Last week, on the eve of the broadcast upfronts, I took the temperature of where things stood for each network, considering what was needed and what was on the way. Now the time for speculation is over. This week, all four networks put their best faces forward — or had their late-night hosts do it for them — and presented their new offerings for the 2014-15 season. Outside of some last-minute How I Met Your Daddy drama, it’s been a remarkably placid affair, with few surprises and even fewer evident disasters. Though it seems cruel to weigh in on newcomers while the parties are still raging, TV is a cruel business. (Just ask Sarah Baker, who went from the talk of the town on Monday night to exiting CBS’s The Odd Couple on Tuesday morning.) Even though the ratings battles won’t begin until the fall, the perception battle is already well under way. With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the dozens of new series coming down the pike.
When it was in last place, NBC could be counted on for truly insane decision-making that occasionally resulted in actual brilliance. Now that it’s on top — at least in the much-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic — the network seems more than happy to play it safe. With The Blacklist established as a moneymaker, NBC has offered up a schedule that is almost disturbing in its un-NBCness. Where is this year’s terrible comedy? Where is this year’s Ironside? (Sorry, that may have been redundant.) Instead, the schedule announced by entertainment president Jennifer Salke appears utterly reasonable and totally uninspired. It’s built around the popular appeal of oversize characters like Raymond Reddington, but evinces none of his expectation-rattling élan. Everything here appears sober as a judge — albeit not the boozehound Kate Walsh is playing in NBC’s one obvious reach. Even the long-expected death of comedy on NBC’s Thursday nights seems strangely tidy. Instead of ordering the Amy Poehler–produced Old Soul to series and pairing it with the final 13 episodes of Parks and Recreation, NBC decided to pass on Soul entirely and delay the last season of Parks until sometime in 2015. (Soon to take over Thursday nights? Why, it’s The Blacklist!) I admire the decisiveness even as I mourn the loss. NBC isn’t messing around anymore, which is good for its bottom line, but kind of a bummer for us. Its messes were often more entertaining than its successes.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The trailer is terrible. But it’s worth remembering that the only thing harder than making a decent trailer out of a 22-minute comedy pilot is making a decent 22-minute comedy pilot. What’s keeping me optimistic about Marry Me — a show that’s been NBC’s no. 1 priority nearly from the moment it bought the pitch — isn’t what’s onscreen, it’s everything that’s occurring off of it. Marry Me, about a long-term couple’s bumpy road to the altar, was created by David Caspe, the guy responsible for the late, lamented Happy Endings. This means he knows a thing or two about how to move a sitcom past a grabby, if limiting, premise. As (not enough of) you know, Happy Endings was ostensibly about one character pulling a Graduate on another, but quickly morphed into a hyperactive ensemble comedy about friendship and freaking Santa. So I have high hopes that Marry Me — starring Happy veteran (and Caspe’s real-life fiancée) Casey Wilson and Ken Marino — will pursue the sort of endearingly oddball comedy that will elevate its otherwise staid situation. Just because it looks generic now doesn’t mean it will stay that way.
Having conquered the multiplex, superheroes are staging an all-out assault on television. After a decade of success with Smallville, the CW is now fully invested in the construction of a miniature DC Universe of its own, with The Flash set to join the not-at-all-bad Arrow this fall. On the big four, however, the shows with the best chance of survival tend to be more cape-adjacent: ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. helps fill in the gaps between summer blockbusters, and Fox’s new Gotham will attempt to tell the story of Batman before he begins.
What no network has done until now is pursue a ground-level comic-book character, one whose backstory and appeal arrive unencumbered by the outsize demands of corporate franchise planning and/or fanboy rage. John Constantine, the “supernatural detective” star of the long-running Vertigo series Hellblazer, is just such a character. And, I have to say, the first glimpse of him in action here looks unexpectedly fantastic. Unlike the dunderheaded Keanu Reeves flick of the same name, Constantine maintains the character’s iconic, louche Britishness. (Welsh actor Matt Ryan is born to wear the trench coat.) And producer David Goyer, who cowrote the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, appears to understand the precise balance of CGI fire and sarcastic brimstone necessary to make the show work. (It helps greatly that Neil Marshall, the man who pulled off Game of Thrones‘s Battle of the Blackwater, directed the pilot.) With Grimm and Hannibal, NBC is already winning with darkness on Friday nights. With Constantine set to join them, NBC’s prospects are brightening already.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and Mission Control, from Will Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez Productions, also sound plenty promising. But with no trailers made available and no debuts until 2015, promise is all we have to go on.
