The Best (Fictional) Quarterback of All Time

Building a Better Bryce Harper

The Midseason TV Viewing Guide

What to watch while you wait for ‘Game of Thrones’

It’s no secret that there’s far too much TV for any sane person to credibly process. Though True Detective sucked up all the oxygen (and most of the Lone Star) this winter, it was only one of dozens of new shows to premiere in the first three months of 2014. Some of these shows are worthwhile; many of them are awful. Who has time to commit if you barely have time to decide? Especially when I’m more than happy to do the deciding for you. Think of what follows not so much as a collection of reviews but as a consumer’s guide to how best to spend your hard-earned free time. Friends don’t let friends watch bad TV. And not even the Yellow King would let you watch Mixology.

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Believe

NBC
Sundays, 9 p.m.

Last week the Good Samaritans at the A.V. Club compiled a list of TV tropes that ought to be consigned to the dustbin of history. After considering antlers and surprise car crashes, I finally settled on the cliché I’d suggest adding to their dishonor roll: magical kids. You know the type I’m talking about: mysterious little moppets imbued with the power to shape worlds and melt hearts, their sticky-fingered innocence as much a sop to viewers’ sympathy as a sign of creative stalling. Think of Walt on Lost, Jake on Touch, or Jake on Resurrection (Jake is a very popular name in the magic nonsense community) — and then grit your teeth with frustration. The longer showrunners stay vague about the actual abilities of these precocious tykes, the more time they have to avoid making concrete commitments about the rules and direction of their shows — exactly the sort of decisions that ought to have been made well before cameras starting rolling.

This is Believe in a nutshell. It’s a magical kid show of the worst order made by a brain trust that really ought to know better. Executive producer J.J. Abrams has made a career out of asking super-cool questions and then moving on to galaxies far, far away before bothering to consider the answers, but the real shame is seeing brilliant director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) credited as the creator here. No one working in Hollywood has a more palpable sense of wonder than Cuarón, and his visual spark made Believe’s pilot a thousand times more interesting than it otherwise might have been. But imagination alone can’t fuel a successful TV series.1 You also need strong characters, manageable stakes, and a firm sense of purpose. In lieu of any of this, Believe gives us Bo.

Wise as a sachem and cute as a button, Bo (Johnny Sequoyah) is the magical kid at the heart of Believe. She’s a towheaded tyke whose abilities include attracting butterflies and birds, moving cop cars with her brain, and intuiting sappy exposition from the minds of the infirm. What Bo can actually do and, more crucially, why we should care if she does it are questions for another day — possibly another series. Instead, viewers are overwhelmed with fireworks and treacle: In the pilot, Delroy Lindo (playing a heroic zealot named Milton Winter) stages a dramatic jailbreak to free Jake McLaughlin’s Tate, a Rigginsy brooder chosen by fate and genetics to be Bo’s true protector. (Give her “good organic food and comfy accommodations,” Milton instructs Tate with the beatific grin of a Whole Foods stockholder.) Soon Tate and Bo are on the run from gun-waving super-soldiers under the command of Roman Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan, at least putting his checks to good use), a “world-famous geneticist” who wants to control Bo’s powers for some reason or another. (Maybe there’s a cop car blocking his driveway?) If it sounds confusing and vague, that’s because it is. It’d be dull if it weren’t so punishingly loud. Believe pitches us into the middle of Winter and Skouras’s battle over Bo without ever pausing to make us care about the soldiers or the outcome. It’s a leap of faith that falls flat.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

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Enlisted

Fox
Fridays, 9 p.m.

It usually takes comedies upward of 10 episodes to find themselves. Enlisted deployed fully formed: Its warm and engaging voice rang out like a drill sergeant’s right from the pilot. The problem the show is facing isn’t one of quality, it’s quantity: Unless ratings drastically improve, Enlisted’s tour of duty is likely to last only 13 episodes. This aggression will not stand!

Created by Kevin Biegel (Cougar Town), Enlisted is the story of a square-jawed war hero named Pete Hill who gets sent home from Afghanistan after saluting a commanding officer with a fist to the face. Back in the States, Pete finds himself demoted to Fort McGee, an Army base somewhere in the weirdo wilds of Florida, and tasked with leading a motley crew of soldiers relegated to Rear Deployment. Nicknamed “Rear D,” these are the misfits stuck guarding the homeland because they’re too incompetent to be sent anywhere else. Among Pete’s charges are his two kid brothers: sarcastic slacker Derrick (Chris Lowell) and enthusiastic dim bulb Randy (Parker Young). The three have a wonderfully fractious fraternal chemistry, and the collection of comics and character actors who constitute the rest of the unit — Getting On’s Mel Rodriguez and Tania Gunadi are particular delights — make for great foils. Though there are no breakout stars, the vibe is pure Stripes, a loving mix of antiauthoritarian insouciance and borderline treasonous glee.

