up some fractured image of various scenes that looks like a shattered mirror more times than it needs to (I got the symbolism there, Mr. Director).

Christopher is a no nonsense, very smart man, who unfortunately is also bound by the “old, proper ways.” He meets socialite Sylvia on a train, they have a brief encounter and ultimately she ends up pregnant. Sylvia is a party girl (I’m pretty sure will flirt and sleep with any man around), and while she’s not sure Christopher is the father, she manipulates him into marrying her. Sylvia’s cheating continues as the years go by (she admits she only does it to get some sort of emotion out of her husband), but Christopher refuses to divorce her, making their already weak and miserable marriage worse. She runs away with her new love, only to cruelly point out to him that she doesn’t love him one bit and will be returning to her husband. While she’s away, Christopher goes on vacation with a friend and meets the lovely, young and wonderful suffragette Valentine, and falls for her. However, his honor to his wife and their life together prevents him from starting anything with her.

I must admit Cumberbatch and Hall do a wonderful job of being an awfully mismatched pair who still decide to be together for whatever reason (Social? Personal?).  After a while though, their messy relationship and outbursts wear on you, and kind of make the plot as a whole feel very sluggish. There were many moments where I didn’t even truly care where the story was going, or what the characters were supposed to be feeling. I haven’t read the books, but like most adaptations, I suspect they are much better and explain the tumultuous relationship more clearly than the miniseries will.

Watching Christopher with his son (or “son”) was an interesting moment. He gets up to soothe the child after he wakes up with a nightmare and later considers the child when deciding if he should take Sylvia back. Usually, the mothers, or more commonly the staff and nursemaids were the ones worried about the children in a similar manner. At the same time, this caring nature is such a shocking contrast of how Christopher acts the rest of the time: very straight and narrow, sticking to the rules and overthinking everything in his life (in one scene he’s actually correcting entries in the encyclopedia). It was kind of tiring and annoying to watch, making him feel more like a prop for such grand sets and costumes. Heck, most of the time I wasn’t quite sure why he was so…antisocial. It’s possible in today’s world, meeting such a man who would put up with a wife like Sylvia and be applauded and reminded of his honor and duty is a foreign concept, making it that much harder for me to understand in general, let alone in the drama. It might also help if I knew WHY these things were so darn important to Christopher, or to his family name–maybe this will appear in a later episode.

I love most of the actors in this series. I’ve seen them in other things and know they can act, and they are the main reason I feel like soldiering on through Parade’s End. Well, at least until the second episode.

How Merlin Lost Its Magic

WARNING: I know how much I hate spoilers for programs I love, so if you haven’t seen all but one episode of season 5 of Merlin yet (which is most of America), STOP READING NOW. When you’ve seen all of the season, please feel free to come back and let me know what you think. I normally wouldn’t discuss something that will air soon in the U.S. (it’s been painful to keep silent regarding Downton Abbey), but I’m making an exception.

The BBC makes amazing programs and I’m hooked on most of them (like I needed more reasons to be obsessed and in love with Britain). I normally stumble across the programs on my own or Twitter, but I discovered Merlin through a friend (thank you Tiffany!). I binge watched the first few seasons on Netflix and finished just in time for season 4 to start.

Like the title suggests, Merlin is loosely based on the legend of King Arthur and Camelot, but instead of seeing Merlin at his mightiest, we see him at his beginnings, where he’s just a servant to Arthur, and must hide his magic since it’s been outlawed by the King.

Each season has been better than the last, mainly because it’s been awesome to see Merlin learn more about his powers and just how powerful he really is. My other favorite part would have to be the interaction between Merlin and Arthur. They have a serious bromance going on, which actor Bradley James, who plays Arthur, acknowledged:

Ahh, the famous bromance...

When I saw this article, “Why Merlin’s 5th and Final Season is the ‘Most Extreme Yet,'” my heart sank. Season five could have been the best–key words could have been. The first few episodes were tightly written and all hinting at Morgana and Merlin finally meeting face to face as magic rivals. I couldn’t wait for the next episode and pondering just how crazy their meet up was going to be.