A to Z
In case I didn’t make it clear above, sitcom trailers tend to suck. That’s because the best comedies are vehicles for many stories, not vessels for one big one. It’s why romantic comedies about soul mates tend to sputter as well: We all love Jim and Pam in Season 1; we want to murder them by Season 5. Still, I’m willing to give A to Z — which purports to track the entire history of a couple, from meet-cute to, presumably, arguing in the checkout line at Whole Foods over the organic baby soap — the benefit of the doubt, primarily for its terrific cast. Before carving himself up like a holiday roast, Ben Feldman was doing phenomenal work on Mad Men and Cristin Milioti was so memorable in her doomed, one-season turn on How I Met Your Mother that nearly all of that show’s fans wished they had met her sooner. Love at first sight is a stretch, but it helps that these two are immediately likable. But the truth is, anyone can come up with a pitch like this. We’ll have to wait to see if writer Ben Queen (Cars 2) delivers.
Two roads diverge somewhere in the middle of this trailer. Down one is a surprisingly scabrous comedy about a fortysomething judge who spends her days dispensing justice, sweating vodka, and redefining what it means to “see counsel” in her chambers. Down the other is a predictably redemptive slog about said judge’s transformation into a halfway decent citizen thanks to a cute, minority child being inexplicably thrust into her care. I wish I could be more confident about Bad Judge being able to split the difference, but I’m not. NBC boss Bob Greenblatt has shown very little interest in pushing the envelope when it comes to comedy; why would he start taking broadcast cues from FX now? Speaking of FX, star Kate Walsh appears to have gotten some good practice for her Bad Judge role on Fargo — that’s her nibbling on the scenery as a former stripper turned Minnesota housewife. It seems clear that she’ll be good, even if the show around her isn’t.
Midseason shows also worthy of curiosity: Odyssey, a crazy-ambitious drama about jihad and corporate treason, and Mr. Robinson, a comedy custom-built for Office star Craig Robinson to do whatever it is he wants to do. (Going by the poster, I would assume he mostly wants to sing in front of children.)
State of Affairs
There are all sorts of plausible lessons from the success of Homeland and Scandal. The one networks seem to be most interested in is this: A heavy dose of politics and gunfire can help mask the sudsy taste of even the most mawkish melodrama. State of Affairs heralds Katherine Heigl’s return to television in a role she seems spectacularly ill-suited to play. Charleston Tucker — what a name! — is the brilliant CIA analyst charged with delivering the president’s briefing book each morning, a job that has become considerably tougher since the president’s son, who was also Charleston’s fiancé, was killed by militants. Because of that tragedy, Tucker is now indistinguishable from most professional women on TV these days: She’s a hard-charging mess, pounding shots and kicking randos out of her bed at two in the morning. In case we didn’t get it, State of Affairs is awfully eager to paint the picture for us. By numbers. “I’m a total slob in my personal life, a total sniper in my professional one,” Heigl declares in the trailer. It’s nice to see Alfre Woodard as the president, and director Joe Carnahan proved with The Blacklist that he knows how to keep things neat and shiny. But I’m not seeing anything here that we haven’t seen before.
The Mysteries of Laura
Between 30 Rock and Community, the past few years have been a golden age for fans of NBC shows parodying potential NBC shows. And while I don’t see Bitch Hunter or Mr. Egypt on the fall schedule — maybe midseason? — I do see Mysteries of Laura. Starring Debra Messing in a role that Vulture’s Joe Adalian correctly called “Grace, Under Fire,” the show appears to be the worst kind of tweener, a light cop drama mashed up with a heavy family comedy. The beginning of the trailer makes Laura look like “You Go Girl: The Series.” The final Lady Gaga joke just makes it look unwatchable.