But Enlisted is actually up to more than just tank gags. Last week’s episode, “Vets,” was one of the best half hours I’ve seen this year. It mixed high-test laughs — Sergeant Major Keith David explaining his love for sausage fests was worthy of a 21-gun salute — with a surprisingly nuanced exploration of post-traumatic stress and how not all war wounds are visible. (It also featured the immortal Stacy Keach in a bar brawl, so it basically has a lifetime pass in my book.) Enlisted isn’t jingoistic; it accepts that there are any number of valid reasons to put on boots and a uniform. What interests Biegel isn’t the way those differences come into conflict, but rather how they can be coaxed to march together — if not in harmony, then at least in time.

There ought to be a place even in a pacifist’s heart for a show as warm and playful as this one. Why Fox chairman Kevin Reilly seems cold to its charms is beyond me: Not only is he dumping the show on Friday nights, he’s also airing it out of order, thus robbing it of any consistency. When I interviewed him for my podcast, it was pretty clear that Enlisted is likely to be decommed before next season. Close ranks now while there’s still time.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): Y

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Crisis

NBC
Sundays, 10 p.m.

I feel for the network drama departments. Really, I do. Hemorrhaging audiences, challenged by the flexibility of cable, the pressure they feel to innovate must be excruciating. How do you create something that can compete with the complicated braininess of a Breaking Bad while reaching an audience as large as NCIS? The answer is, you probably can’t. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. And the results of that Sisyphean effort often look very much like Crisis: overstuffed shows built to be everything that wind up being a whole lot of nothing.

What’s impressive about Crisis is the way it screws up from the start. The big hook cooked up by creator Rand Ravich — previously best known for Life, a charming NBC show that introduced a nation to Damian Lewis’s American accent and his tiny, tiny mouth — is the high-profile kidnapping of dozens of prep school students during a field trip from D.C. to New York. (If you ask me, the bus driver erred by taking the abandoned dirt road that apparently connects the Beltway to the BQE.) These students are the elite offspring of the 1 percent: the model-beautiful daughters of billionaires and the thick-necked sons of presidents and diplomats. As hostages, these laxbros and queen bees are plenty valuable. But as objects of sympathy? They’re total zeroes. Suggesting that the fate of a busload of Hollister models might compel people to watch — and to root for anyone other than the kidnappers – suggests a massive misread of audience sensibilities. It’s enough to make you wonder if Ravich cheers for James Spader in old John Hughes movies.

He pours a thick slurry of plot atop this fatal flaw, a conspiracy that ranges from Langley to the Far East. Too bad the characters are paper-thin. Dermot Mulroney — wearing what appears to be a Dermot Mulroney wig — is an ex–CIA agent turned field trip chaperone turned evil mastermind. Lance Gross does his best as a Secret Service agent having the worst first day ever. Reliable movie muscle Max Martini is on hand as … reliable muscle. Each episode will rope in the powerful parents as unwilling collaborators as they use their access to the levers of power to leverage their kids’ survival. Week 1 introduced Gillian Anderson as an icy executive whose Mean Girl daughter is revealed to be her niece. The real mom is Anderson’s sister, played by Rachael Taylor, who just happens to be the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. Crisis is awash with convenient coincidences like this, not to mention meaningful manila envelopes and Very Serious People having meetings in rooms adorned with many, many screens. But there’s a difference between keeping busy and getting anything done.

I suppose the goal here was to marry the adrenalized kick of a 24 with the compelling complexities of a Lost, cross-breeding two of the last network dramas to move the national needle. But as with a whole host of other flashy hours with one-word titles (including Believe and Resurrection — both of which could easily be called Why?), Crisis spends so much time constructing a complicated world that it forgets to populate it with anyone worth watching. Say what you will about the ticking clock and the polar bear, but 10 years later people are still talking about Jack Bauer and Sawyer. I couldn’t remember a single character on Crisis after 10 minutes.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

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Doll & Em

HBO
Wednesdays, 10 p.m.

