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Banking on One Pony: The New Girl, Last Man Standing, Ringer, Whitney

September 13th, 2011 | Jonathan Gray

Four of the new shows’ advertising, promos, and paratexts have been pretty much dedicated to a simple message: our show stars this one person. It’s a risky move, since you’re banking on the audience caring about that star, and you’re going all-in on the hope that he or she is enough enticement for enough people to watch the show. Compare, for instance, with Person of Interest, which mixes Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, which is a pretty decent pairing – Christ and Ben Linus! – but its publicity has been quite keen to let us know its creator, too, namely Dark Knight’s Jonathan Nolan.

So which are these shows that think they only need the one star, and what can we say about their chances?

Neatly, they divide into two groups of two: the two that are bringing back television stars of yesteryear (even if that yesteryear is just 8 years ago) – Last Man Standing and Ringer – and the two that are working with relatively new talents – The New Girl and Whitney.

Ringer is perhaps the most overloaded in terms of its star, if for no other reason than Sarah Michele Gellar plays TWO characters. Three of the four posters therefore show not one but two images of Gellar, with two showing little more than the Chrysler or Empire State Building as accompaniment.

The buildings suggest power (phallic, and of New York), as does her dress, and the night-time setting suggest intrigue, mystery, or such, but otherwise we know little more than that Sarah Michelle Gellar is in the show. Watch the trailer, too, and note how prominent images of Gellar are, especially in the earlygoing (the scene with two Gellars in a hall of mirrors is especially amusing, as if two weren’t enough for the producers and assumed fans).

The trailer’s also interesting for an early snippet of dialogue exchanged between Gellar’s two characters:

“I was wondering how you’d look after six years”

“Not nearly as good as you”

Granted, Gellar’s actually been off-television for eight years (Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended in 2003), but she’s been absent to the world for about six. The line’s amusing, therefore, since it sees Gellar comment on her own absence from television, while reassuring both herself and us that she still looks good.

And if Ringer’s taking a “she’s back” strategy, it’s certainly worked inasmuch as the press have picked up on this and run with it. Gellar’s face adorned Entertainment Weekly recently, with a feature article about her return and comments from her that suggest her sisters are like her characters from Buffy and Cruel Intentions, and almost all reviews I’ve seen have focused entirely on Gellar being back on television (even when the show also brings back Lost’s Nestor Carbonell.

This seems an especially risky move for The CW, though. Gellar’s return may well be hotly anticipated, but many of these articles have been written by writers in their thirties and forties. The CW has only just eeked out a living in the last couple of years, relying on anemic ratings that stitch together teen girls and slightly older women enjoying teen(ish) fare. That second group might be attracted to Ringer, but Gellar’s star likely means nothing to the average teen. Heck, most of my students don’t know Buffy, and it hasn’t had great play in syndication in the US, so I don’t imagine their younger sisters will. Hence Ringer’s pitch of “she’s back” risks being foolishly broadcast to many audiences who don’t know or care about her in the first place. Put simply, I don’t think that a network whose key audience is this young can wisely afford to use the “s/he’s back” strategy, unless the s/he in question would have been popular with ten year-olds eight years ago.

Contrast with the other returning star, Tim Allen, who stars in Last Man Standing, and we have an entirely different situation. Allen’s returning to a big(ger) tent network after having been on one, and is returning to a sitcom that’s clearly aimed at an older audience anyways. Add some possible post-Home Improvement family fame garnered as Buzz Lightyear, and I don’t worry anywhere near as much about his ability to sell this show. By most accounts, the script is lame, so Ringer may well defeat it in the end, but Ringer’s going to have to move uphill all the way, whereas ABC isn’t stuck with such a young generational cohort as its intended audience, and thus would seem to be on safer ground by using the “he’s back” promotional strategy.

Turning to the shows heralding new-ish stars, Whitney and The New Girl, once again we have an interesting tale of contrasts. Perhaps it’s just that I and everyone I know is dreadfully out of touch, but I’ve yet to hear almost anyone who knows who the heck Whitney Cummings really is. We’re all supposed to know her, so suggest the ads, and their reliance on plastering her and rather tepid one-liners posit her as some comic genius (while proving she isn’t), but I don’t believe many people really do know who she is.

The New Girl plays it safer. On one hand, Zooey Deschanel is likely much better known. She’s been in Weeds, is the sister of Bones’ Emily Deschanel, is in the Cotton ads, starred in the critically successful (500) Days of Summer, played Dorothy in Tin Man, the odd Syfy remake of Wizard of Oz last year, and has been in other films including Yes Man, Elf, and the recent Our Idiot Brother. She’s also got a cool name, let’s face it, and the kind of one you remember.

On the other hand, though, and even if you have no idea who she is, the title of her new show covers its ass here. She’s not just “the new girl” in the apartment on the show, but is also being put forward as the new star for television. And if USA Today is anything to go by, at least some are eating this up. They write:

Let’s hear it for the girl. If New Girl is the season’s most promising new show – and boy, is it – much of the credit goes to the almost irresistibly adorable lady in question, Zooey Deschanel. [….] she’s poised to become something she hasn’t been before: a big, new TV star.

There’s also the issue of how the two shows’ promos are selling Cummings and Deschanel, and to whom. Deschanel is very much being marketed as cute, adorable, and vulnerable. The relationship between her and her three male minders suggests that, yes, she is the new girl, as the promos make an obvious pitch for male protection … while still trying to hold onto her as identificatory character for women and throwing in several, “oh, men!”-style jokes in the trailer. Turning to Whitney, though the promos certainly sexualize Cummings, they also sell her as loud, abrasive, and in charge. She is the new woman therefore, and she’s being sold to women more than men, with almost all of the humor in the trailer being of the “girlfriend, am I right or am I right?” variety. FOX is hedging its bets, in other words, going for men and women. NBC is going mostly for women, all-in on the one star and all-in on one gender as audience.

As with all of the above shows, the script will matter a lot. But at this point, the four shows are making it all about the star. So place your bets on who is more loved – Deschanel, Allen, Cummings, or Gellar, and, especially in the case of the latter two, who knows where to find them on struggling networks. But that’s the other part of the networks going all-in on the star – if any of these shows dies before it hits five episodes, that’s a huge grenade in the star image of the actor or actress in question. Let’s see who is left standing.

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