Currently unseen — and highly suspicious: Emerald City (a gritty retelling of The Wizard of Oz), One Big Happy (another “unconventional” gay-straight baby comedy, because that worked out so well the last time), Allegiance (The Americans, only not as good), and Aquarius (David Duchovny investigating the Manson Family).
To borrow a metaphor from Fox’s football coverage, the network’s new slate is an impressive attempt to flood the zone. With American Idol listing (and shrinking), chairman Kevin Reilly’s year no longer splits neatly into two halves: one interrupted by baseball and one saved by Idol. Instead, he’s introducing a ton of bespoke shows, many of which have been blessed with extra development time and nearly all of which will have seasons of untraditional length: Gracepoint is a 10-episode miniseries; Gotham’s first season will run for 16 hours. Reilly got a lot of press for his plan to end pilot season. But in a year of transition, Fox will still live or die on the strength of his new shows, no matter how he chose to develop them. Luckily for Reilly, the evidence suggests that his choices are plenty strong indeed.
Direct comparisons to other, more successful things is a necessary shorthand in the world of development. When juggling dozens of potential projects, falling back on “it’s this meets that” is unavoidable. Still, Reilly should have known better on Monday, when, in front of a room full of voracious snarks, he served up the quivering calf that is Mulaney with the words “Seinfeld for a new generation.” This was a dealbreaker even before the trailer revealed Mulaney himself doing a very Jerry bit of stand-up, a neighbor being introduced with Kramery aplomb, and a dog on a skateboard. (The dog on the skateboard isn’t very Seinfeld. It just didn’t help.)
Let’s all take a breath and remember a few things: John Mulaney actually is one of the funniest stand-ups going. (His essential New in Town is streaming on Netflix.) This show was rescued by Reilly from the NBC scrap heap and has been allowed to develop at its own pace, free from the slings and arrows of outrageous expectations. And there really is an opportunity for someone to make a multi-cam sitcom with actual laughs, not the bawdy simulacra provided by other networks. Forget Seinfeld. Let’s judge Mulaney as Mulaney and see what happens.
Tone is everything when it comes to sweeping family sagas: Dallas would have been nothing without its 10-gallon bluster; Parenthood coasted on a free-flowing river of its viewers’ tears. From the trailer, it’s clear that Empire — about a dying hip-hop magnate (Terrence Howard) struggling with succession — has swagger. Yes, it matters that this is a drama from a major network cast with almost entirely African American actors, but it matters even more that producers Lee Daniels (The Butler) and Danny Strong (Game Change) and music supervisor Timbaland seem to have brought real skill and consideration to the construction of their fictional world. Everything in Lucious Lyon’s orbit appears immaculate and gleaming, as if airlifted straight from one of Rick Ross’s most outré fantasies. And Taraji P. Henson — as the family’s imprisoned matriarch — looks absolutely perfect, a mix of Remy Ma’s legal history and Lil’ Kim’s fashion sense. Even though we have to wait until midseason to see more, I already know I’m in.
The Last Man on Earth (midseason)
Look, I have no idea if this show will work — or even how it could work. From the overactive imaginations of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie), the series is about Will Forte — bearded and twitchy — as the only remaining person on the planet. Presumably, someone else will have to show up eventually, but why worry about that now? (From what I understand, the pilot was originally about two survivors, which suggests a quick arrival of a love — or at least mating — interest.) What I love about this show already is the ballsiness of the premise — this is Example 1A of the type of pitch that could never survive the traditional pilot process — and the perfection of the trailer. Instead of hastily cutting up the best jokes in pursuit of a through line, more rookie shows ought to do something wholly original like this. Of course, most rookie shows don’t have access to an uninhabited Dodger Stadium or a star with vocal pipes like Forte. The total unpredictability of this entire project makes it a must-watch when it debuts next year.
