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The Freshman TV Class of 2010-2011, Part 4: The Other Dramas

May 30th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Rather than organize these by network, which would be a bit obvious and boring, how about instead I list them from least interesting (to me) to most interesting?

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The Detritus

This means that we start with the tough, three-way battle for the title of Worst New Drama. Our contestants? NBC’s Love Bites, ABC’s My Generation, and The CW’s Hellcats. Love Bites has a horrible trailer, and whoever made it really should be embarrassed, since it left me deeply confused. I get that it’s an anthology romcom that promises to demean a new group of stars each week with trite dialogue and plots, but it’s unclear whether the women we meet at the beginning are part of a continuous frame, if Greg Grunberg is either, and if so how they relate to the other stories. It just shifts gears without explaining how or why. It also has a really bad voiceover and looked more like a tampon ad than a show; indeed, if you’ve seen the playful UbyKotex attack on the obnoxiousness of tampon ads, you’ve seen an effective satire of Love Bites. Oh, okay, we’ll give it the title, shall we?

That said, in terms of paint by numbers programming and obnoxiousness, My Generation is really throwing a hail Mary pass to the end zone. The premise is that a group of people who graduated together ten years ago are now being checked up on. Filmed documentary style, yet fictional (the fiction is evident from the patent stupidity and formulaic quality), it revels in its self-importance, as if this is this is the new Up Series, telling us all about aging, dreams, potential, realization, life, plans, and The Things That Matter. As an exercise, get out a piece of paper now, write down ten of the most formulaic, trite high school characters you could imagine; then, keeping with the theme of trite, imagine where they’ll be in ten years; and I guarantee you’ve now created something on par with the writing behind this show, at least if the trailer’s to be believed.

In third place for worst show is Hellcats. The title alone bugs me. With Cougar Town already on the air, did we really need another show whose title animalizes women? Apparently so. The show also perplexes me, since it seems a very small toggle of The Beautiful Life, a show that died a remarkably quick death last year for The CW. Only it’s cheerleaders now, not models. This seems a move in the wrong direction: surely the model’s life is more aspirational than that of a cheerleader? Perhaps that’s why our central character is a street-wise, edgy blond who is forced into cheerleading to get a scholarship to become a lawyer (‘cause we all know that nothing impresses a law firm more than cheerleading on the CV!), and yet who makes lots of critical comments about cheerleaders. She’s a character that The CW is specializing in – utter insiders who think they’re outsiders. I’m inclined to bemoan the creation of a generation who think they’re facing great struggles, and who want the sympathy for it, when they’re some of the planet’s most privileged individuals, but that way lies Grumpy Old Man territory, and I need to keep faith that the audience is more complex than what’s on the screen, lest I give up all hope in life. Suffice it to say, meanwhile, that Hellcats and I will not be BFFs. It’s only third worst since I’m least in its target demo, so I’ll give it a break.

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Meh

Blue Bloods’ trailer made Tom Selleck look past his shelf-life. It also contains one of the more vapid promotional comments I’ve heard, from Selleck: “This show is very exciting. It’s got plots. It’s got action. It’s got all that stuff.” “All that stuff,” eh? Sounds like a great work of art to me! Anyways, it’s a family cop drama set in New York with an Irish family, from a pair of Sopranos scribes, and also starring Donnie Wahlberg. Magnum PI and the New Kid on the Block just ain’t doin’ it for me. It seemed a little more sophisticated than the average cop show, and I’ll leave room that it may rise to greatness, but at the moment, it’s just a big “Meh” from me.

I was disappointed by Undercovers, the new J. J. Abrams show. Maybe this is a case of the trailer hurting the show, or maybe it shows that the editor was really frisky when s/he made it, but it’s far too much sexual intrigue and not enough spy intrigue (or heck, not even enough family intrigue). I expect way more from the guy behind Alias, but when the show’s title is that cheesy, maybe my hopes are foolish. Chuck is a great, fun spy dramedy from a prominent showrunner, but it’s struggled in the ratings; I wonder how this one will do when it looks worse in almost every respect. I’m really excited to see network TV greenlight a drama with two African-Americans as the leads, but equally concerned that if it fails (because it’s not that good), some bonehead execs will see it as a sign of the unmarketability of such a casting model for a show.

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Meh Plus

Nikita is the other new spy drama, with Maggie Q showing prowess as a hunter and killer, yet struggling with the ability to keep more than lingerie or underwear on at any given time. Again, I’m happy to see a non-white lead for such a show, especially on The CW, who came a very distant fifth out of the five major networks last year in terms of non-white series regulars. It feels like Alias with more contemporary music, and also looks more action-packed and plot-driven than Undercovers’ somewhat basic premise. It’ll need more going on in it than just a scowling Shane West, and I’m not underestimating The CW’s ability to disappoint me, but for now I’ll sign up for an episode or two.