Out of the blue, it was announced Merlin was going to be cancelled. I was sooooooo bummed. It’s always tough to hear about a program you love ending, but when the producers and writers promised the series would end with everything fans had waited for (Merlin taking down Morgana) I was relieved. Unlike many other programs I’ve loved over the years, Merlin had a chance to actually end instead of being a cliffhanger forever, and I’d get some closure. Even more exciting: it was a two part finale. In my mind, two parts meant more time to wrap things up nicely (YAY!).

Well, we did get an ending, but the only “extreme” thing was how poorly it ended and how extremely disappointed I was. Like my friend Tiffany put it, “stupid Merlin, being all awesome and addicting, and then sucking right at the end.”

Fans had been waiting for eons to see the massive battle between Morgana and Merlin, as well as the moment when Morgana finds out who Emrys is. What we got was maybe three minutes of battle that felt nothing like a final showdown.

It’s beyond obvious the cancellation caught everyone off guard. I felt like the writing became very choppy and skipped around a lot. For example, Arthur doesn’t notice the love of his life, Gwen is acting all weird for like, two episodes, then suddenly he notices and is all upset? Really? But, the worst evidence of this is seen in the first episode (Arthur’s Bane, Part 1″) when we see the prophecy. That’s right, they showed it to us and then totally screwed it up. Arthur should not have died due to a part of the blade breaking off in his stomach and working its way to his heart–both blades were forged from dragon’s breath and should be incredibly strong and up for some major clashing and spectacular choreographed fighting. I know and am okay with it happening since it’s the way the legend goes, but man, what a horribly weak, unepic (that’s right, it’s so bad I’m making up words) way for him to go out against Mordred, who is also a huge part of Arthurian legend. Mordred’s death wasn’t well done either. Throughout his time in the series, you were set up to distrust and hate him, especially by episode 11 where he goes full on evil, and in all honesty, I wanted to see him go doowwwwwn after a crazy, skilled fight.

I can’t even discuss the bit with Dragon and getting him to the water. How infuriating! Why did Merlin wait until the last second to call Dragon? He’s called him to help when time is short tons of times before–why think carrying Arthur to the water is better? I would even be willing to be “okay” with Arthur dying if Dragon had carried him to the water and he died at the edge. At least the urgency would have been there!

And while we are talking about dragons, I’m disappointed about Aithusa’s exit. She appeared then disappeared. I really wanted Merlin to take her under his wing and help her learn to talk (I think she’s still a baby by the last episode). I mean, it seemed fitting since Merlin hatched her by giving her a name and her being a white dragon meant a good omen for Merlin and Arthur’s destiny. It would have been wonderful to see Aithusa try to carry Arthur’s body to the water, but in her weakened state, not make it. If there had been another season, I would love to think we would have learned more about Aithusa; for a dragon meant to be such a positive force, I wondered why she had such a close bond with Morgana and chose to save her. Did she save her out of pity, or was Aithusa not as innocent and good as I thought?

Having watched the finale again, part of me feels like I would have been happier to see the series end just before Mordred reveals he knows who Emrys is. Yes, it would have left fans hanging BUT if they did a movie like has been rumored, fans and the producers/writers would have gotten the ending Merlin truly deserved. I give the producers, writers and crew credit for doing their best to wrap up everything on such short notice. I’m sure it was very hard to cut storylines and intriguing pieces to make sure all the main parts were taken care of, but there were many issues I felt as a fan, I didn’t get any closure.

Despite it being a let down for me, there were some memorable moments that made watching worthwhile and hinted at what made the program so wonderful:

-Merlin in Crystal Cave: Ah, the birthplace of magic….These scenes in the cave were one of my favorite parts of the finale. Why? They had all the care and attention to details that I wanted from the final episode. Yes, it’s crazy Morgana not only left him in the only place in the world he could get his powers back and didn’t kill him, but seeing Merlin talk with his father was lovely. The lines where he notes Merlin himself IS magic and can’t ever truly lose who he is were the best moments of the whole episode. It reminded viewers just how utterly strong Merlin is and why his destiny would be so influential for Camelot. I knew they wouldn’t kill him off, or really take his magic away, but seeing the butterfly flutter out of his hands sure made me feel a lot better.