Yes, everything looks fantastic. The trailer swoops and soars with cinematic grace, Donal Logue is a wonderfully welcome presence as a grizzled cop, even Ben McKenzie (cast as Detective Jim Gordon, years before he would become commissioner) has come a long way from Chino. And though he might want to reconsider some of his quotes when it comes to Christopher Nolan and the acting chops of the 12-year-old he cast as Bruce Wayne, Bruno Heller absolutely knows how to make TV that is both epic (HBO’s Rome) and engaging (CBS’s money-printing The Mentalist). But here’s the thing: If you’re proud of the world you can build without Batman, why involve Batman at all? There’s something increasingly icky and empty about the fetishization of the same old stories as our modern myths. Maybe I’ll love this show, but it’s a hard thing to get excited about the week Twitter lost its head over a passing glimpse of the 10,000th Batmobile. I’d rather see time, money, and talent invested in a fresh narrative that pays off now, not something founded on the premise that all of these people will be interesting eventually. Just because a part of a story hasn’t been told doesn’t mean it’s automatically worth telling.
Wayward Pines (midseason)
A total head-scratcher. This limited “event” series from producer M. Night Shyamalan and writer Chad Hodge was green-lit and filmed well over a year ago, but it never aired in the 2013-14 season. It was passed over for a slot again for this fall, meaning that, sometime in early 2015, Terrence Howard will be starring in two Fox dramas at the same time. This isn’t the worst thing in the world and, going off the trailer, neither is Pines. The obvious touchstone is Twin Peaks — the small-town cheer, the spooky woods, the pie — but Hodge, whose previous credit was the dreadful NBC misfire The Playboy Club, appears to be going for something much more paranoid and aggressive than David Lynch’s mystical creep. The show is based on a popular series of books, giving the weirdness something to latch on to, and the cast — featuring Matt Dillon as a trapped FBI man and Juliette Lewis as one of the few non-Stepford wives surrounding him — is solid. Fox clearly has no idea what to do with this show, and those involved seem to have moved on. All I’m saying is, that might not be a bad thing.
Red Band Society
Even after a decade and a half of artistic expansion, some basic rules about television remain unchanged. Among them: If you want the audience to come back week after week, you’d best be inviting them someplace interesting. The setting of Red Band Society is plenty interesting … but also majorly uninviting: The show takes place in the pediatric ward of a major city hospital. In the wrong hands, a series about sick children could be unspeakably manipulative — or worse. But everything I’ve read about Society (and the Spanish series it’s based on) has me optimistic. (For some reason, Fox hasn’t released a trailer.) The cast is strong (Octavia Spencer and Dave Annable are the adult leads) and the focus seems to be on the lives of the young patients, not their potentially imminent deaths. Arriving in the same year as the similarly hopeful/morbid The Fault in Our Stars will probably be good for business. Me, I’m just happy to see Fox committing to a show about young people again, no matter their life expectancy. It’s an area from which all the broadcast networks have shied away since the glory days of The O.C., which makes no sense to me. If you want younger viewers, why not make shows about younger people? What’s that? Too logical? Let’s just move along.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a show about an ornery, antisocial genius who is insufferable to all around him yet is strangely indispensable at work. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A show developed for and rejected by another network (in this case, CBS) is saved at the last possible moment by Fox’s Kevin Reilly, a man who is convinced he knows how to do TV far better than his more traditionally minded rivals. (He pulled a similar trick with The Mindy Project and Mulaney.) OK, you’ve been sufficiently stopped. The story of Backstrom, both on- and offscreen, is distressingly familiar. And while I’ve no doubt Rainn Wilson is capable of playing an obnoxious, boozing cop, I’m just not sure why I would want to watch him do it. For as much as Reilly talks about change, he can’t seem to quit being homesick for House, even though every succeeding brilliant-asshole show he’s tried has flamed out. (Rake being the most recent casualty.) Though I admire the network head’s commitment to Dumpster-diving, not everything his competition throws away can be polished into a diamond.
A year ago, Fox had critics reeling from the hot blast of cross-genre crazy that was Sleepy Hollow. Similar things are expected from Hieroglyph, a bananas series that appears to be about thieves fighting vampires in a version of ancient Egypt that a bored Zack Snyder doodled in the margins of his history book. But I wouldn’t start building any pyramids yet. For one thing, “from the writer of Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim” is no great selling point; watching those movies for the scripts is like going to McDonald’s for the apple slices. Furthermore, Sleepy Hollow proved that audiences would roll with just about anything as long as the humans always took precedence over the headless horsemen. From what I can tell of Hieroglyph, the characters are about as three-dimensional as the drawings that gave the show its name. In other words: Don’t expect a dynasty.
