Just in time for the writers' strike to put a halt to new episodes of scripted series, my assessment of the season so far.
30 Rock (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.)
Tina Fey has said that they've consciously decided to slow the pace of the jokes on this show, and indeed this season has not been the laugh-a-second experience that the first often was. But the jokes that do get delivered are as sharp as ever, and the characters have actually developed into interesting, fully realized people. Liz's pathological loneliness, Jenna's rank insecurity, Jack's need for corporate validation - these are all genuine and recognizable emotions, and the comedy now comes as much out of those as it does out of the show's ridiculous situations. The altered pace has taken a little getting used to, but this has settled into a groove as not only the funniest show on TV, but also one of the best.
Brothers & Sisters (ABC, Sundays, 10 p.m.)
I've always been sort of measured in my enthusiasm for this show (it's great to watch while folding laundry or washing dishes), but as time has gone on there's always been something to keep me watching, and I have come to care about the characters and be interested in what happens to them. This season so far has only deepened that interest, with a lot of strong plotlines along with the occasional cheesiness that's been present since the beginning. The addition of Rob Lowe to the regular cast has provided some good material for Kitty, although I have exactly zero interest in storylines that involve Lowe away from the rest of the core characters (as we got this week). I hope they aren't setting his character up to actually win the presidential election, since that would really take the focus off the core family dynamic; I actually think it would be more interesting to see him lose and still remain a part of the cast as Kitty's husband. I've also liked the shake-ups of Sarah's and Tommy's marriages; neither feels like a quick exit for the spouse characters, and Sarah's ongoing custody battle gives the show the chance to explore another important angle on modern families. And Tommy's hot young mistress is already a way more interesting character than his wife (who looks to be returning next week) ever was. I'm still not exactly wowed by this show, but it's solid and dependable, and rarely lets me down.
Friday Night Lights (NBC, Fridays, 9 p.m.)
There's been a lot of discussion online about one particular aspect of this show's second season, and while it's a shame that it's pretty much overshadowed everything else that happens on the show, that's part of why people are talking about it and criticizing it. But I'd like to say first that other than the certain unfortunate development, everything else about this season on FNL has been fantastic. The writers really painted themselves into a corner with last year's finale, set up to serve also as a series finale if the show didn't come back. They've taken their time rearranging the pieces, and it's to their credit that they haven't just put everything back to the status quo. Coach Taylor's return to Dillon from TMU has been difficult and problematic, and still isn't quite resolved. Although it was inevitable, the writers have done a good job of making it seem organic and not rushed; Taylor made a decision that wasn't right for him, and he has to fix it. Julie's evolution into a typically snotty teen has also been portrayed realistically and with great balance. She's still the good person we knew last season, but 16-year-olds make dumb decisions sometimes, and we're seeing her do that and then deal with the consequences. I think Lyla's conversion to Christianity and Jason's search for direction in his life have also been handled with real grace and subtlety.
And then there's the murder. Although certain aspects of its fallout - Tyra and Landry's complicated romance, and Landry's relationship with his father - have been portrayed well and are consistent with the tone of the show, the simple fact of what happened sort of negates any more subdued moments that follow. I don't see how the storyline can play out in a way that's both dramatically satisfying and doesn't do permanent damage to the characters. How can these people possibly go on to participate in other plotlines with this forever hanging over their heads? Landry's moments as Matt's conscience and comic relief are completely untenable now, and this past week's episode featured some sweet interaction between Tyra and Julie that recalled their Season 1 friendship, but I just couldn't get past the fact that this was a girl with a murder on her conscience. Even only getting a few minutes' worth of screen time each week, this storyline can really bring the show down. Overall, I think all the other wonderful elements (just the interaction between Eric and Tami alone makes the entire show worth watching) make up for it, but they really shouldn't have to.
Heroes (NBC, Mondays, 9 p.m.)
Ugh. This show's sophomore season has been pretty much an unmitigated failure, with disastrously slow pacing, boring new characters and storylines that are pale rehashes of last season (which was already often a pale rehash of superhero comics). I've never been wholly on board with this show the way so many others are; it's had a handful of very good episodes but is so beholden to stale cliches of superhero comics that it would never have lasted if the majority of its audience weren't completely unfamiliar with comic books. As someone who's seen those tropes played out many times, my patience for the latest iteration is relatively short, and it doesn't help that this season doesn't even have last year's moderately interesting twists. Creator Tim Kring has actually apologized for the bungled storytelling and promises improvements when/if the show returns from the strike. I'll believe it when I see it, but I will at least keep watching for now to give them the chance to show me.
My Name Is Earl (NBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m.)
This show has been slowly losing steam since the beginning of last season, but I stick around because every so often there's an inspired bit or a laugh-out-loud moment that reminds me of how much I once enjoyed it. I'm sort of amazed that the writers have kept Earl in prison for the entire season so far and show no signs of letting him out any time soon; it really limits the kinds of stories they can tell and moves the show far away from its original premise. Earl's list has barely been mentioned this year, and in order to tell stories that encompass all the weird and funny townspeople that they've created over the years (and who constitute one of the show's greatest strengths), they've had to resort to flashbacks, fantasy sequences and a whole hour's worth of fake Cops episodes. Yet to the writers' credit, they've managed to build up some new amusing characters within the prison, including the dimwitted warden played by Craig T. Nelson and Earl's new buddy Frank (Michael Rapaport). Every week I think it's time to give up on this show, and every week there's something amusing to keep me coming back. But only barely at this point.