When Flash Forward concluded with another blackout, I half expected for one of them to see “the event.” Certainly, the new serial show, The Event, has a similar visual style and cryptic “what’s happening, man?” element to it. It also has a really annoying trailer, showing us various fascinating incidences, only to tell us these are not “the event.” The suggestion, I get it, is that The Event is so monumental that all these other things (like an assassination attempt on a President in the over-theatrical form of flying a jumbo jet into him) are small potatoes, but it’s a tenuous, dangerous strategy for a trailer to take to deliberately withhold telling you what it’s all about (imagine: “Grey’s Anatomy is not about lawyers freeing the wrongly accused, it’s not about a loveable old man who moves in with his son to humorous consequences, and it’s not about enjoyable television”). And when the NBC press release announces, “Their futures are on a collision course in a global conspiracy that could ultimately change the fate of mankind,” I really should be checking out by now. But it’s high concept, it’s serial, and now that Lost’s gone, what am I gonna do with myself? Okay, NBC, I’ll check it out, but if it really is the V meets Flash Forward hybrid that your trailer suggests it is, I’m gone.

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Consider Me Interested

David Lyons didn’t do much to impress me on ER, so I’m wary of The Cape, given that it’s centered on him. All the same, the Unbreakable fan in me finds it hard not to be drawn in by this tale of a man who must leave his family and assume the role of a superhero called The Cape, named after the hero in a comic he read to his son. Summer Glau also stars, which should ensure it some extra viewers, though personally I don’t know what the hoopla is all about with her. I like the world they set up – vaguely Gothamesque in its dysfunctionality and need for a hero. And thus while I’m aware it may just be a pastiche of other things that I like, and wholly unable to deliver when push comes to shove, for now I’m casually interested.

Terra Nova has no trailer, and only sketchy details, but there’s enough to hook me for now. A Steven Spielberg production, the show finds a family sent back in time as part of a mission, with others, to correct humankind due to the imminent death of the human species. If I set aside my skepticism that any well-funded entity would care enough about the species, not just their own selfish selves, to correct our course through time, this sounds kind of cool. Could be dumb, very dumb. But I’m eager to hear more.

No Ordinary Family is the second of the superhero stories to join television, and though he has experience as Ben Grimm / The Thing in the Fantastic Four movies, I’m especially fascinated by the somewhat odd casting of Michael Chiklis, and eager to see what he can do after The Shield. He’s the father of an Incredibles type family, who after exposure to something superhero-ish, all gain powers. Julie Benz (Dexter Morgan’s wife in Dexter, or Darla in Buffy, depending upon your preference) also stars. Smallville used to be interesting, before everyone started wearing PVC and Clark showed his ability to leap a shark in a single bound, and I’m hoping this could be an early season Smallville, yet with a little more adult grit, and with a family element. I’ll be watching.

And tied for most interesting-to-me is Lonestar. This show may be utter crap, but for now I pay homage to whoever made the trailer, since it really is quite excellent. We’re presented with a character who seemingly has two loving wives, each not knowing of the other’s existence. But before this seems like Big Love, we’re introduced to his nasty father who is the kingpin in a con he’s running with one or both. Except the son wants out. On paper or read on a computer screen, it sounds kind of dull, no? And yet the trailer had me really interested. He seemed like a fascinating, original character, and the trailer offered just enough pictures of the surroundings to suggest that it’ll be visually interesting too, examining the location as much as the characters, and situating one within the other. All this could be the product of very good editing, but kudos to the editor, since you got me in the door.

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And that’s it. I’ll be back to discuss scheduling all this stuff later, but I hope some of this helps you decide what to watch and what not to watch this Fall. I’ll try to watch each pilot too, and be back with more in Fall.

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The Freshman TV Class of 2010-2011, Part 3: Procedurals

May 30th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Note to network TV: there are already enough procedurals. CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, Criminal Minds, Law and Order: SVU, Bones, House, The Good Wife, Medium, The Mentalist, NCIS, NCIS: LA, and (debatably) Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice are enough. Really. CBS, I’m talking to you in particular.

Perhaps I should’ve sent out the note before the Upfronts, since procedurals are all the rage for next year, with 4.5 new lawyer procedurals, 5.5 new cop procedurals, and 2 new doctor procedurals.  Instead of breaking them down by network, let’s look at them in those terms:

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“I Didn’t Do It!”: Lawyer Shows

Outlaw and Harry’s Law should both be treated together, since their trailers were clearly cut from the same cloth. Both star a biggish name talent (Jimmy Smits and Kathy Bates respectively) as successful individuals who tire of their regular job and hence who change gears to help a poor, innocent African-American in their first case. Both are serious with a touch of sass, both are transformed into better humans by their experiences, and both want their own Green Mile moments. Both shows count on the talents of their stars, but Smits was unable to pull the trick with Cane, even with Nestor Carbonell at his side, and Harry’s Law risks splitting the vote with The Good Wife or losing out to it since the latter is a better show by most appearances. Consider me bored on both accounts, though with David E. Kelley behind Harry’s Law, maybe it’ll do better than I think, and become more funny and charming than it seems at present?