-Merlin being badass: I really don’t know how else to say that. Watching Merlin/Emrys use his magic on the Saxons, turning Aithusa away and taking care of Morgana was exactly what I wanted to see in the finale episode, I just wish there had been much, much more of it. My dream moment would have been between him and Morgana, where he unleashed such magic she had a chance for it to sink in just how much more powerful he was before she died, similar to Harry Potter fighting Voldemort, spells flying around them and both of them yelling out spells.

-Gaius seeing Merlin at his best: When Gwen asked who that man on the hill was and if Gaius knew him, I really appreciated the expression on Gaius’ face. He saw how much Merlin had struggled with hiding the fact he had magic, and being overwhelmed with knowing what to do; you could see how proud he was of Merlin and how in awe he was of his magic. Gaius has always been a fun character, and I’ve enjoyed seeing him treat Merlin like his son and while he didn’t have a huge role to play in the finale, I’m glad he had that scene.

-Arthur learning the truth: Well, thank goodness they let Arthur know Merlin had magic. Granted, it wasn’t nearly as long as it needed to be, but it would have been a mistake to leave it out. I can’t blame Arthur for having trouble coming to terms with Merlin not only having magic but using it many times to save his life. It is a pretty big shock, especially when in his mind Merlin is a bumbling servant who can’t have any talents, but it confuses me that he accepted the dream he had wasn’t actually a dream, but can’t get accept Merlin has magic (even after that awesome display in the fire in the woods–how can you ignore that?!). My friend Tiffany reminded me of something crucial though: Arthur has always blamed the sorcerer who couldn’t save his father, Uther; Merlin was that sorcerer. She points out this should have been discussed and dealt with before Arthur could come to terms with Merlin’s magic. At the very least, it should have been mentioned before he dies. I had totally forgotten this part and she’s absolutely right and remembering it makes Arthur’s death feel even worse.

There have been lots of rumors about rebooting the whole program, doing a movie, doing a spinoff….What would you like to see if Merlin comes back? Any actors, writers you’d love (or hate) to see? If they picked up where this version of Merlin left off, I hope they’d give us some sort of hint as to what Gwen did after Arthur’s death, and how the kingdom managed without their king as well as what on earth Merlin has been up to. It’s too early for me to decide what I’d like to see in a reboot or a movie; I need time to get over this version first.

Best & Worst Of 2012: TV

Top ten lists. You see them everywhere in December and they cover virtually every subject you could think of. Best/worst dressed. Top songs. Video games. Celebrity hook ups/break ups/crazy actions. Movies that should have been nominated. Best/worst TV programs.

I watch a lot of TV but unlike most people I probably watch the weirdest variety of programs (ranging from reality and heavy dramas to children’s cartoons) so it’s always interesting to see what the majority of people watch. With the increase in instant gratification for many forms of media (the ability to stream and download songs, movies or programs, the rise in e-readers) and video games looking/feeling so real, I felt like this year TV had to go big, bold and be extra creative to capture the viewer’s attention. In some cases, we were super lucky and rewarded with smart comedies and gripping dramas. Other times we were subjected to the lowest of low, outrageous programs with horrible “plots” and acting that made me question peoples’ tastes.

I realize my list way past 10, but here are my top programs of the year that have stuck with me–both good, bad and iffy:

Sons of Anarchy (FX): Wow. No idea where to start….Just when I think creator Kurt Sutter can’t shock or surprise me more than he already has, he does. And not by a little, he goes allllll out. It is one of the few programs where I can honestly say I have no idea what will happen next, and despite the characters acting horrible and very violent (they are a biker gang, dealing drugs and guns after all), Sutter is still able to make me cry for/with them and their losses (one in particular still stings a bit). Season five ended a few weeks ago and I am still haunted by the finale episode–especially the whole “incident” with Otto (I won’t say more for those who haven’t seen it yet).

