2015 Fall TV Preview: Burn It All DownElias Stein
This is the worst fall season in modern television history, and I don’t believe it’s close. After a riveting summer of breathtaking innovation and deep-seated pleasure, the four broadcast networks — that’s ABC,1 CBS, NBC, and Fox for those from other planets and/or under the age of 25 — approach our couches not as swaggering colossi back to reclaim their rightful place in the culture but rather as broken, humbled giants. Long gone are the days of zeitgeist-straddling immortality: Prime-time ratings fell 16 percent from 2014 to 2015. But gone, too, are the days when these four dinosaurs were either too arrogant or too foolish to know the entire world had changed around them. (I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but historians might point to an early 2000s asteroid that was delivered in a bright red envelope.) Now they know their time is up — or at least diminished. And that depressing realization has seeped into every decision on display this fall.
This is my fifth autumn on the TV beat, and in previous years, even as cable demanded more and more of my attention and respect, I was always struck by the wild swings, the spectacular hits, and the far more common spectacular misses of the Big Four. There was something noble and, occasionally, inspiring about the way in which they strove to stave off extinction or, worse, irrelevance. Sometimes their attempts were legitimately impressive; other times they were horrific. Some even involved actual dinosaurs. But even amid inevitable carnage, every fall carried with it a flicker of passion, a resilient, dark-denying spark that said “I am alive!” Or at least, “I am worth loathing!”
No longer. I don’t even need a word to sum up the fall 2015 broadcast slate, not when an emoticon will do: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is the sorriest collection of recycled ideas, neutered groupthink, and depressing mediocrity I’ve ever seen. You have to understand: I’m not just saying nothing is good. I’m also saying nothing is even the slightest bit compelling. Or interesting. Or unique. Or even bad in a Put On Your Sunglasses, David Caruso, and Take a Look at That Car Crash sort of way. These shows are the empty, halfhearted shrugs of decaying empires that have no idea what viewers want anymore — and have committed the full force of their not-inconsiderable assets to proving it.
Consider: NBC, once the crown jewel of comedy brands, has but one new sitcom on its fall schedule and it’s Truth Be Told, a shrieking, “black guys drive like this” megabomb that is unlikely to survive long enough to smell Thanksgiving turkey let alone taste it. And yet the network’s solid, striving The Carmichael Show was exiled to the dead zone of late August — where it promptly found an audience and, this week, was granted a renewal that no one in Universal City ever expected. Or how about the fact that just one year after canceling Almost Human, a decent-to-good cop procedural set in a tech-heavy future, Fox has green-lit Minority Report, a far inferior show mining the same shallow (and expensive!) trench? Or consider that ABC, one year after stunning the world with a pair of smart, forward-thinking family comedies (Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat), is now running to the Muppets for salvation like Princess Leia once did to old Ben Kenobi — a reference, by the way, that is less dated than the Muppets themselves. Even CBS — stalwart, dependable CBS — is giving its cushiest time slot (after The Big Bang Theory) to Life in Pieces, a hideous Modern Family clone that opens with a joke about the way post-pregnancy vaginas look like the Predator. None of this screams confidence, let alone competence.
Is apathy to blame for head-scratching decisions like these? In part, maybe. Last season, Fox held the debut of Empire — a show that is so wildly, insanely successful that it single-handedly suggests a way forward for the entire broadcast industry — until January. It’s possible this was because the network, in the first few months of a transfer of power, honestly had no idea what it had on its desperate hands. But one could also suggest, as I’m sure Fox’s corporate PR staff already does, that debuting in January simply makes more sense in 2015. Audiences are savvier than ever. They know that fall has become a dumping ground for the dead and the dying. Shows that arrive after the New Year are greeted like reinforcements after a long, brutal siege. And that’s precisely why big-ticket items like Fox’s X-Files reboot, NBC’s (twice-resurrected!) Emerald City, and CBS’s BrainDead (a political zombie thriller from the creators of The Good Wife!) are all on ice until 2016. The late debut is also, unfortunately, a big reason Empire’s aftershocks won’t really be felt until this development season, which means for next fall’s shows. The only sign that Cookie ever crumbled is a few more faces of color in prominent roles for which they might not have been considered previously. This is a good thing — but great material would be far, far better.