First, the good news: ABC’s programming slate shows a commitment to diversity that is all too rare among television networks, broadcast or otherwise. (Standard disclosure: ABC and Grantland are both owned by the Walt Disney Company.) There appears to be a real interest within the company to tell stories and cast actors that reflect parts of America beyond the meatpacking district of Manhattan at 11 on a Friday night. This is to be commended. Unfortunately, outside of a heavy reinvestment in the last-place network’s twin pillars, Shonda Rhimes (How to Get Away With Murder joins her two other hit shows on Thursday nights) and Marvel (Agent Carter will debut in the spring; no footage has been shared), the right word to describe the rest of president Paul Lee’s schedule isn’t “diverse,” it’s “scattered.” For every grown-up-looking drama like American Crime, there’s a fluffy procedural that already looks like it’s doomed before it even begins. (Sorry, Forever.) And for every potentially interesting comedy, there’s one that brings back memories of Mixology. All told, this seems like a slate built by a basement dweller to fortify the floor, not break through the ceiling.
How to Get Away With Murder
It feels like front-running of the worst kind to voice support for a show that will be given every possible chance to succeed. Murder is from Shonda Rhimes, ABC’s MVP. Come fall, it will have the benefit of a two-hit lead-in (Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) and all the executive patience in the world. But damned if it doesn’t look deserving of the network’s largesse. Murder is built around the ice-storm intensity of Oscar nominee Viola Davis — a masterful actress finally being served the prime rib that is usually on offer only to middle-aged men — as Annalise Dewitt, a hard-nosed law professor and attorney. The show smartly plays with House money, re-creating that show’s killer mean-genius/willing-chipmunks dynamic, but unlike, say, Backstrom it adds a new wrinkle. Dewitt’s helpers aren’t fellow professionals, they’re students. Which makes it all the more intriguing to watch her terrify and manipulate recruits in pursuit of her own goals; judging by the trailer, these youngsters will be forced to prove not just their intelligence but their moral flexibility. Let’s focus on that and not boring old drags like “plausibility.” Do 2L’s routinely seduce witnesses and torch bodies? Forget about it, Jake. It’s Shondaland.
Under Paul Lee, ABC knows how to develop comedies. It just doesn’t know how to name them. (Or keep them on the air, but that’s a different story.) That loud sound you all heard on Tuesday morning was the producers of Cougar Town, Don’t Trust the B, How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), and Trophy Wife all smacking themselves in the forehead as Lee proudly announced the debut of Selfie. Yes, it’s a hideous name for what appears to be a clever and lively reboot of Pygmalion. (And it could have been worse: My Fair Friendster?) But if we can all agree to get past the title, there’s real charm on display in the story of a vacuous tweeter (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan) who seeks personality help IRL from an erudite stiff (John Cho). Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek is in charge here, and if there’s one person I’d trust to make a quality comedy out of an iffy premise (and a lousy name), it’s her.
Please read the above bit about sitcom names. Done? Good. With the corpse of Trophy Wife still warm, ABC finally seems to have gotten the memo about how to use the prime post–Modern Family time slot, namely with a family comedy about a very modern idea: the cultural assimilation of extremely wealthy African Americans in 21st-century America. It’s a potentially fascinating topic and it appears to be in the right hands: Stars and producers Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne would appear to have plenty to say on the subject (and are plenty funny in the trailer). Co-executive producer Larry Wilmore will have to depart this fall to prepare for his new gig hosting The Minority Report for Comedy Central, but that’s plenty of time for him to steer the ship in the right direction. What can I say? I wish someone had thrown me a bro mitzvah.