Downton Abbey (ITV/PBS): I am fully aware the third series of Downton Abbey hasn’t aired in the U.S. yet, but thanks to some wonderful overseas connections, I was able to see it with the rest of Britain. I was late to the Downton party, and was hesitant if the period drama would be my thing, but the mix of humor, historical events and drama between the high society upstairs (the Crawleys) and the servants downstairs paired with the acting hooked me. Who am I kidding, it was totally Dame Maggie Smith that sealed the deal. Her portrayal of the Dowager Countess is flawless (her quips and one liners are not to be missed). I love that she always remains very ladylike and proper, but still manages to say what needs to be said. Downton went through some MAJOR changes for series three, two that viewers will expect and one that will come out of nowhere. I’m excited to see this year’s Christmas special, but it will definitely make the wait for series four that much more long and annoying. I wonder if they will casually work in Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) possible departure/less frequent appearances from the program or wait until series four starts filming to address it.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook (Sky Arts 1): yet another UK program on the list! Based on playwright Mikhail Bulgakov’s short stories, I really hope it gets picked up and shown over here because American audiences are definitely missing out. It is only four episodes long, and each episode is about half an hour. There is a lot packed into such a short amount of time, but it never feels rushed. It’s quite a surreal experience seeing Daniel Radcliffe as a bumbling young Russian doctor (Jon Hamm plays the older version of the doctor) instead of Harry Potter, but he does it very well, making the program’s dark comedy and gory moments even funnier and more awkward.

Gravity Falls (Disney Channel): Finally, another well-written gem for Disney Channel! The series follows twins Dipper and Mabel, who are sent to live with their Great Uncle Stan in Gravity Falls, Oregon. It is quite quirky, clever and very colorful. It actually reminds me of an elevated version of Scooby Doo, mixed with a hefty dose of Phineas & Ferb and The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy. An added bonus for loyal viewers: each episode is filled with hidden clues and puzzles to decipher.

Misfits (E4): If it’s not fairly obvious by now, I have a fondness for British programs. I stumbled upon Misfits while sifting through tweets, and I’m so glad I took the chance. The series (I like to think of it as a sci-fi dramedy) follows a group of teenagers sentenced to community service, where they get various supernatural powers from a freak storm and all the insane trouble they manage to find along the way. I really fell in love with the cast for series one to three, and was pretty worried when series four started, and became more worried as it went on. Fans are fickle and don’t like changes in casts, so when the whole cast is reworked, it can be a nightmare. Thankfully, the writers did a nice job of finding new characters instead of trying to recreate old ones, kept the writing sharp and took the insane trouble aspect up a few notches. I’m hoping it gets renewed and now that audiences are familiar with the current casts, series five will get back to the program’s roots.

Sherlock (BBC One): Let’s be clear here: I am talking about the British version, not the weird CBS, Watson is a girl version. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss lend their amazing creative skills to the program and help Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman portray Sherlock and Watson brilliantly. I love the mix of the modern world (GPS and texting) with elements from the books and really helps make the characters that much stronger and more believable. Another highlight for me: how Moriarty is portrayed. I haven’t read more than one Sherlock Homes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but for such a criminal mastermind, it seems like he’s usually kind of dull and rather…classy. Moffat and Gatniss made him a full on psychopath-someone you could actually see and want to see challenging Sherlock. Each episode is longer than most other programs, but I think all Sherlock fans will agree “The Reichenbach Falls” was not nearly long enough. I have never, EVER been so upset over a season finale until that episode. I’ve watched it at least seven times and I still don’t see this “clue” Moffat and Gatniss say is in the episode. Major kudos to them for still keeping fans confused and guessing what the clue is and how on earth the words “rat,” “wedding” and “bow” tie into series three.