The truth is, delaying premieres is just one way the staggering networks can cut through the clutter and stand out. The idea of “too much TV” has become gospel of late in certain insidery circles. And while I share a layman’s frustration that this is a pretty rich problem to have, it is possible this fall to see the damage this overabundance of content is causing not to the overtaxed viewer but to a groaning industry itself. Nearly every one of the pilots I watched for this article was overseasoned by at least one ingredient — and often quite a few more than that. With its global conspiracies and noisy gun battles, NBC’s spirited, stupid Blindspot could have been a worthy companion to The Blacklist. But after watching star Jaimie Alexander (Thor) unzip herself from a tote bag and then be forced to play a walking, talking, tattooed MacGuffin, all I could think was Why? Alexander is a terrific actor: charismatic, sensitive, and able to play action scenes with wit and brio. Why not a simpler show that’s merely about her, I don’t know, fighting bad guys? It wouldn’t necessarily be smarter, but it could be a hell of a lot more satisfying.
But I know the answer to that, and it’s the same reason NBC’s The Player isn’t just about — and I quote — “Vegas’s biggest pain in the ass security consultant,” instead adding Wesley Snipes in a bow tie nattering on about a global conspiracy of very rich men gambling on the outcome of major crimes. Hell, it’s the same reason for the vagina/Predator joke. You do it to be noticed, something that becomes harder and harder as the small screen becomes more and more crowded.
It’s not bad logic, but it’s shortsighted. On TV, being noisy can get you sampled but it can’t earn you anything resembling loyalty. Unlike film with its whiz-bang one-night stands, television is built on the backs of slow, steady, trusting relationships. And this fall’s pilots simply aren’t wired to think long term. How could they be, with their slavish devotion to logic-distracting pyrotechnics, to sex in the first 10 minutes, to a general, clattering cacophony of ludicrous hooey? I’m not unsympathetic here: It’s hard to manufacture old-fashioned love in a Tinder economy. But the bulk of these new shows are so uninspiring I didn’t even have the energy to fast-forward them. Mostly, I just wanted to swipe left.
Still, because I am a romantic optimist at heart, here is a rundown of what to watch — and what to watch out for. Note: I’m not covering all the new shows because some, like the aforementioned Truth Be Told, don’t deserve any more adjectives.2 And others, like Heroes Reborn, deserve to be considered by someone who actually watched (and, from what I gather, became violently disillusioned by) the original. Second note: In most cases, I have only seen the pilot episodes of the shows in question. Is this enough to form a definitive opinion? No. But trust me: It’s enough to help you make up your mind.
All times Eastern.
Code Black (CBS)
Wednesday, September 30
Is it really any surprise that in a competence contest, CBS wins? Read this interview that network chairman Les Moonves recently gave to Vulture, and you’ll have to scrub the professionalism and reasonableness off your screen with a brush. After 20 years at the helm of the one-time Tiffany network, Moonves knows what his younger rivals do not: The best way to avoid a fatal fall is to take care with every step.
Code Black, based on a 2014 documentary of the same name, is about the emergency room at a Los Angeles hospital, one that prides itself on being the busiest in the country. Does this sound like ER? Yes, it does. Is it supposed to? Of course it is! ER was an extremely good show and it ran for 15 seasons. If you aren’t trying to copy that kind of success, you aren’t trying.
So: Code Black has a quartet of harried, diverse first-year residents. It has an emotionally chilly, bone-cracking genius (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden). It has a devastatingly handsome surgeon with an accent and a tender heart (Homeland’s Raza Jaffrey). It has numerous gruesome shots of blood leaking out of a freshly drilled skull.
But it also has a pulse. This isn’t due to the writing or the directing — you’d think shaky-cam technology would have improved or at least diversified in the 20-plus years since ER premiered — but to the performances. Harden is unsurprisingly terrific, and Bonnie Somerville and Melanie Chandra are strong as shaky first-years. But it’s ace scene-stealers like Narcos’s Luis Guzmán (as the head nurse) and Veep’s Kevin Dunn (as a harried supervisor) who bring the show to life. Nothing about Code Black is original. But in a dreadful year like this one, nothing needs to be. It’s not a cure, but it’s a decent enough fix.
Monday, October 26
Everything I wrote above about CBS? Feel free to cut and paste. There is nothing particularly novel about Supergirl: The show itself goes to great pains to introduce its titular hero as a slightly less famous footnote to her stronger, bullet-stopping cousin. The breezy tone, provided by executive producer Greg Berlanti, is a familiar melánge of the CW’s caped whimsy and ABC’s you-go-girl verve. Even so, there’s enough to like (or at least tolerate) to recommend it. As Kara Danvers, a shy Kryptonian more interested in leaping the corporate ladder than tall buildings, Melissa Benoist is bright and winning. Grey’s Anatomy’s Chyler Leigh and Homeland’s David Harewood make good impressions as Kara’s adopted sister and an alien-hating government official, respectively. Between Kara’s busy work life (featuring Calista Flockhart as Meryl Streep as Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada) and her burgeoning superhero career, there’s plenty of material to fill multiple seasons. Do I have any interest in watching another episode? I do not. Does the thought of doing so weaken me, like Kryptonite? Not particularly. Welcome to 2015!
