Critic’s notebook

Some white-collar crimes of his own

It’s time to repent for his TV-show slips in judgment

Danny McBride in HBO’s “Eastbound & Down’’ Danny McBride in HBO’s “Eastbound & Down’’ (Fred Norris/Hbo)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 16, 2009

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Hard as it may be to believe, since our judgments are so amazingly spot-on and our observations so very penetrating, TV critics do occasionally miss the mark. And when the year ends, those overstatements, understatements, and certifiably crazy assertions that I’ve made in print gnaw at my consciousness like unfinished “Heroes’’ plot lines. They need to be quieted.

So in the name of unburdening my soul, I am making a few confessions, corrections, and modifications.

Did I actually call “White Collar’’ “one of the best new shows of the season’’? Yes, alas. But I’ve changed my mind about that, as the USA series has unfolded across the fall with far too much bland predictability. I got caught up in the hope that this light crime series would be like another light USA series, “Burn Notice,’’ which is consistently stylish and entertaining. But after the nicely done pilot, “White Collar’’ lost its charm. The crime plots, in particular, failed to hold any mystery or offer any satisfying turns. The fall finale did forward an interesting twist regarding the main characters, though, so improvement is still possible.

While I overpraised “White Collar,’’ I underpraised “Eastbound & Down,’’ a six-part HBO comedy starring Danny McBride as fallen baseball pitcher Kenny Powers. The show struck me as just more obnoxious-dude humor, but a friend urged me to take another look. And what I saw was obnoxious-dude humor with more heart and twisted wit than I had realized. You don’t usually find camp humor in lower-middle-class guy comedy, but “Eastbound & Down’’ mixed them together effectively. Kenny’s “assistant’’ and biggest fan, Stevie, was as pathetic as Mel on “Flight of the Conchords,’’ and equally bizarre. He was a thoroughly demented bromantic partner. Kenny is, like Gregory House and Larry David, an unedited guy who is really funny - not ha-ha funny, but just totally inappropriate. He’s another of TV’s naked ids, and he will be back for another season next year.

I also feel a little haunted by “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,’’ though not by what I said but by what more I didn’t say. I failed to give the seven-part HBO series the proper shout-out that it deserved. It was so modestly appealing, it became the neglected middle child of the year. After a positive review, I rarely returned to the show in print, even while it maintained a high quality for the first season. A gentle, gorgeously filmed crime mystery set in Botswana, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’’ was so out of place on the usually edgy, morally complex HBO lineup, it slid under my radar.

Singer Jill Scott played private eye Precious Ramotswe to perfection - with wry humor in her eye, with soul, with little-girlish enthusiasm, with intelligence. And Anika Noni Rose, now getting a lot of press for voicing the cartoon heroine of “The Princess and the Frog,’’ was also endlessly amusing as the agency assistant. “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’’ wasn’t for everyone, especially those who require cynicism and dramatic editing. It had a distinctly lyrical and languorous tone. But I’m sure there are viewers who would have loved this sweet-natured show, if only they’d known about it. (The series has been released on DVD.)

“The Big Bang Theory’’ came into its own last year, and I’ve atoned for my lack of faith that it would. But I’ve never owned up to the fact that, initially, I found nothing worthy in Kaley Cuoco’s performance as Penny. Perhaps I was inclined to see her as shallow after her years as the vain daughter on the tiresome “8 Simple Rules.’’ Cuoco was too convincing in that role, perhaps. But Penny is actually one of the highlights of “Big Bang,’’ along with Sheldon and Howard. She has made Penny into so much more than just “the pretty neighbor.’’ She’s by turns grungy, rude, and touching, as well as a believable partner for Leonard.

Maybe it was because Patrick Swayze was struggling with cancer that I raved about his performance in A&E’s “The Beast.’’ While Swayze fit the part of a haggard, veteran detective to a T, particularly with his partially sunken face, the part itself was so poorly written that he didn’t stand a chance. He may have been ready to bring all of his rich world-weariness to the table in “The Beast,’’ but the role was far too narrow to showcase it. Ultimately, “The Beast’’ will not be the crown on the Swayze legacy, much as I wanted it to be.

Oh, and about that grade of B for Mischa Barton’s short-lived CW series “The Beautiful Life: TBL’’? Nevermind. Also, I apologize for every word I used in service of Jon and Kate Gosselin. Now that “Jon & Kate Plus 8’’ is over, may they drift in obscurity forever.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit

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