The Closer (TNT): I’ve been a fan of the program since its premiere in 2005, and appreciated it was still a cop drama that focused on solving homicides, but how the main character Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) used interrogations to solve cases. The cast as a whole helped make each episode seem new, if not unique to the genre. I mean, how often do cop dramas show detectives casually ignore a murder to go to a baseball game, only to come back to the scene of the crime to find the body missing? It was a bummer when the series came to an end, but I appreciated how the writers wrapped it up. Despite a huge scandal that affected the whole squad, it ended appropriately (and I felt fairly happily considering); all the loose ends were dealt with and we knew what each character would do next.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Nickelodeon): Reboots always make me nervous, especially when it’s something you watched as a kid. No matter how bad it was at the time, you LOVED it and the thought of it being ruined breaks your childhood heart. Thankfully, my childhood heart is in tact and pretty pleased. The writing is good and has so far done a nice job to keep the basics of the heroes (they still love pizza, still act like typical teenagers, Raph still has a temper, Mikey is still a total goofball) and villains while still making it “acceptable” for today’s children. I like the voice cast they chose, too. I was worried using Rob Paulsen, who voiced Raphael in the old school version, to voice Donatello now would spoil it for me, but it hasn’t. The new theme song isn’t nearly as awesome or catchy as the one I grew up with, but I am pleased they kept the most iconic line: “turtles in a half shell-turtle power!”

Homeland (Showtime): Homeland is another program I discovered via Twitter. I kept seeing tweets from various writers of some of my favorite programs and decided I had to check it out. Tackling the idea of a prisoner of war who returns home; the world sees him as a hero, but one CIA agent sees him as a major threat and frantically tries to prove this to her colleagues. It is unlike any drama I’ve seen before, and I give the program’s writers and producers lots of credit for adapting it so well from the original Israeli version, as well as the actors for portraying some very realistic battle and torture scenes, as well as other aspects of “the war on terror” viewers have heard so much about over the years. Like “Sons of Anarchy,” there were lots of twists, especially in season two. As a viewer, I really felt the panic and urgency actual CIA agents must feel trying to keep on top of terrorism. Just when it seemed like things were clear or on the right track, something else came out of nowhere and sent everything in the opposite direction–the most off the beaten path opposite direction.

Law & Order: SVU (NBC): I am a diehard Law & Order fan and very familiar with all the spinoffs. SVU, which focuses on sexually based offenses, is my second favorite of the bunch. Despite the subject matter making each episode feel heavy and grim, creator Dick Wolf incorporated many positive factors: people are convicted, victims seek treatment and many real life issues are addressed (sex trafficking, the shame male victims feel, the difficulty many victims face sharing their stories). Mariska Hargitay who plays Olivia Benson, started receiving letters from fans who felt a connection with Benson, was so moved by the stories she started a charity, The Joyful Heart Foundation, to help survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. While I miss seeing Benson and Elliot Stabler (played by Christopher Meloni, who left at the end of season 12) taking down bad guys, I’ve grown to love the current cast. I’m also amazed after so many seasons, the cases used for each episode still feel new and the guest star roster keeps getting better and better. During season 14, a few old cases were revisited and some old cast members reappeared–a nice treat for loyal fans.

Top Chef Seattle (Bravo): With its wide range of amazing ingredients and unique locations (I’m still ooohing and ahhhing over the Chihuly Garden & Glass), Seattle is known as a popular “foodie” city. In my opinion, holding the cooking competition in Seattle is the reason season 10 has been so awesome. The season started with 21 hopeful cheftestants competing for a trip to Seattle, but instead of having to cook with crazy ingredients or using only things found in a soda fountain, they were given basic cooking tests picked by four of the judges (Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Hugh Acheson). It was even possible that all 21 could get a chef’s coat–a first for the program. Last Chance Kitchen returned as well,only this time fans are allowed to vote for their favorite eliminated Last Chance Kitchen chef. The chef with the most votes is automatically in the finals. This didn’t please the 15 who made the cut, but the unhappiness multiplied when they learned three past chefs were joining them. Don’t get me wrong, I love the crazy challenges, but seeing the chefs simply cook in the first episode was refreshing. I think this season’s quickfire challenges are much harder than past seasons. I mean, wrapping every ingredient in tinfoil (and once they were opened had to be used in the dish) then making all cooking vessels off limits, forcing them to create pots, pans, strainers, etc. is brutal, but it’s really forcing each cheftestant to push their skills and imaginations to the limit.

