Four times a year – in February, May, July, and November – television networks make sure to churn out their best quality episodes with shock, cliffhangers, or some good old fashioned stunt casting. We see all this in the name of Nielson TV ratings research diaries to better show advertisers what they are paying for and what they want to be paying for. To the average viewer, it just means the possibility of a cast’s family vacation, or weird dream-sequence episode (like the time Roseanne fantasized about murdering her entire family just so she could have more time to herself on Season 2 Roseanne). It could mean particularly violent on-goings during some of your favorite shows, such as Zeljko Ivanek dropping by for a guest appearance on House in which he holds the entire hospital hostage so that he can get treatment. And it’s all in the name of Nielsen.
Founded in the 1920s by market analyst, Arthur Nielsen, the Nielsen Media Research company expanded from radio to television in the 1950s. In 1954, Nielsen mailed ratings booklets to households across the country and asked viewers to record everything they watched for a week. Obviously, computers take over the task of recording viewership now, but the concept of sweeps is still the same. Often times, plotlines are forsaken for wild-eyed programming that will hopefully ensnare more viewers; remember E.R.’s live episode in 1997 or Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet on “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen during May sweeps?
So the question remains, who will join the ranks of some of November TV’s most memorable - or infamous - episodes like The Twilight Zone’s “Time Enough at Last,” Married…with Children’s “A Period Piece,” Family Guy’s “Stewie Kills Lois,” or How I Met Your Mother’s “Slap Bet?”
Glee Sexes Things Up
Fox already got heavy fire from concerned parents for its sweeps episode of Glee, titled ”The First Time,” which featured Kurt and Blaine and Rachel and Finn's first times - no, not all together, then the angry viewers might actually have a gripe. But as per usual on Glee, the controversy wasn't much to sneeze at, safe sex is stressed throughout the episode and the scenes involving the couples’ first times were more touching (no pun intended) than Skinemax. As for the episode itself? It was actually not all that different from the usual disjointed, odd-ball, quirky hour of Gleekdom. I actually thought it was more controversial for a musical show like this one to barely feature West Side Story, which was the play the kids were performing.
Guest Stars As Far As The Eye Can See
Guest stars galore showed up for Modern Family's November 2 show, “Treehouse.” The tried and true stunt casting of high profile stars has worked for MF before (see: Edward Norton, Matt Dillon), and this episode was no different. Leslie Mann stops by as a hot girl Cam is trying to pick up at a bar, thanks to a dare from Mitchell. Meanwhile, Jay's highly fashionable friend, Shorty (Chazz Palminteri) shows up with Jennifer Tilly (who never gets enough credit) as his girlfriend, Darlene. Gloria is jealous of all to the things Shorty and Darlene do as a couple and makes Jay step it up for a night of salsa dancing. Modern Family is consistently the best comedy on television (it did win back-to-back Emmys for Best Comedy, after all), and “Treehouse” succeeded at what a great sweeps episode, or any episode can and should be. And with Jay high on placebo ecstasy, the series showed the world (again) why Ed O'Neil deserves an Emmy. The episode saw world of Modern Family expanded with more great, kooky characters, and we really need to see more of Shorty and Darlene.
Over at our favorite fledgling Peacock, Nov. 19’s Saturday Night Live looks to really bring out the sweeps magic with host Jason Segel and musical guest Florence and the Machine. Recapping So You Think You Can Dance over the summer gave me an appreciation for the British pop band and their hit, “Cosmic Love.” The band is heading to Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center to perform its new single, “Shake it Out.” More importantly, SNL is being hosted by the most reliably funny man in recent comedy history for the first time! Segel has impressed plenty of comedy fans since Freaks and Geeks and his brand of humor and physical comedy continues to be infectious. For the first time in a long time, I will actually be watching Saturday Night Live.
Thursday, November 24, for the first time in a long time (that's twice now in one column), a brand-new Peanuts special is coming to TV. “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown” comes to Fox and as the name suggests, the special will focus on Linus and his addiction to the world's most famous security blanket. There are TV specials galore as well during sweeps week to try and grab as many ratings as possible. Joining Snoopy and pals will be everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving Day parade, an all–new Ice Age special. Perhaps the oddest Thanksgiving special ever will be this year when Katie Couric interviews Lady Gaga as part of A Very Gaga Thanksgiving. This girl won’t be happy until she has invaded every facet of pop culture, will she?