The Defenders’ claim that few lawyer shows depict the defense seems somewhat amusing in the context of a season with these other shows, and as much as I will always love Stand By Me, Jerry O’Connell is no Jimmy Smits or Kathy Bates, and Jim Belushi delivered his best performance in K9, which isn’t saying much. Amusingly in the trailer, after Belushi notes O’Connell’s strength as a comedian, O’Connell deadpans that he signed on largely for the experience of working with Belushi – a great joke if ever I heard one. I’d schedule the wrap party for this one early in the season, though I would’ve said the same with According to Jim, so maybe the Belushi Protection Society will keep this one on a feeding tube for a while longer. It’s unclear if it means to be funny or serious, both or neither, so it’s tonally vapid … in addition to seeming boring.

The Whole Truth promises the seemingly bold move of offering both sides of a case. But we’ve seen this before, and if the trailer’s anything to go by, this will result in head-spinning and/or gimmicky back-and-forth editing that could wear thin by the end of the second episode. Rob Morrow stars, but his former affability seems lost in an attempt to be a big boy lawyer. Once again, I’m unimpressed.

And, crossing the cop/lawer boundary is Law and Order: Los Angeles. There’s no trailer here, just a CGI teaser, so it’s hard to judge. But perhaps the tired, dead, horse-kicking series needs the jolt of a new visual style and a new location. Alternately, perhaps we’ve all seen LA in way too many crime dramas and cop shows already. I refuse to judge at this point.

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“Book ‘em, Danno!”: Cop Shows

After falling for Lost’s Jin and Sun something fierce, it’s hard not to be intrigued by Daniel Dae Kim’s latest outing, Hawaii Five-O. With Grace Park costarring, no less, it’s a perfect fan Lost/BSG collision. The trailer didn’t do much for me, and suggested little more than a regular cop show, without the CGI bells and whistles that the CSI franchise brought into the picture. But it’ll have the advantage of a great location in Hawaii, and if they use that location and film it half as well as the folks at Lost did, it might at least pull a CSI: Miami and look too beautiful to cancel. Meanwhile, I owe Daniel Dae Kim at least a couple of episodes of watching.

CBS, ever mindful of their need to program 80% procedurals, has also commissioned an as-yet-unnamed Criminal Minds spinoff, which just seems wrong. No network should be allowed more than two cop show franchises. Surely there are only so many 50 year-old guys in the country and eventually their supply as viewers will run out? No trailer, just a premise, and an uninspiring one at that.

Bound to have more edge is FOX’s Ride-Along, from The Shield’s Shawn Ryan. Set in Chicago with a distinct Southland feel to it, it might be a good test of whether NBC just flubbed the delivery with Southland or whether it was the audience’s fault all along. At the same time, ABC’s Detroit 1-8-7 tries to offer a similarly gritty, NYPD Blue meets The Wire image of Detroit, starring Michael Imperioli. Both shows clearly have pretensions of being life-like, cutting-edge, and finger-on-the-pulse, and the latter in particular has an appealing visual style. Whether network TV can pull off this level of realism remains to be seen, and I’d rather hold judgment till I’ve seen more.

Finally, Chase follows a team of US Marshals led by a tough, kickass woman. Jerry Bruckheimer produced, yet penned by Jennifer Johnson. It’s a reasonably well-edited trailer, promising intrigue, action, and tough cookies, but see the note that opens this post to see why I’m unlikely to care.

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“Ouch!”: Doctor Shows

After NBC’s Mercy and Trauma were tossed from their steeds this year, ABC is offering its own pair of medical dramas, no doubt buoyed by its success with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and hence sure that it can do better.

Body of Proof seems to have been made by the same team who did the Harry’s Law and Outlaw trailers, or at least written by the same machine. Many years after leaving China Beach, Dana Delany’s back headlining her own medical drama, as a neurosurgeon who has to leave her job and become a medical examiner. The former automaton now finds her humanity with corpses. If that irony sounds too heavy-handed to you, you’re not alone, so I propose that if the first four episodes repeat the irony more than twice, the show is dead to me.

Off the Map is the more intriguing offering, from ABC’s own Shonda Rhimes and co-writers, starring Wonderfalls’ Caroline Dharvernas, yet set in the South American jungle in a Medicins Sans Frontiers set-up. I repeat my interest in shows filmed and set outside the US, and hence hope that it works, but as with Outsourced, I worry about the significant potential for it to reel out stereotype after Othering after boneheaded prejudice. Let’s hope it pulls it off and avoids those ailments. It’s also interesting to see a trailer for a Rhimes production that doesn’t put the sexual intrigue first and foremost. I’m still skeptical, but at least I’m curious too.