The Middle (ABC): I don’t usually like TV comedies (I do have a soft spot for British comedies though). I think the last comedy I truly enjoyed was Friends, and well, we know how long ago that was on! I was channel surfing when I found The Middle. I live in the Midwest so a program based on a hard working middle class family who struggles to pay all their bills help each other no matter what resonated with me. I’ve been to corn mazes, seen a lawnmower race and countless potlucks and know that football season is everything (I didn’t learn that until I moved to Nebraska). I’ve felt that panic the first day school is back in session and begged for an item of clothing ” had to have” that was insanely expensive.

Arrow (The CW): Based on the DC Comic superhero Green Arrow, I was excited to watch it and figured I’d love it. I mean, who doesn’t love a superhero? However, after watching the first seven episodes, I just can’t get into it. Ironically, Mike, who rarely watches TV really likes it. The basic plot of following Oliver Queen around in both is normal life and hero life is great, but I feel like they’ve chosen to focus too much on a ton of characters (many who they could leave out) and his family drama. It makes each episode feel two hours long. I end up spending most of the time messing around on my phone; I’ll glance up, Oliver will be chatting with his family. I’ll browse Pinterest for about 10 minutes and look up in time to catch the end of the conversation and take down the bad guys (which I swear only lasts three minutes max) before being able to go back to browsing. I will confess the major reason I am still watching is due to John Barrowman having a crucial role, but unless the writing improves a ton, I doubt I’ll watch season two (if it even gets renewed).

Made in Jersey (CBS): I had high hopes for this program, too. Janet Montgomery plays a lovely, street smart lawyer who lands a job in the state prosecutor’s office and has to prove herself to her “classier” colleagues and put up with her very large Italian family, but instead of focusing mostly on helping her clients, it centers on her overly sweet, perky personality. She is a loyal friend. A wonderful, caring daughter. The perfect sister and aunt, always around to listen and help.  A team player who tries extra hard to be nice to everyone, no matter how mean they are to her. All this made her character feel horribly fake and shallow versus an underdog you want to root for. The writers also overplayed her streetwise skills. In the first episode, she helps solve a case when she notes the lady couldn’t be the killer because her nails weren’t smudged so there was no way she could have held the murder weapon. Really? I’m all for out of the box thinking helping to solve a case, but when it happens every episode it wears thin. The other characters were just as poorly written. Stephanie March was so phenomenal as ADA Cabot in Law & Order: SVU, it was actually painful to watch her talents be wasted. I think if the writers had made a better effort to make the characters deeper and more realistic, it might not have been pulled after only two episodes.

The Mob Doctor (FOX): I really liked The Mob Doctor when it first started. The premise of a doctor who saves lives in a hospital, but is also in debt to a major Chicago mob boss was quite intriguing. After a few episodes though, everything went stale. It was a weak medical drama that spent a lot of time watching Grace (Jordana Spiro) frantically try to do her job without getting in trouble while doing what the mob boss, Constantine (William Forsythe) wants her to do. Sometimes she had a conscience, and went against Constantine’s orders. Other times, she blindly followed his wishes. I started to dislike her trying so hard to “be good,” but had no problem taking supplies from the hospital or asking her nurse best friend to constantly lie and cover for her. I think if Grace had chosen the mob, the show would have been a much more successful.

Leverage (TNT): With the series finale airing on Christmas, I thought seeing Leverage come to an end would have upset me, but I think it’s time. The first few seasons were great. The writing was excellent and filled with the perfect blend of humor, action and drama. I looked forward to seeing how the mismatched team of a grifter, hacker, hitter, thief and a leader would use their skills to help someone in need, but by season four, the characters were still strong, but the writing went downhill. The plots seemed less interesting and more ridiculous as a whole and a lot of the subtle charm I had grown to appreciate had vanished. I do appreciate the creators and producers realizing cancellation was possible and decided to end season five with an episode that could serve as a series finale. There’s nothing I hate more than feeling cheated out of an ending for a program you love, so I hope it’ll wrap up any loose ends and the series can go out on a high note.

What have your favorite/least favorite programs of 2012 been? Any programs that left you thinking, “I can’t believe I didn’t watch this sooner?” Anything you’re looking forward to seeing?

An Ode to Fall

Happy fall everyone! Sure I’m late according to the calendar but it seems like once October hits, fall-related stuff goes into overdrive. I’ve seen numerous subway art signs or scrapbook layout pages listing things to enjoy during fall, so I thought I’d share some of my favorites!