Tuesday, September 29
You’re very hungry. You go into a restaurant. Maybe it’s not the same sort of restaurant managed by John Stamos’s character in Grandfathered — a slick, sceney bistro that gets more excited over a celebrity diner than a well-seared steak — but bear with me. The point is, when appetite meets food in a timely manner, anything above and beyond the simple act of chewing and swallowing can be remarkably memorable and satisfying.
This is Grandfathered. It is a show that is precisely 1,000 times better than it needs to be, one that takes the questionably sourced red meat of its premise — Stamos’s Jimmy, a 50-year-old womanizer, goes from unattached to grandfather in one night when he meets a son (and a granddaughter) he never knew he had — and manages to shape and season it into a perfectly decent burger. Stamos himself is charming as ever, and he’s well-matched by two thrillingly strong women: Kelly Jenrette as his long-suffering assistant and the great Paget Brewster as a never-forgotten ex. It’s Brewster’s character whom, unbeknownst to Stamos’s, gave birth to a son more than two decades ago. That son, Gerald (Josh Peck), is now the more-or-less single father of a beautiful baby girl. If you smell shenanigans, then you’ve come to the right bistro.
Grandfathered was created and written by Danny Chun, a veteran of The Office and The Simpsons and the type of comedy professional who isn’t (yet) famous but is talked about in hushed tones by those who are. I wish he had a chance to apply his talents to something more formally innovative or emotionally unpredictable. But good cooks are good cooks, whether they’re working in Paris or Newark, you know?
The Grinder (Fox)
Tuesday, September 29
Rob Lowe — the Michelangelo of playing vain, comedic idiots — plays a vain, comedic idiot. This time he’s Dean Sanderson, a slick Hollywood pretty boy who has just completed a lengthy run on a legal procedural called, yes, The Grinder. Now he’s back home in Boise, reconnecting with his small-town roots and clashing with his milquetoast brother — played by, get this, Fred Savage — who is an actual lawyer. Aside from the head-scratching genetics at play here — William Devane fathering children who look as different as Lowe and Savage is even crazier than Twins, at least Semitically speaking — everything appears to be on the up and up. There’s a strong supporting cast, including Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Natalie Morales. The small-town legal business provides a lot of potential plot, and the pleasant cast suggests a sufficient amount of heart. So why the hesitation? Bad juju behind the scenes, more or less. Showrunner Greg Malins exited his job late last month after clashing with creators Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel (Ben Wexler, late of The Comedians, has been hired to replace him), and while this sort of discord is easily recovered from, it does give me pause. Which, trust me, is not something you ever want to do mid-grind.
Monday, September 21
The Player (NBC)
Thursday, September 24
Two years ago, in a presumptuous piece entitled, “How We’d Fix It: NBC,” I wrote the following: “The Blacklist is working? Boom. There’s your brand.” I’m not saying network boss Bob Greenblatt listens to me, but on this one point, we finally did see eye to eye. If you enjoy that show’s signature blend of noisy violence and piping hot nonsense, then boy are you in luck.
To be clear: I am generally pro–hot nonsense! And I will always prefer a show that has a sense of humor about its own limitations to one that hacks and slashes pretentiously through them. The problem with Blindspot and The Player is that neither has the abundance of humor or the scarcity of fucks-given to match James Spader’s gleefully hammy performance on Blacklist. Instead, we have the two stars of Cinemax’s underrated — and blazingly nonsensical! — Strike Back, Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton, toplining passable action hours that each could be so much better.
Of the two, it’s Winchester’s show that is probably the most likely to connect. He’s a charmingly roguish performer, and in The Player he’s well-matched to his character: Alex Kane, a “pain-in-the-ass security consultant.” But as I said above, someone needed to break into the NBC executive suite and lead a group sing-along of the old Jewish hymn “Dayenu,” which roughly translates as “that would have been enough.” Because, as is, The Player is piled perilously high with bullshit. (Remember the stuff I wrote about Wesley Snipes? Did I mention that his implacable, monotone-speaking character refers to himself as “The Pit Boss”?) This is basically a nihilistic version of Person of Interest (surveillance + vigilante heroism + suits) set in a city, Vegas, known for hedonistic, escapist fun, not nihilist gunplay.