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And those are the procedurals. For our last installment, I’ll discuss other dramas (and dramedies).

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The Freshman TV Class of 2010-2011, Part 2: Reality Television

May 29th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

If one was inclined to read genres like tealeaves, one might find it interesting to see that 13 new sitcoms have been announced for Fall, while only 3 reality television shows are planned. Is The Age of Unscripted Television over? Granted, each network already has its tent-pole reality shows (Idol for FOX, Survivor and Amazing Race for CBS, Biggest Loser for NBC, Dancing with the Stars for ABC, and America’s Next Top Model for The CW), but it’s relevant that they’re not trying to triple up with many more.

Perhaps they’ve run out of ideas? Of course, many more objectionable, offensive, and crazy niche ideas exist for the conceiving and the making, but it may be that they’re being farmed out to the cable channels, lest ABC, for instance, need to explain how a dating show for pre-teens, or America’s Next Top Moving Company fits with its brand identity.

In the meantime, this leaves us with a small entering class.

School Pride is basically Extreme Makeover: School Edition, though the trailer made it unclear if the crew would do a different school each week or stay with the same school for a season. For the sake of seeing a wide variety of change, many viewers might hope for the former, but for the sake of dealing with due complexity and perhaps even analyzing root causes, I favor the latter. In terms of originality, the show seems uninspired, and it certainly seems to prove Laurie Ouellette and James Hay’s point in their excellent book Better Living Through Reality TV that reality TV has replaced the welfare state in our neoliberal times. But it’s hard to begrudge a program that promises to overhaul an entire school. It’s also impressive to see NBC up the ante on ABC’s EM:HE in grand style, and if ABC’s wunderkind can get the waterworks going in houses across the US, literally and figuratively, just wait to see what the School Edition can do. I’ve been very wrong before, but I can’t see this one failing.

NBC’s second newbie is America’s Next Great Restaurant. Their reality TV strategy seems quite simple: (1) Spinoff NBC’s only reality hit (hence Losing It With Jillian this summer), (2) Shamelessly copy, yet one-up, another network’s success (hence School Pride), and (3) Shamelessly copy a cable channel’s success. Here, the help comes in the form of Bobby Flay, one of the more watchable chefs on television. I have no trailer to go on, just the concept and the title. My concern is with regards location (as with School Pride, albeit to a lesser degree). Most of the other cooking shows succeed by putting the focus on the individuals, wherein place becomes unimportant. FOX’s Kitchen Nightmares roves from location to location, as does Flay’s own Throwdown. But if all the restaurant contenders are in one city, it might be hard to win the identification of viewers elsewhere, especially if that city is the big, bad New York. Personally, I’d rather watch Food Network and see the pros do it than watch NBC copy it, so consider me a skeptic.

Finally, there’s The CW’s Biggest Loser format twist, Shedding for the Wedding. Again, no trailer, just the concept – couples compete to lose weight so that they’re skinny for the wedding, and along the way they compete in challenges to win other things for the wedding (“Congratulations, you win a reprieve from having to invite all your mother’s great aunt’s bridge partners! We’re sending invitations to the wrong address for them!!” “Oh, honey, it’s just what we’ve always wanted!”). Biggest Loser already bothers me, given my suspicions that some seriously unhealthy weight loss is happening on “The Campus” (btw, isn’t that a Japanese horror film?), but once we add the fact that they’re doing it all in a manic attempt to have a “fairytale wedding” (so fairytale that nobody there will recognize them), I congratulate The CW on once again finding a show that actively encourages me to watch something else. With all that’s on television, and all that I need to catch up on, I appreciate such gestures.

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The Freshman TV Class of 2010-2011, Part 1: The Sitcoms

May 28th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

What new shows lie ahead? Last week’s Upfronts gave us the answer. The allure of so many new shows is impossible for me to resist, and thus this is the first in a four part series discussing the new network shows for Fall. I’m not discussing summer additions, since most of those have already offered previews and various trailers or other promotional materials, so they’re more established, and since I have to cut it off somewhere. I’m also not discussing new cable shows, despite the cable channels being part of the Upfronts this year (as Amanda Lotz describes here), since there are so many channels that it becomes impossible to know when to stop.

Those warnings, offered, let’s begin.

And I start with the large crop of new comedies, 13 between the Big Four to be exact (The CW doesn’t believe in [intentional] comedy anymore, so it seems). This is a huge freshman class, and it suggests the degree to which all that crap about sitcoms being dead was so very wrong. Indeed, and as the third installment in this series suggests too, 2010-2011 promises to be just as full of procedurals and comedies as any point in television history.