  • Sweaters: I will openly admit I am obsessed with sweaters/hoodies. My collection is larger than it should be (I still buy them, though since y’know you need different weights for different temperatures). In fact, I’m sure my close friends and family would call me a sweater/hoodie hoarder in a heartbeat. I always have a sweater/hoodie with me no matter what the season or temperature outside (air conditioning can be chilly!!), but my collection gets heavily used starting now. There’s something soothing about wearing one; it’s like a cuddly hug.
  • Mittens, scarves and hats: This is kind of a catch-22 because hauling the small tote of winter weather accessories from the closet means eventually we’ll have…s-n-o-w (I dare not say it aloud, especially since parts of Minnesota already got a good three inches), but I have a fun, colorful collection, and hey, if I’ve gotta stay warm, I might as well do it in a fun way, right? It’s also kind of a good excuse to not spend nearly as much  time on my hair (I’m sure I’m not the only gal who has thought this and done the same) which can mean extra time in my warm bed. Having experienced some reeeeeally cold temperatures, I will take warmth over styled hair any day.
  • Pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin!: I know many people know it’s fall when Starbucks rolls out the pumpkin-flavored drinks, but I don’t like coffee (and if I can pick my coffee place, I’m going Caribou all the way!) so for me it’s other pumpkin treats that get me excited. My all-time favorite would have to be pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting. I don’t know why I don’t think to make them any other time of year, it’s not like they’re hard to do and they’re super easy, but when I see a tray of them, I will most likely eat my weight in them. I’m hoping to try out Martha Stewart’s Pumpkin Doughnut Muffins this year, too.
  • Hot beverages: It’s finally time to move some of our mugs from waaaaay at the top of the cabinets to a more accessible area, as well as pull the Tassimo out of storage. Since neither Mike or I drink coffee, we prefer teas, cider or cocoa with gobs of whipped cream. My favorite chilly weather drink is one I discovered during college thanks to the local coffee place, Coffee Bene: chaider, a spicy, sweet mix of chai tea concentrate and apple cider. I don’t even want to think about how many I drank while at St. Thomas (especially when they added a mini version of Bene in the library, which I passed all the time).
  • Baking!: Most of the summer I’ve either been too busy to bake, or it’s been way too hot to want to turn on the oven, but nothing is more satisfying than having the house smell like freshly baked bread or various sweets. Maybe I kick baking into high gear because my mind knows Christmas is approaching and my baking skills need to be refreshed. I am very excited to put my Breville mini pie makerto good use, as well. I’m hoping I can make a few batches and freeze them so I’ll have some on hand to have with meals or to give as gifts. 
  • Leaves: Despite my allergies being seriously out of control, I do enjoy seeing the leaves change colors, and it makes walking in the neighborhood seem new and different. It’s been extra fun because Nova just discovered the joys of trying to catch falling leaves and the fun sounds of running through a pile of leaves (she’s also tried to eat a few….). When I see some really pretty leaves on the ground I remember a craft I did very early on in my elementary days where we ironed them between waxed paper and hung them up like a collage to form a large tree. 
  • TV is back: To me, this is the easiest way to tell what season we’re in. There are sooooo many programs I’ve been dying to see, some since late spring. I am a little bummed everything I watch seemed to shift days and times and many are now airing at the same time, though. This is really less of a problem since we don’t actually have cable, but I won’t lie, for certain programs/episodes like season premieres or finales, it is KILLER to wait for them to be available. My list of cherished programs is much too long to get into, but based on what I’ve seen so far, a few of my favorites include: Sons of Anarchy; The Good Wife; Downton Abbey and Law & Order: SVU. Very excited for Merlin, Misfits, Burn Notice and Top Chef to reappear soon, too! 
  • Watching The Nightmare Before Christmas: Some people like horror movies this time of year. I do not. Instead, I confess I will watch this repeatedly from now until January. And I don’t mean like, two or three times. We’re talking at least five. It’s seriously like my fall version of Elf or other holiday movies we’ve all seen a million times: it’s tradition. I have no problems bursting out into song along with the movie, or wherever it seems fitting. When I lived at home with my mom and aunt, they’d always shake their heads when they saw me watching it yet again, but even my mom has to admit seeing it once and a great while is pretty fun. 
  • Apples: While I haven’t been to an orchard to pick my own apples for a few years, I love going to the grocery store and seeing what they have. The selection here in Nebraska is quite a bit different than Minnesota’s, too, but not in a bad way. I’ve gotten to sample a lot of kinds over the years, and I swear I’ll remember which ones I really liked and how to use them and I never do. One of my favorite apple varieties is the McIntosh. I love the soft texture and when it’s made into applesauce it kind of has a faint pink hue to it. They are small enough that I feel they’re the perfect sized apple to slice and dip into caramel (although I can never get the apple to caramel needed for dipping ratio right).