Fresh Off the Boat (midseason)
New York City chef Eddie Huang has made a name for himself not for the food he puts in people’s mouths — though that’s plenty tasty! — but for the words that come out of his own. On blogs, on TV, and on the printed page, he’s made an ongoing, boisterous argument for a new kind of second-generation immigrant experience: He’s a Taiwanese American who interviews porn stars, quotes Cam’ron, and isn’t afraid of pointing out that the ethnic eats fetishized by hipsters can’t be yanked free from their tradition and context as easily as an oyster from its shell. Though I’m all for giving Huang a larger platform, a network sitcom feels like a reach, even with joke anarchist Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B) in charge. Adapted from his memoir of the same name, this lightly fictionalized version of Eddie’s childhood — in which his parents drag him to Orlando, disparage Biggie, and refuse to give him “white-people food” for lunch — could turn out to be anything from a smart and satirical examination of race and class to yet another reference-gag-heavy misfire. (One thing I’m sure of: Costar Constance Wu, as Eddie’s mom, is ready to turn into a star.) What it won’t be is boring. Besides, if things really do go badly, Huang has already proven that he knows how to take criticism.
The Whispers (midseason)
The fact that I already know I can’t watch this show is probably a very good sign. I’m not a fan of horror in general, but good horror especially bugs me out — if I can’t laugh it off, I’m probably too freaked out to watch, even with all the lights on. Created by Under the Dome staffer Soo Hugh, the series is a paranormal chiller about an alien invasion spearheaded by evil imaginary friends. Watch the trailer (if you must) and see the cutest possible children busy doing the most terrible things imaginable — bomb detonating, matricide, presumably running with scissors — all because invisible pals at the playground told them to. Network horror tends to be bloodless, both literally and figuratively. The Whispers is likely to change that; the trailer is already giving me nightmares. Considering that the last ABC show to give me nightmares was Mixology, this is a positive development.
Mexican American stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo was the darling of pilot season. Commissioned as a “presentation” — a fancy way to say “come impress us” — her pitch for a traditional multi-cam sitcom about her multigenerational family went on to beat out many more high-profile projects (including one from Kevin Hart) to make it to series. The trailer has an easy, lived-in vibe: Cristela is maybe never going to be a lawyer like her mother wants and is probably never going to move out of her brother’s house. In other words, the faces are new, but the context is decidedly not. Though the name is long gone, ABC maintains a flicker of the old TGIF spirit on Friday nights. Pairing this with Tim Allen’s similarly old-fashioned Last Man Standing makes a lot of sense for all involved.
Secrets and Lies (March)
Oh, how I wish this were an adaptation of Mike Leigh’s feel-good hit of 1996! Even without Brenda Blethyn slurring “daaaah-ling” between slugs of cheap Chardonnay, this looks like a smart pickup. An adaptation of an Australian miniseries, the show focuses on a young family man (Ryan Phillippe) who discovers the body of a neighbor’s child in the woods. Before long, he’s the prime suspect, being hounded by the media and bullied by a tough homicide cop (Juliette Lewis). Secrets seems like a clever mix of ABC’s typical sudsy fare and the gut-punch immediacy of more rarefied indulgences like Sundance’s Top of the Lake and BBC2’s The Fall. The best part is that it’s set to run only 10 episodes, meaning Lewis will get her man, hopefully before viewers lose interest.
American Crime (March)
Easily the least ABC-ish show green-lit during Paul Lee’s tenure, American Crime is a racially charged drama created by recent Oscar winner and longtime no fucks giver John Ridley. The gist: A young white couple is murdered in their home, a crime so shocking that it leaves an entire community — from grieving parents (Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman) to a Latino family (headed up by The Shield’s Benito Martinez) — unnerved in its wake. This seems like heavy, heady stuff more suited for cable than a touchy-feely network like ABC. Crime could be the type of prestige project ABC needs to get its swagger back, or it could wind up as a weighty extravagance the network can’t afford or support. No matter how it goes, I can’t wait to read the showrunner interviews. They’re likely to pack more heat than any character onscreen.
Manhattan Love Story
Oh, here’s where Paul Lee’s suspect taste in comedy has been hiding! This would-be rom-com appears to be exactly neither, and its recycled gender nonsense from Mixology is about as welcome as a beer belch. The supposed appeal is that the audience has access to the innermost thoughts of the protagonists — NYC singletons played by Jake McDorman and the deserving-of-better Analeigh Tipton — via constant voice-over. The problem is that the meager juice squeezed from the mind grapes of these two is anything but palatable. To wit: Men like to look at boobs and women are crazy about shopping. (I’d say that eighth grade called and wanted its observations back, but I’d be afraid creator Jeff Lowell would steal that equally tired joke construction, and then where would we be?) Why is it so hard for ABC to realize that we don’t care about watching people fall in love if it’s impossible to like them?