The problem with evaluating new sitcoms is that the trailers must establish the sit(uation) in the sitcom, and to do so they nearly always create little more than archetypes and stereotypes. The challenge for any comedy is to live and breathe beyond those types, to play with and around them, and to be original in doing so, and sometimes none of that happens until the pilot is done and dusted. So I’m hesitant to crown any of these excellent at this point. But I’m more than happy to crown some of them as horrific.

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Let’s start with NBC (see their trailers here), who as Derek Kompare notes here in his post on the network’s attempts to change its brand identity as Erstwhile Loser at these Upfronts, has a lot to prove and a lot to play for.

  • Friends with Benefits looks painfully bad, and if nothing is scheduled against it that you like, please take up a hobby because it could hurt you. Luckily, its title is bad enough to warn you away, I hope. It reeks of the network trying to announce that it’s cool and hip, but that hip is the broken hip on the cool cadaver of comedy. I don’t really get who they’re pitching this at: in an age of CW and Internet porn, surely anyone who wants titillation can find it elsewhere, so what’s left in this tepid looking show but a badly-executed would-be romcom? I don’t plan on finding out. Though I will give points for the Yo-Yo Ma gag.
  • The Paul Reiser Show doesn’t look as puke-drenched, but it is a bit sad to see Reiser once more riding the Seinfeld coattails (Mad About You being the original Kenny Bania), this time trying to do something Curb Your Enthusiasm-like. It’s meta and it’s singlecam, and but he’s Paul Reiser, not Larry David (and as Seinfeld told us, listening to Bania is like being beaten with a bag of oranges). This is the kind of format that cable will always do way better, which makes me wonder if someone in the NBC-Universal cable division was filling in for an NBC exec the day this one got greenlit. Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine unobjectionable, blah comedy, but I’d like something more.
  • Perfect Couples, which focuses on three different young couples, is only meh for me – not bad, not good. Best case scenario: it learns from How I Met Your Mother how to do funny couples humor and delivers to the same audience. Worst case scenario: it looks like a really bad hybrid of HIMYM and Friends that burns out after the he says/she says humor runs dry. The tester: if they make jokes about men and women’s different reactions to the prospect of going shopping in the first three episodes, it’s gonna be bad (‘cause they already did the “she takes all the space in the bed” joke in the trailer, so thin ice has been courted already).
  • Outsourced is a clear example of what I mention above, regarding pilots and types. Set in a call center in India, this show’s potential to peddle endless Indian stereotypes uncritically and moronically is vast. But it’s also a very rare beast in being an American show (a sitcom, no less!) set outside America with predominantly non-American characters, so the upside is worth tuning in for. I’m not getting my hopes up, but it would be nice if it works.

Overall, then, I just don’t see NBC returning to greatness with these comedies, though with The Office, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, and Community, that’s not their problem, so tune in later for discussion of their dramas.

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ABC has three new comedies of its own (see all their trailers here), stoked on by the success of Modern Family and Cougar Town (and the impressiveness of The Middle, albeit to middling ratings):

  • Mr. Sunshine, starring Matthew Perry as the manager of a sports arena, has me very excited. Why? Allison Janney. I looooove Allison Janney. CJ Cregg was one of the very best characters on television, and Janney is brilliant in all things. She also has history opposite Perry. This looks like it could be a smart comedy, and it’s certainly something different (a manager of a sports arena? Pa Brady never did that!), which may doom it on network TV, and maybe I’m letting my love of Janney carry this too far, but a person has to believe in something, and I believe in Allison Janney. The trailer looks like Sports Night meets The Larry Sanders Show.
  • Happy Endings, however, looks to be in competition with Friends with Benefits for lamest new comedy. Elisha Cuthbert stars as … oh, I don’t care, and neither should you. She is close to a polar opposite to Janney in terms of acting skills. Trailers for comedies risk taking the only funny bits in the show, but here there are none, a sadly telling indicator of the horror that lies ahead. Don’t get me wrong – romcoms can be good, but this isn’t.
  • Better Together strikes me as a very conventional sitcom. Kind of like Perfect Couples, it offers three couples, here a sister and her recent fiancé, a longtime unmarried couple, and their parents. With a fairly decent cast of sitcom-ready actors, it looks competent, if unspectacular, the kind of show I might find amusing yet not feel I need to follow. Dharma and Greg for the 2010s.

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In terms of branding, I give the gold star to FOX (see all their clips here), who are launching four new comedies, three of which are exactly the kind of comedies you’d expect from the network.