What do you guys look forward to when it’s fall? Have any fun traditions or recipes you have to make before winter hits?

MasterChef: US Season 3

Okay, considering the finale just aired yesterday, I know I’m seriously late to the party posting about the current season of MasterChef, but I was too inspired to just let it go. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for others (especially since I’m about five episodes behind!), too.

I’ve been a fan of the show since I caught the British version. It was such a neat concept–giving the home cook a chance to shine. Now, I might not be at the level of most of the contestants, but it’s fun to think I could be that good and creative if I keep working on it.

One of my favorite parts is seeing some of the most unlikely people turn out to be amazing cooks, and this season definitely did not disappoint! One of the contestants, Christine Ha, is blind. Yup, blind. Being on a reality TV show and competing with others is stressful enough (especially when Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich, but doing it blind must multiply those factors by 1,000 percent. Heck, I wouldn’t have the guts to audition in the first place, so she gets extra respect in my book! And I won’t lie: I’m totally jealous of her skills and palate.

I watched her carefully cutting various ingredients with ease and being amazed at how evenly she chopped them. It’d take me eons to do as well as she did. She cleaned out sea urchins and broke down various meats with ease. The judges were consistently impressed by how accurate her palate was, noting it’s not really something you can learn.

Christine handled all the challenges amazingly well. Sure, there were times she was flustered, but I gotta give her props for tackling whatever she got and did it to the best of her ability. Most of her competitors underestimated her and often chose her last for group challenges, but as the competition went on, they realized she was quite a threat. In one challenge, the winner got to assign the remaining contestants either canned or fresh crab. Thinking it would trip her up and ultimately her downfall, she was given a live crab. Worst. Move. Ever. She freaked out at first (and who can blame her?? Even with eyesight avoiding those claws and taking the meat out is a trick!), but quickly broke it down like a pro. The judges were amazed at her finished dish and she ended up being one of their favorites.

My other favorite challenge was baking an apple pie. It wasn’t until I watched her making a pie that it dawned on me just how much you rely on your sight to check the color of baked goods. Christine also pointed out not being able to taste or doctor a recipe as you go along like you can while cooking is another disadvantage. She was horribly worried about her pie, but Gordon praised her, describing what a perfectly golden, flaky crust her pie had, even tapping it and scraping the top of the crust with a butter knife to let her hear its crunchy texture. He also told her to stop doubting herself so often. I think that was the boost of confidence she needed, too; after that, she appeared even more determined and confident with every future challenge and it seemed like all her competitors finally took her seriously and not just as a gimmick.

In one of the group challenges, Christine was picked first, surprising everyone, but it was a great call. The judges discussed what job they would give her if they were leading the team: Gordon and Graham wanted to have her actually working on dishes (ie garnishing), but Joe thought she would drag the team down immensely and the only place he’d put her was the coat room. In the end, her team won and Joe apologized, stating he was very pleased to be proven wrong.

Watching Christine cook was so inspiring. She was able to accomplish tasks her other competitors struggled with and seeing her passion for food reignited mine. She seasoned and plated all her dishes beautifully, taking some very cheap and simple ingredients to new levels, which I feel combined with her killer palate will help her win the competition. She certainly deserves it for all the hard work she’s done (plus, I’m pretty sure her cookbook would have some AMAZING recipes in it). Good luck Christine!!

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