No one finds Hollywood more endlessly fascinating and amusing than the people who do business there. Instead of staring up at the hot California sun, industry types are often too busy gazing at their own infinitely interesting navels. It’s a self-regard that’s been played for satire, with varying degrees of success, across numerous cable shows, from Showtime’s forever-running Episodes to HBO’s recent Hello Ladies. Doll & Em, which HBO is burning off over the next three Wednesdays, brings a fresh perspective to what has become a tiresome and familiar perspective. For one thing, it’s actually about ladies, not the juiced-up pursuit of them. Brits and real-life BFFs Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom) and Dolly Wells (The IT Crowd) play lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. (The two also wrote and produced the series; it debuted in the U.K. in February on the Sky Living channel.) On the show, Emily is a much bigger star than she actually is (she’s headlining a “female Godfather” tentpole movie costarring Susan Sarandon) and Dolly is a much bigger mess. The series begins when Dolly, freshly dumped, decamps to Los Angeles to decompress and work as Emily’s assistant. That these two plans are directly at odds with one another fuels the plot and cues the cringing.

Despite my exhaustion with wink-wink celebrity narcissism — fictional Emily’s coffee order (a three-shot, extra foamy latte served in a medium cup) is practically a novella — and the diminishing returns of uncomfortable, Ricky Gervais–style comedy, Doll & Em captured my interest. Mortimer has long been one of my favorite actresses (have you seen her in Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing?), and it’s a relief to see her freed from the verbose shackles of The Newsroom. She and the gawky, intense Wells make for a formidable pairing. There’s an emotional neediness at the core of their friendship that makes for a fascinating juxtaposition with their shared hunger for celebrity and acceptance. When a middle-aged makeup artist attempts to bond with the fortysomething Mortimer over the pleasures of being too old to be lusted after, an entire Atlantic Ocean of resentment and despair bubbles over behind the latter’s eyes. There’s the high-fiving Bro-llywood of sausage fantasies like Entourage, and then there’s this. The weather’s the same, but the climate is entirely different.

Moments like these kept me watching, even as the show’s momentum began to lag. Doll & Em walks a fine line between intimate and amateurish; series director Azazel Jacobs keeps the focus tight on his leads even when there isn’t all that much to see. Whatever conflict exists stems from the rather ridiculous conceit that Em would be vain enough to hire her troubled best friend and that Doll would be desperate enough to go along with it. The jealousy that percolates between the two is compelling, but is made less so by the cameo appearance of John Cusack (playing himself) to help articulate it. Doll & Em has a unique point of view. It doesn’t need to fall back on the same old special effects.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): Y

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Surviving Jack

Fox
Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.

Ideas in the TV business, when they exist at all, arrive in waves. And so Surviving Jack is the third nostalgia-fueled sitcom of the 2013-14 season about young men growing up under the yoke of idiosyncratic fathers. The ’80s-set, Jeff Garlin–starring The Goldbergs, on ABC, is probably the best of the lot. NBC’s backward-looking Growing Up Fisher, with J.K. Simmons, is easily the worst. Into the mushy middle comes Fox’s latest, starring the estimable Chris Meloni as a whiskey-swilling, tough-love-dispensing paterfamilias. Freed from the shackles of the SVU, Meloni takes to the comedic role the way he once took to a summer camp refrigerator. Too bad the show built around him feels so much like leftovers.

Jack is the second series to be mined from the childhood and/or Twitter feed of occasional Grantland contributor Justin Halpern. The first, starring William Shatner as the shit-saying dad, died quickly on CBS in 2011. This show is better, though not by much. Family sitcoms, first and foremost, have to make you care about the family. Outside of Meloni’s militaristic intensity — he makes his Skinemax-watching son run laps around the block at 3 a.m. — the Dunlevy clan are a particularly uninspiring lot. The criminally underused Rachael Harris does her best with a role that basically requires her to get out of her onscreen husband’s way; Connor Buckley and Claudia Lee are plausible as teenagerish children. The problem is that Jack Dunlevy isn’t as wild as the show needs him to be; if you take away the specifics of his hardassery, he’s just another TV father struggling to connect with his girl-crazy son and boy-crazy daughter.

Originality wouldn’t matter much if the jokes were good. But they’re not. Instead, Jack is another in a long line of placeholder sitcoms, where context is used as a crude stand-in for comedy. The show is set in 1991 and treats even the most basic details of the era as hilarious. Yes, American Gladiators was popular. So was Christian Slater. These facts are not inherently funny, unless you’re the guy who just green-lit Mind Games. Rather than spend money on better punch lines, Fox instead seems to have blown its budget licensing every hit single from 1987 to 1993: Everyone from Jesus Jones to EMF is getting a fat royalty check off this one. I would reach for a Hypercolor T-shirt reference to make a point about lazy ’90s gags, but the pilot episode does it for me. It takes more than a good memory — and one great performance — to make a TV show worth watching.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

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Review

Comedy Central
Thursdays, 10 p.m.