Ioan Gruffudd, the blandly handsome Welsh actor you don’t remember from Fantastic Four, plays a Manhattan medical examiner with a secret: He’s friends with Judd Hirsch! Oh, also he’s immortal. Maybe Paul Lee has been reading The Secret and he believes that putting a show about a guy who can’t die in a time slot (Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) responsible for murdering four shows already since September (Lucky 7, The Assets, Killer Women, and Mind Games) will somehow work out. It won’t. But at least the ironic headline industry will be pleased when Forever doesn’t make it till Thanksgiving.
This is an hour-long medieval musical comedy about a singing knight. YOLO, Paul Lee. YOLO.
The cracks are beginning to show in the Tiffany kingdom. Though CBS’s multi-season winning streak of total viewers remains intact, it can no longer behave as if it’s immune to the changes that are occurring industrywide. Its share of the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic is falling, and nearly all of the new shows it launched last year bled out in depressing fashion, including the high-profile Robin Williams comedy The Crazy Ones and the dopey dramas Hostages and Intelligence.
Despite the crowing over the smooth Letterman-Colbert transition and the imminent return of summer hit Under the Dome, it was clear on Wednesday that CBS knows it needs to stop being so CBS-y about everything. Early in the day, chairman Les Moonves declared the idea of a midseason to be dead — the sort of trickery usually reserved for his scrambling lessers. And when entertainment chairman Nina Tassler unveiled the fall schedule, there was a level of change that would be noteworthy even for last-place ABC. But for front-running CBS? It was downright revolutionary. The Amazing Race is running to Fridays, The Big Bang Theory is exploding onto Mondays, and fall Thursdays will now be given over to the NFL — the only letters more valuable to a network than CSI or NCIS. Gone is the storied two-hour Monday-night comedy block (in place since the mid-’80s) and axed was How I Met Your Dad, the heavily hyped spinoff to How I Met Your Mother. (Tassler claimed to be “heartsick” over its absence. While creative issues were certainly in play, the show also seemed to have been caught in the middle of a nasty tug-of-war between the network and the studio, 20th Century Fox. Don’t be surprised if Fox snaps up a show it already owns.)
All this radical change doesn’t seem to have leached into the creative side, though. CBS’s most prominent newcomers include the umpteenth iterations of the aforementioned acronyms plus creaky reaches like a remake of The Odd Couple. (CBS didn’t make any footage of the midseason show available. Probably wise.) Will this sort of smoke and mirrors be enough? For the coming year, it probably will. But CBS needs to start coming up with its shows of tomorrow in a hurry. In a world where NBC can finish at the top, is it really so far-fetched to imagine CBS hitting rock bottom?
Battle Creek (midseason)
It’s curious that CBS hasn’t made public a trailer for the show it says it’s most proud of. As Nina Tassler mentioned from the stage many, many times on Wednesday, Creek is Vince Gilligan’s first project since a little cult show he created called Breaking Bad. Cowritten with David Shore (House), it’s the story of mismatched law-enforcement types (Josh Duhamel and the great Dean Winters) policing the medium-mean streets of Battle Creek, Michigan. Those expecting a hit of the familiar Heisenberg blue will likely be disappointed. But those looking for some of Gilligan’s trademark dark humor will find plenty to like here, even if it has been lightened a bit to suit his new network. After watching the last season of Bad, can you really blame Gilligan for wanting to crack a smile now and again?