  • When people said that My Name is Earl should’ve gone to FOX, where it would’ve been a better tonal fit, clearly Greg Garcia listened and took Raising Hope there. Once more offering a seriously messed up hero and supporting characters, the show follows the arrival of a new baby in the lead’s life. Suitably irreverent, edgy, and very funny, this show looks quite good, I must admit, and it will nicely fit the Earl-sized hole in my viewing schedule. Any show with a flashback scene of a baby riding down a street with his head sticking out the bottom of a car must be good, right?
  • Running Wilde also brings back a great talent to the small box, in the form of Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, with Will Arnett starring no less. Arnett is so fun to watch on screen, and the plot seems suitably ludicrous that I will definitely be watching when it starts. Offbeat, strange, and overdone in fun ways, it could be very good.
  • Mixed Signals is another Friends/HIMYM-type show in a year with many of them. It seems fairly adept, perhaps the best of the bunch, yet I’m not sure the market analysis that’s told all these execs that people really, really want more of these types of shows is right, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see most fall my the wayside. Perhaps the studios are simply moving romcoms to TV and away from film since they don’t think they’ll succeed in 3D.
  • Bob’s Burgers is another animated sitcom, but miraculously NOT from Seth McFarlane. The bits I saw seemed resolutely Adult Swim-y in their bit-ishness and low grade visual style. I’m guessing this is too cheap looking for network TV, and I give it a short life, especially if it’s as ho-hum as the clips suggest.

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CBS only has two new comedies (see them here):

  • Shit My Dad Says promised to be amusing if only to hear how people read the title on network TV. And it stars William Shatner as an irascible, opinionated old guy. So I expected a lot more, but the trailer is resolutely unfunny. Wow, who would’ve thought that a Twitter feed wasn’t enough to build a show off? At this point, studios should be more respectful of The Shat – don’t let this be his last role, CBS!
  • Mike and Molly bothers me, since it seems entirely premised on the fact that its stars are heavy (even the title graphics, at present, are of a scale). Fat jokes are fine for five minute segments in a stand-up routine (or for Twitter feeds?), but as the basis of a show, the format seems too doomed to the bi-polar swing between self-loathing and inspirational “we’re all beautiful” platitudes. I’d rather a show like Roseanne where the stars are heavy but just get on with being funny about a variety of topics. I’d hold out more hope that they move away from that premise in due time, but it’s from Chuck Lorre, so comic genius and sophistication don’t seem to be in the cards.

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And those are the comedies. Next up: reality television.

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TV Shows Being Canceled in the Forest … But Who Hears Them?

June 7th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

As the dust from the Upfronts settles, and looking at what got canceled this year, I’m inclined first to divide the shows into four categories – those that I liked, those that I don’t particularly care one way or the other about, those that I’m actively glad to see go, and those that I simply didn’t know existed or never watched so I can’t pass judgment. Here’s the lists, then some comments:

Those I Liked
Subdivided into:

  • Those whose time had probably come: ER
  • Those whose time had not come, and that I’m pissed to see go: Boston Legal, My Name is Earl, Pushing Daisies
  • Those that I watched occasionally, enjoyed when I did, but am not choked to see go: Reaper, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, Without a Trace

Those I’m Indifferent About
Dirty Sexy Money, Eli Stone, Everybody Hates Chris, The Game, Harper’s Island, Hole in the Wall, Life, Life on Mars, My Own Worst Enemy, The Unit, The Unusuals

Those I’m Happy to See Leave My Television

  • According to Jim (about as funny as hardwood)
  • Deal or No Deal (women on show with cases and contestants who don’t understand math)
  • Do Not Disturb (some promise, but more stereotypes and stupidity than promise, alas)
  • The Ex List (I was prepared to dislike it, but it was ultimately more incompetent than annoying)
  • Howie Do It (So. Very. Very. Painfully. Unfunny)
  • Kath and Kim (if I had to torture someone, I’d make them watch this, Clockwork Orange style. Even Cheney would agree that constitutes bona fide torture)
  • Knight Rider (who knew I’d miss David Hasselhoff? It was that bad)
  • Lipstick Jungle (I never really liked Sex and the City, so why would I like its poor rip-off?)
  • Prison Break (come on, how many prisons does a guy break out of in one lifetime?!)
  • Samantha Who? (vile)

Those I Never Really Knew
4Real, 13: Fear is Real, America’s Toughest Jobs, The Chopping Block, Crusoe, Cupid, Easy Money, The Eleventh Hour, Game Show in My Head, Homeland Security USA, In Harm’s Way, In the Motherhood, Kings, Momma’s Boys, Opportunity Knocks, The Osbournes: Reloaded, Privileged, Secret Millionaire, Sit Down Shut Up, Superstars of Dance, Valentine

Dividing them up into lists like this makes me realize how much on television I simply don’t watch. And I watch quite a lot of television. As a television researcher and instructor, I try to make it my business to watch a lot of stuff, even if I’m not liking it, just so that I have a sense of what’s out there. So I’d guess that I watch a more diverse list of shows than do many viewers. Yet not only were there a lot of cancellations of shows that I didn’t watch, but some of them I’ve never even heard of. It’s worth bearing in mind when the news covers the inevitable “Save ____” campaigns that many of us simply don’t know about much of what’s on television, and thus don’t care about lots of cancellations.