Fox also saw Justin Long drop by New Girl as a music teacher Jess is crushing on; Jess invites him over for Turkey-Day dinner in these week's episode. After the adorkable New Girl, the Six-Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors, and Mrs. Partridge, Shirley Jones, played Burt's wealthy parents on Raising Hope. Greg Garcia, creator of Raising Hope has always looked to the past for great guest stars (Burt Reynolds on My Name Is Earl comes to mind), and it's great to see the tradition continue.
Other guest-stars on our favorite shows are 70s sexpot, Morgan Fairchild on Bones; reclusive stand-up comic, Norm MacDonald on The Middle; Queen of Mean, Lisa Lampenelli, on Whitney; comic book and fantasy author Neil Gaiman and actor Andy Garcia on The Simpsons; and Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, gets animated on American Dad.
Gearing Up For Finales
Sometimes shows don't rely on guest-stars for sweeps, instead they take the time as an opportunity to build drama for season finales. Case in point: last week's Sons of Anarchy, which was the culmination of many things that have been building all season and the commencement of tearing everything down as the show draws close to its sure-to-be shattering season finale. Another trope of sweeps is the extended episode, which the Sons had this past week: 90 minutes of high octane instead of the usual 60.
This next episode isn’t a finale, but a farewell. In a strange way, the Regis Philbin’s farewell episode on Nov. 18 might garner the most ratings of any of these shows. After all, he’s been a talk show fixture since 1964 when he took over the Westinghouse Tonight Show hosting duties when Steve Allen left. Since 1985, Philbin and his very vanilla, but still entertaining antics, has been a part of many a couch potatoes morning. Despite most of us having day jobs, Live! with Regis and Kelly still enjoys high ratings. If you’re not satisfied with Regis’ leaving and its possibility for high ratings, then check out Live! with Kelly on Nov. 21 – 23 when Jerry Seinfeld takes on guest hosting responsibilities; leave it to Seinfeld to earn the most anticipated guest star slot of the season without being on any primetime shows. Three days of Seinfeld in the morning not good enough of you? How about Nov. 28 – Dec. 2 which will see an entire week of NPH joining Ripa in the morning.
Even though we get some fun, and often times odd, TV from it, are these Nielsen Sweeps even necessary anymore? There are at least five different ways to watch our favorite shows and I don’t think I’ve seen a commercial in months thanks to Netflix, DVR, and my iPad. Then again, sweeps have always been a big waste of time unless you have a Nielsen box or you’re a Don Draper-style (M)ad-man. I suppose as long as it keeps stirring up good TV like last night’s hysterical New Girl episode or the past two weeks of That 70’s (Two and a Half) Men Show , then keep the good times rolling. After all, the ratings-grabbing episodes are there for just that, to get ratings. As for me, thanks to Segel hosting SNL, I’ll be watching that show for the first time in about ten years, which means they count me down for a rating notch.
Do you think sweeps month is still relevant? Do you even care or did you ever? Are you happy with some of the more outrageous antics of our favorite TV characters during sweeps months? Sound off in the comments.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Two orphaned kids Andi (Emma Roberts) and her mechanical whiz of a younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) live in a foster home with a couple of aging wannabe rock stars (Lisa Kudrow Kevin Dillon) who are vehemently anti-pet. Running out of ways to keep their stray pooch Friday hidden in plain sight they stumble on to an abandoned hotel that turns out to be the perfect shelter for Friday – and transform the place into luxury accommodations for all sorts of unwanted pets they spring from the local pound and the streets. But can they stay one step ahead of the law while keeping this United Nations of dogs in line? Human actors don’t have a chance against the gifted assortment of canines. With dogs of every breed from a border collie who loves to herd sheep (don’t ask) to an English bulldog obsessed with chewing stuff the trainers deliver a cast that flawlessly pulls off every dog trick in the book. Fortunately Roberts (Nancy Drew) and Austin are winning and likeable as the two main kids who share a need for family with their four-legged counterparts. Kudrow and Dillon don’t get a whole lot to do in strictly stereotyped roles but Don Cheadle as the kids’ social worker adds a nice touch of dignity and warmth to the story. For his first American feature German director Thor Freudenthal got the supreme challenge: working with kids and animals. Getting this furry menagerie to act on cue could not have been easy but Freundenthal and his talented trainers make it look so. Particularly amusing are the various gadgets and elaborate contraptions Bruce builds to keep the doggies occupied and quiet -- including simulated car windows they can stick their heads out of portable toilets complicated feeding machines and on and on. Just like the current hit Marley & Me it’s a funny and heartwarming family comedy.