After years of treating The Good Wife warily — like the best student at a football school — CBS finally seems to recognize the uniqueness of its strongest show. Though its ratings might not achieve the spectacular altitude of NCIS, The Good Wife is unambiguously adored by the snobby/bloggy demographic. Now the munificent Moonves has given it a playmate. Madam Secretary, created by Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia, Judging Amy), has been lovingly crafted to appeal precisely to The Good Wife’s discerning fan base. It stars the always-interesting Téa Leoni as a former CIA whiz turned professor who, practically overnight, is drafted into service as the new secretary of State by her old pal the president. There are all sorts of quality supporting players to pinball off of — I’m already ’shipping the frosty Bebe Neuwirth and the icy Zeljko Ivanek — and endless potential for ripped-from-the-headlines-type plots. (Though the juxtaposition of Syrian hostages with a state dinner for Swaziland in the jumbo-size trailer suggests someone needs to get their Sorkinmeter checked ASAP.) Networks are most successful when they’re able to colonize a night with a particular brand — think ABC’s soapy Sundays or NBC’s disaster Thursdays. Madam Secretary helps CBS stay classy on the most watched night of the week.
In my three years on the TV beat, I’ve banged the drum loudly and often for a TV show that captures the competent, caper-y spirit of Sneakers, one of my all-time favorite films. So it would be uncharitable to act ungrateful when a show like Scorpion falls directly into my lap. It’s the story of a ragtag group of geniuses who team up to do cool things together — in the pilot it appears to be stopping dozens of airliners from crashing simultaneously — the sort of cool things that utilize each of their skill sets in a hyper-specific way and are generally accomplished at the last possible second. Leader Walter (played by Brit Elyes Gabel) hacked into the Pentagon as a wee bairn and is technically smarter than Einstein. Surrounding him are quirky experts in engineering, math, and what appears to be “breaking stuff.” (Because every group of brains needs a heart — and, preferably, an attractive body to go with it — Katharine McPhee is on hand as a waitress whose doe-eyed son just might be the smartest one of them all.) Robert Patrick is there, too, as the gruff government hand pushing the team around. I can tell already that this lacks the style and humor of Sneakers — blame Fast & Furious slickster Justin Lin, who directed the pilot, for that. But TV fans who enjoy watching characters that are good at their jobs do those jobs without the fear of child murder or ritualistic antlers have learned to take what we can get.
On paper this sounds dreadful: A multi-cam sitcom about the sensitive, gay son of a bickering Boston family. (In fact, I’m going to go ahead and assume the paper it was written on was a chowder-stained place setting from a Legal Sea Foods.) But the trailer makes The McCarthys pretty hard to hate — and I also found it pretty hard to keep from laughing. Sure, the targets are as wide and soft as David Ortiz’s torso — Ronny (Tyler Ritter, John’s son) hates sports but loves The Good Wife! — and that really is former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre pahking his cah in Hahvahd Yahd. But look again and see Laurie Metcalf elevating every frame she’s in as Ronny’s mother and the gentle jokes about moving to Providence, of all places, begin to go down easy. As long as CBS keeps rolling with old-fashioned shows like this, it can keep putting off reinventing the wheel for another year.
NCIS: New Orleans
This is just on principle. I’m sure it will make a billion dollars and run until the sun is extinguished on the express orders of President North West. It just pains me to see an actor as terrific as Scott Bakula (did you see him on Looking?) and a city as electric as New Orleans (did you see it on Treme?) shackled to a humming, ho-hum franchise like this. Can we organize a raiding party to free Bakula and the similarly wasted Ted Danson from their CBS contracts? Fav if yes. RT if YES. I’ll meet you in Century City next Tuesday. Bring blindfolds.
The hit shows of CBS have already created a pocket universe in which serial killers roam the streets like salarymen and murder is so prevalent that the Navy spends most of its time investigating it. So who thought it was a good idea to get into business with Kevin Williamson, the self-appointed Hitchcock of schlocky shocks? Fresh off The Following, his gross, dumb hit for Fox, comes Stalker, a show that promises to be no less gross or dumb. Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q are cops tasked to L.A.’s stalker division, a job that actually sounds kind of worthy of a TV show, provided the perps are all misguided Charo super-fans caught canvassing Laurel Canyon in search of their heroine. But they’re not. Instead the criminals are all dead-eyed prepsters who wear creepy masks and light young women on fire because it’s easier than giving them a personality. Me? I’ve already filed a restraining order.
Illustration by Elias Stein.