Andy Daly is one of comedy’s most reliable That Guys. With a Dennis the Menace–like mop of blond hair combed carefully over a conventionally friendly face, he looks like an escapee from Pleasantville or the original model for The Onion’s dependably ignorant Area Man. He’d be utterly forgettable if his aggressive ordinariness didn’t make him stand out.

Though Daly’s found plenty of work as a straight man in wobbly projects ranging from Reno 911! to Eastbound & Down, Review is the perfect vehicle for his designated-driver personality. Daly plays Forrest MacNeil, a blazered-and-khaki’d professional critic who has taken it upon himself to review life experiences, from attending a senior prom to becoming addicted to drugs. Each episode follows Forrest as he accepts the challenge and then takes it to unpredictably ridiculous extremes: A review of stealing leads to an intern taking a bullet in the buttocks; the aforementioned senior prom becomes a lot more fun once the cocaine addiction makes a crossover appearance.

What elevates Review from sketch-show silliness is Daly himself. He appears to have no ego whatsoever: He knows he comes across as lame, and he embraces it. Watching him awkwardly infiltrate an African American family’s barbecue in order to become a better racist is excruciating in the best possible way. It’s like using a slice of Wonder Bread to sop up a Szechuan hot pot. It turns out something super bland can soak up a ton of spice.2

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): Y

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Mixology

ABC
Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.

My first thought upon watching the Mixology pilot was that there was no plausible way ABC had actually green-lit such toxic sludge, that there had to be darker forces at work. Perhaps Fox was responsible as part of a false-flag operation to draw attention away from its own reprehensible Dads? Or perhaps scheduling something so noxious in the cushy, post–Modern Family time slot was an act of protest on the part of ABC’s embattled entertainment president, Paul Lee. “If you don’t like the well-made comfort food of Trophy Wife,” he seemed to be saying, “let’s see how you like feasting on rotten eggs.”

The truth is a lot uglier — though still not as ugly as Mixology. Created by The Hangover scriptwriting team of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the show is thematically abhorrent, structurally inept, and deeply, deeply cynical. Set in one of those velvet-draped airplane hangars that Hollywood tries to pass off as a Manhattan bar and spanning one wacky night in the life of 11 assholes, Mixology is the type of series that ticks all the boxes creatively challenged executives want in a comedy: young, sexy, edgy. Of course, ABC already had a show like that in Happy Endings, a brilliant series that came with a few other adjectives of its own, words Lee would do well to remember like “clever,” “smart,” “likable,” and “funny.” Mixology is the show that happens when you empower people who think Axe Body Spray commercials are documentaries.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the pilot, in which Andrew Santino’s hate-spewing Bruce calls his best friend’s ex a whore and a “pig fart” before going off in search of drunk girls to “bang out.” Not to be outdone, Ginger Gonzaga’s Maya yearns for a partner man enough to “smack [her] in the mouth.” The most appealing part of the episode is when Adam Campbell’s Ron vomits into a handbag. The smug voice-over persists in insisting that Mixology is about young people who aim “to find love” even while the script keeps trying to roofie us with cheap booze and crass come-ons. It’s enough to drive a drinking man onto the wagon. At least Bruce couldn’t follow you there.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

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PREVIOUSLY REVIEWED

Broad City
Comedy Central
Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m.

This show was funny when it premiered. It’s close to unmissable now.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): Y

♦♦♦

Intelligence
CBS
Mondays, 10 p.m.

Pretty, dumb.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

♦♦♦

Rake
Fox
Fridays, 8 p.m.

Soon to be banished to that great leaf fire in the sky.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

♦♦♦

About a Boy and Growing Up Fisher

NBC
Tuesdays, 9 & 9:30 p.m.

Promising/punishing.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): Y/N

♦♦♦

The Red Road
SundanceTV
Thursdays, 9 p.m.

Too long and winding.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

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Hannibal
NBC
Fridays, 10 p.m.

Delicious.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): Y

♦♦♦

Resurrection
ABC
Sundays, 9 p.m.

Better off dead.

SHOULD YOU WATCH (Y/N): N

Filed Under: TV

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald

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