I think here of a neat essay by Ien Ang called “In the Realm of Uncertainty” (included in Living Room Wars) in which she argues that much communication fails, and is characterized by a considerable amount of chaos. Amidst excited discussions of social networking sites and Web 2.0 allowing us to share everything with people, and even amidst some critics’ reminders that such sites can be hijacked by corporate PR efforts, we’re often invited to think of today’s media consumer as well-informed, and of the system as working well. But is it really? Yes, large amounts of information might be at our finger tips if we went looking for it, but our media consumption is still characterized by a lot of happenstance and chaos. Many shows not only pass us by, but pass us by unnoticed.

Thinking about my own beloved texts gives clear evidence of how elusive much media is. I discovered The Wire prior to Season 4’s broadcast, and I hadn’t even heard of it until Season 3 had begun. I came late to The West Wing. And to Buffy. Even The Simpsons took me a few seasons to discover. And those are all on major channels. Add to the mix shows on lesser-known cable channels, and there are literally hundreds of shows at any given time that might be great, but that I’m not hearing about. It’s not just me, either, of course – I’m used to hearing fellow television fans give voice to considerable anxiety, about not having time to watch everything they want to watch, and about possibly missing out on a great, yet unknown show.

It’s par for course to complain about the over-hyping of things (witness the recent omnipresence of Will Ferrell, prior to the release of Land of the Lost), but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that pervasive hype is necessarily successful in getting the word about shows out. How could either the television industry or fans better circulate information about shows? Of course, I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that all canceled, unknown shows were worth saving, but nor should we assume that they were all worth canceling. This year is no different from others, with many cancellations, so how could the industry, writers, critics, and/or fans try to improve our information center and improve how we hear about shows, rather than simply hope that next year the viewing public will all discover all the shows we love, and nothing we dislike will ever be canceled again?

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“The Year the Media Died”

June 5th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

A neat video that anyone interested in advertising and television should enjoy:

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Upfronts 2009—Why Should We Care?

May 28th, 2009 | Amanda Lotz

[Note from Jonathan: given my recent posts on the Upfronts, I thought I should go to an expert on the topic, Amanda Lotz, Associate Prof. of Communication Studies at University of Michigan, to ask for some analysis. Amanda has attended the Upfronts in the past, and her research on the topic can be found here and here. Welcome, Amanda]


The most intriguing aspect of this year’s upfronts was not whether Chuck would find a place on the NBC schedule nor does it have anything to do with the machinations that led to Medium’s transplantation from NBC to CBS in the fall. In fact, despite the galas, celebrations, and pounds of cocktail shrimp, the crucial question of this year’s upfront remains to be answered. Although perennially a possibility, this year more than others seems ripe for a reallocation of spending from broadcast to cable for primetime viewers.

There is certainly no good reason why this should particularly happen this year instead of in years past. For more than two decades, advertisers have paid steadily more for less in an effort to reach the diminishing “mass” audience. Despite thinning audiences, broadcasters maintained cachet as the most mass alternative in a fragmenting world. What has changed recently, however, is that cable increasingly offers a viable alternative as broadcast audiences for midrange shows continue to fall and ratings for original cable dramas climb. Perhaps some of the lack of excitement regarding the broadcast upfront presentations this year results from the fact that the programming being announced just isn’t that exciting, and even the game of handicapping apparently boneheaded moves has lost some luster as fewer and fewer care much about the programs on offer. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of good programming on television—perhaps more so than at any other time. Indeed, a lot of good programs won’t make it back next season—as it isn’t enough just to be good anymore. There is also a lot of great programming on the air. The trouble for broadcasters is that a lot of the good and great original programming can’t be found on their channels.

Increasingly, it is not just the television literati that has found favorite shows airing on cable. Sure, the New York Times-set will carry on endlessly about Mad Men and FX still offers sophisticated drama that now largely surpass the pay-cabler it once emulated, but USA and TNT have become destinations for reliably good series. Most offer a blend of convention (an episodic mystery or case) and an eccentric character or characters and far snappier writing than the average broadcast procedural. Many are also much less dark than the murderous fare that continues to succeed with the remaining “mass” audience, particularly for CBS. Turner will have seven original dramas on the air this summer (that’s one more than NBC’s fall schedule) and TNT’s The Closer averaged 5.8 million viewers this spring, while USA routinely beats The CW and even NBC in key demos — just to offer some sense of the shifting program terrain.

The difference, I’d argue, between these cable series and those offered by broadcasters is an emphasis on intriguing characters that help make what might otherwise be tried and trite program conventions tiresome. The cable shows have largely avoided the most conventional franchise formulas and somehow nuanced the stability such shows offer (the solving of crimes, pulling of capers). Indeed, the quirkiness of their characters may be particular to cable; precisely what makes the cable characters interesting is what might make them unappealing to broadcast’s still slightly more mass audience.

