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TV Picks: Archival rom-coms, a teen caper, films about equality

August 22, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Times Television Critic
  • Lee Pace and Caroline Dhavernas star in "Wonderfalls," which lasted one season on Fox.
Lee Pace and Caroline Dhavernas star in "Wonderfalls," which… (Fox )

“Wonderfalls” (20th Century Fox DVD); “Bent” (Hulu). It will always be the case, and more often than not, that good television series are canceled before their time (and, as seems increasingly important in a serial world, their conclusion). Still, as we do with the real people of Earth, we can celebrate the life even as we mourn the death. Here are two shows cruelly cut down in their prime that nevertheless managed to tell what feel like complete stories, and both of which are still available for you to see. In stolen moments over the last couple of weeks I rewatched, in its 13-episode entirety, “Wonderfalls,” a sweetly cynical 2004 romantic fantasy whose creative team included Todd Holland, Bryan Fuller and Tim Minear, a television Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. It starred Caroline Dhavernas (now on Fuller's "Hannibal) as a Brown philosophy graduate working in a Niagara Falls gift shop and disinclined to cooperate with life, who begins to receive cryptic messages, through animal-shaped inanimate objects -- a wax lion, a brass monkey, lawn flamingos, a mounted fish, and so on --  that impel her reluctantly to helpful action. There are a love object, a best friend (Tracie Thoms, of whom we should see more) and a comically difficult family (including mother Diana Scarwid, sister Katie Finneran and brother Lee Pace, who was in Fuller’s also sadly abbreviated “Pushing Daisies”). Like the screwball comedies of old, it does not come to an end so much as to an agreement, a brief moment of rest, from which the characters will carry on without us.

INTERACTIVE: Fall 2013 TV preview

That is true also of Tad Quill’s “Bent,” an exceptionally well-reviewed and indifferently supported NBC comedy that grabbed a host of old rom-com cliches and improbably worked them into something believable and fresh and, probably the fatal point, not quite like anything else on television. (It was only last year that its six episodes aired, and yet it seems so long ago, somehow.) David Walton, who has practically held the patent on charming, semi-responsible child-men, or man-boys, or whatever they’re called, did that thing, but he does it better than anyone else around. Amanda Peet was his opposite number, an uptight divorced lawyer with child, Ralph Bellamy-issue boyfriend (Matt Letscher), opposite-of-uptight sister (Margo Harshman) and a house, which Walton’s surfer-slacker-recovering-gambling-addict contractor is slowly remodeling. Obviously … well, obviously. Jeffrey Tambor plays Walton’s father-roommate (an actor), J.B. Smoove, Jesse Plemons and Pavel Lychnikoff his motley construction crew. Quill and his cast played an old-fashioned tune perfectly; the last scene of the final episode (not counting the unconnected tag) is as effective a series end as I’ve ever seen, whether it was meant to be or not, and almost nothing happens in it. 

“Swindle” (Nickelodeon, Saturday). All-star teenage caper film features faces familiar from Nick sitcoms (Nitcoms -- feel free to use that, world). When a couple of clueless kids are done out of a valuable Honus Wagner baseball card by a less than scrupulous memorabilia dealer -- his name is Swindell, to make a point -- they concoct one complicated plan, then another, to get it back, retro-’60s style. (What does it say about this younger generation that they don’t know the value of a Honus Wagner baseball card? Shakes head sadly.) A team is assembled (the Muscle, the Hacker, et al.), and away we go. It’s no “Topkapi,” and all quite impossible, as in “Mission”, but the film is well-assembled and bouncy and if you are looking for a sprightly couple of hours of television where you don’t have to explain a sexual reference to a child, or have one explained to you, this is your baby. Otherwise, the best reason to watch is Jennette McCurdy (as The Actress, here with “Sam & Cat” costar Ariana Grande, as The Gymnast); McCurdy, who played the best-pal part on “iCarly,” has something of the knockabout spirit of the old Warner Bros. lot, back when Joan Blondell (they are the same height, research shows) was snapping her gum and putting dopes in their place. She is just about too old for this stuff, but fit for the next stuff. There is a food fight.

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