Aliens from Africa, Hell, Pakistan, and the Upper East: Previewing The CW’s New Shows
Last year marked the first for The CW, the upstart hybrid of The WB and UPN. So programming was mostly about picking which shows from which networks they liked. This year therefore represents their first go at producing their own shows with their own imprint on them.The exec who introduced them proudly noted that 3 of the 4 were listed by USA Today on its Top 10 New Shows to watch list. So what did I think? Below the fold, the final installment of my fall pilot reviewsGossip Girl
How it was probably pitched: (1) product placement for Sidekicks; (2) The OC in the Upper East
Move The OC to New York, put school uniforms on everyone, give everyone Sidekicks that they use every few seconds, add a highly annoying voiceover and you have Gossip Girl. Veronica Mars fans will know that their beloved Kristen Bell does the voiceovers, but I’m sorry to say that this is by far the worst part of the show, a juvenile, silly, forced, even moronic addition. If anything sinks this show, it’ll be the voiceover. Otherwise, though, it shows all the signs of succeeding – emaciated actresses, a guy who the show wants us to believe is regarded as a loser at school, yet who is quite handsome, parents who have their own secrets and vices, a passable performance by Blake Lively at its center, buckets of salacious gossip seemingly imported fresh from The Hills, conspicuous consumption, lavish parties, broken hearts, feuding friends, dangerous rich boys, decadence aplenty, characters who are either Evil or Good, oodles of current singles playing in the background (and yes, I believe “oodles” is the correct plural for pop music), and so forth. Voiceover aside, what it aims to do, it does well, with high production values. It isn’t for me, and I’m increasingly concerned with the infatuation with nasty rich kids (aren’t Paris and Lindsay enough for our collective lifetime, and punishment enough for our collective sins?), but it should prove a good vehicle for the CW, and a good companion for lead-in America’s Next Top Model, so long as its demo isn’t poached by competitor Private Practice. And if it starts to succeed, invest in Sidekick stock.
How it was probably pitched: Highway to Heaven with a slight “detour”
The posters for Reaper convinced me it would be dire, and by no means is it a remarkably smart, complex, or subtly crafted show, but it turned out be fun. Pilot director Kevin Smith’s fingerprints are all over its sensibility and tone, production values are good, and the script is wickedly funny. Bret Harrison plays a young man whose parents sold his soul to The Devil, a sale that goes through on his twenty-first birthday. He is now entrusted with the task of chasing down escaped souls from Hell and capturing them, with his loser buddy. The highlight of the show has to be Ray Wise’s turn as The Devil, a really stellar performance and very funny, yet also slightly dark and foreboding (as I suppose The Devil should be). The show whores itself somewhat to Dirt Devil for product placement as the vessel for retrieving escaped souls, but this is The CW (the only network who sent a marketing and sales liaison to introduce the pilots, fittingly), and the placement fits. If at 9pm on Tuesday night, you feel the need for cerebral, turn to FOX and House, but for light fun, Reaper is surprisingly good at what it does.
Aliens in America
How it was probably pitched: (1) Nothing sells like controversy; (2) Mork and Mindy from Pakistan
Aliens in America walks a high wire, a sitcom that puts a Pakistani exchange student in rural Wisconsin, and much of whose humor centers around cultural differences [as an aside, what's with Wisconsin and foreign exchange students? First That 70s Show, now this? Derek, any thoughts?]. If it moves a tiny bit one way, the show could be deeply offensive, and yet another Arab-mocking/-bashing show; if it moves a tiny bit another way, it could serve an important public service, allowing and setting the tone for much-needed discussion of how Americans conceive of, bump up against, and try to domesticate cultural difference. I’m sure many critics won’t even allow it the chance to do the latter, upset that comedy and An Important Issue might be mixed, but comedy is often one of the very best ways to deal with such issues, when existing dialogue is stuck in a (xenophobic) spin cycle. The script, of course, will bear a lot of the weight of this task, but just as much rests on the shoulders of the actor behind the exchange student, Adhir Kalyan – after all, if he does a bad job, the show will be offensive, but if his performance is nuanced, and if he captures viewers’ interest and identification as a character, he could sell the show and its social purpose. The pilot suggests that at the very least, he’s equal to the task, a talented actor.
The jury is still out on the show more broadly. On the plus side, it shows itself more than willing to mock American xenophobia, and to playfully satirize American society, as, for instance, when Raja asks his American friend what prayers he says when upset, and the American responds that he usually just eats a brownie or buys a CD. But the path ahead is a rocky one – complexity and sitcoms have struggled to get along with one another, yet Aliens is going to need lots of complexity to avoid creating stark binaries, even if constructed with “good intentions.” In the short-term, and for now, it wasn’t at all preachy, and it had some good laughs, a lot of them not even about difference. It’s sure to attract controversy and attention, but let’s see what CW, the writers, and the cast do with it. It’s buried away in what seems to be the CW’s “ethnic night,” Monday, between Everybody Hates Chris and Girlfriends, and I’d be intrigued to hear what others think of this strategy and what it means. The pilot leaves me with more questions than answers to offer, but that might be a good thing – let’s wait and see.
Life is Wild
How it was probably pitched: 7th Heaven meets National Geographic
Ah, another CW show, another bad voiceover. Life is Wild begins with a (step) family moving from New York to South Africa to heal familial wounds and help the ailing world. Like Aliens, Life is Wild could serve an important social purpose – American television has been altogether way too obsessed with America, despite the fact that many of its shows sell overseas, often even gaining more than half their revenue there. So a show set in Africa joins scant few other primetime network programs in actually being interested in the rest of the world. And in theory, if done well, the show might help rewrite the painfully stereotypical and crude images of Africa and Africans. Alas, Life is Wild is not done well. By imposing a voiceover from the family’s eldest daughter, we are seemingly forced to see Africa through her eyes (Orientalism much?), rather than allowing us fuller freedom to identify elsewhere. Of more pressing concern, though, Leah Pipes as said narrator and star, offers a poor performance, and, to be fair, is working against a stinky script that both rushes everything and is so predictable that I’m sure Life is Wild could be the base for many a drinking game (e.g: when the “rebel bad ass” older brother does something that everyone thinks is bad but turns out to be good, drink). Meanwhile, the show’s challenge to prevailing depictions of Africa is about as successful as When Lions Attack or any charity ad. Crime of crimes for CW, too, its music is pretty crummy. In the end, this show neither shows promise of succeeding as a rare show set outside the USA, nor does it show signs of deserving to survive. The pilot includes a storyline about a lion cub separated from its mother, and one of the family member’s zeal to reunite the lions reeks of a metaphor for his own feelings of loss of his mother. Let me offer my own animal metaphor in an equally obvious manner and recommend that CW put this show down before we’re all forced to watch it suffer, like a horse horribly crippled in a race.Tags: Aliens in America, CW, fall previews, Gossip Girl, Life is Wild, pilots, Reaper