Which brings me back to the remaining excitement of this year’s upfront—will advertisers refuse to buy to broadcast the old way—based on minimal increase or decrease in last year’s rate and force a reevaluation of advertising pricing that makes more sense in the current television competitive environment. Certainly, the truly revolutionary shift actually warranted remains difficult to imagine even in this still change-embracing milieu. But some sort of meaningful shot over the bow is possible that suggests the beginning of a valuation of advertising time between cable and broadcast prime time that makes some sense.

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The CW Upfronts

May 24th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

Finishing our tour through this Fall’s TV schedule, let’s look at the CW.

Remember when The WB network began and it had a fair amount of African American programming, but then it went for wealthy young white women? Then UPN also programmed a lot of African American content. Then the two merged, and African American shows were ghettoized into one night so that the wealthy young white women could hold court for the other nights. Well, with the cancellation of The Game and Everybody Hates Chris, the CW can now boldly announce that CW stands for Completely White. (Okay, there’s Tyra and there’s the kid on 90210, but not much else.)

Gone, too, are 13: Fear is Real, 4Real, Easy Money, In Harm’s Way, Privileged, Reaper, and Valentine.

What’s new? After the fold …
Read more…

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CBS Upfronts

May 21st, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

key_art_medium

CBS’s turn to unveil their schedule came yesterday. But first, fellow Extratextual Ivan Askwith just posted some neat thoughts about serial television, and I’d hate for them to be swallowed amidst my upfront posts, so please scroll down to read those too.

As for CBS, there’s no eleventh hour reprieve for The Eleventh Hour, Without a Trace vanished, The Ex List is now on the ex-show list, Worst Week certainly had its worst week, The Unit got a bullet between the eyes, Harper’s Island experienced a horrific end too, and Game Show in My Head will remain in the head.

However, Patricia Arquette went from speaking to the dead to reincarnating the dead, as her Medium, just a day after getting tossed by NBC, is now on CBS. It will be on a new Women Who Talk to Dead People Friday, along with Ghost Whisperer.

Below the fold are CBS’ new shows, and that whole “rescued from death” theme is prevalent:

Read more…

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Upfront Aside: The Emergence of Limited-Run Serial Drama

May 21st, 2009 | Ivan Askwith

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With all of the standard noise and fanfare this week around the network upfront announcements, I almost didn’t notice this passing comment from Steve McPherson, President of the ABC Entertainment Group, about the forthcoming “re-imagination” of V:

“[It has a] normal order right now, 13 episodes. We really, from the beginning, want to craft a whole series, and we’d like to be able to announce what that is at the time that it airs. At this point we believe it’s going to be in four parts, and those will be anything from 13 to 22 episodes in each part. But it will have a beginning, middle and end,” he added.”

While the creative and business benefits of this approach will make intuitive sense to audiences of telenovelas (which are structured as long-form but limited-duration narratives) and non-American networks such as the BBC (where even mainstream hits such as “The Office” and “Life on Mars” end after only 1-2 seasons), it strikes me as proof of an important evolution among American television networks, where high-performing shows are extended indefinitely as “sure bets.”

The problem, of course, is that indefinite renewal works far better for some types of narrative (e.g, sitcoms, procedurals, episodic dramas) than others (i.e. long-form, evolving and complex narratives). I’ve addressed this topic in more depth in the chapter that I contributed to Reading Lost
, which considered some of the motives that compelled ABC to approve a firm end-date for Lost several years in advance.

In the closing paragraph of that chapter, I proposed that ABC’s unconventional (and intelligent) decision to let Lost‘s showrunners work toward an established ending could have significant implications for the future of American network television:

After LOST’s first season, critics and writers suggested that the show’s most important contribution was that it cleared the path for a new wave of television programmes with rich details and complex, rewarding narratives. If Fox is right, and LOST’s final three seasons demonstrate the importance of an established end date in developing a coherent and compelling serial narrative, the show may accomplish something even more important. It may provide the precedent for a new era of television narratives that have the freedom to end.

I believed it when I wrote it, and I believe it even more now. At the same event, McPherson — who authorized Lost‘s finite run — conceded that:

I think that was obviously a tough decision a few years ago to give it an ending, but I think it really paid off. This season was stronger than it’s ever been because there wasn’t an infinite middle to the show. So I think, giving them an end date, you’re going to see probably some of the strongest writing you’ve ever seen on the show, because they’ve been able to really retrofit from exactly where they want to end up.

To me, it looks like V is being granted the golden opportunity that Lost never got: the chance to plan a beginning, middle and end from the beginning. Here’s hoping V makes good use of it.

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