Blindspot plays everything straighter, which might not be the best choice. Jaimie Alexander is an oft-nude amnesiac whose body is covered, Memento-style, with clues that appear to predict terrorist attacks. Stapleton — who, let’s face it, is no Winchester — is the gruff Fed assigned to her case, mainly because his name is tattooed on her back. Of course New York City landmarks are threatened, of course Alexander is secretly a kung-fu-chopping badass, of course rules are bent if not broken. Honestly, I found it all exhausting. Alexander is great. A show that treated her as a human and not another lithe special effect would have a lot better shot at surviving the fall.
Scream Queens (Fox)
Tuesday, September 22
I am personally allergic to the work of Ryan Murphy. American Horror Story makes me break out in hives. Glee just plain broke me. So I am the wrong person to ask about his latest glossy trifle: a celebrity-studded “comic horror” anthology series set, for this year at least, within the mean girl bowels of a sorority house. Worthwhile people like Emma Roberts, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Nasim Pedrad are here to do the heavy lifting while cotton candy like Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas show up to look pretty and, one would hope, be viciously impaled. I actually applaud Fox for doing what most networks should be doing in the post-Empire era: hire big talents and even bigger personalities and let them aim for the stratosphere. Best case? A supernova. Worst case? The kind of disaster that will light up the night sky — or at least the gossip pages — for months.
But that’s business talk, not a review. And I have to be honest with you: I couldn’t make it 30 minutes into the appallingly slick, cynical Queens. Your ability to do so can and should be judged on your response to the following line, delivered by Roberts in the pilot’s opening moments when her character espies a maid cleaning the floor: “That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean. I call her ‘white mammy’ because she’s essentially a house slave.”
Are you laughing? Then by all means, feel free to tune in. Are you not? Meet me at the bar.
The Muppets (ABC)
Tuesday, September 22
Bill Prady doesn’t need me to explain the Muppets to him. As a young man, Prady’s first job out of college was as a production assistant with Jim Henson. Later, he wrote Muppet-filled specials; when Henson died, Prady cowrote the televised tribute. His devotion even inspired a minor character, Chip, whose nerdy visage is said to suggest Prady’s own. Now that he’s made his millions and his mark in television, thanks to his gig cocreating a minor show called The Big Bang Theory, I can understand why Prady felt compelled to return to the felt-and-glue friends that had given him his start.
Still, I’m a little flummoxed as to what Prady has actually chosen to do with the Muppets now that he has them. As the new series’ ooky marketing has communicated, The Muppets is an adult mockumentary sitcom, shot in the style of The Office. This means we’re treated to the “real” Kermit et al. as they navigate traffic on the 101, go on dates with human women, and attempt to mollify the non-kosher ego monster that is Miss Piggy. I don’t want to sound like another nostalgia-drunk thirtysomething, still clinging to the totems of his youth, but: Really? To my mind, the appeal of the Muppets was the way they represented the very best of show business, the old-fashioned desire to entertain and enlighten that is too often squashed by the sourness of people like, I don’t know, Ryan Murphy. (It’s a vibe that Jason Segel was able to re-create in his oddly underappreciated film from a few years back.) To drown them in the same bile strikes me as tone-deaf at best, cretinous at worst.
The two episodes of The Muppets I saw were rife with limp double entendres and the sort of winky-winky celebrity stroking that gives hard-working celebrity strokers a bad name. Elizabeth Banks flashed her ego at Scooter. Laurence Fishburne insulted Kermit. Josh Groban flirted with Piggy. Prady’s smoking Rolodex gave me a paper cut. Look, I don’t like backslappy comedies like this when they star actual people, let alone beloved puppets. I could say more, but I think Dave Holmes said it best with this tweet, so give him the last word.
Minority Report (Fox)
Monday, September 21
Minority Report was a terrific Steven Spielberg action movie that worked on two levels. On one, it was a sly and insightful parable of post-9/11 hysteria and the illusion of total security. (This was particularly impressive, considering both production on the film and the Philip K. Dick story upon which it was based were both finished long before the towers fell.) On another level, it was the rare science-fiction film that seemed as much science as fiction. The tactile tech that surrounded Tom Cruise now appears eerily prescient of our pinch-and-tap world.
This Minority Report, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t really work on any level. It’s set after the events of the movie, in which the controversial “pre-crime” program was eliminated. Our heroes are Detective Lara Vega, played by the always appealing Meagan Good, a savvy cop who longs for the easier old days when crime was more predictable — maybe she should call Wesley Snipes over on NBC? — and Dash (Stark Sands), one of the pre-cogs now living in hiding and “detached” from the more complete visions of his siblings. Together, they seek to … oh, you know what they’re going to do.
There are a few clever, forward-leaning jokes — an on-brand gag about The Simpsons works the best — and some decent action set pieces. But this Minority has nothing particularly insightful to report, not about the way we live now nor one hundred years hence. Strip away the 3-D laptops, and it’s just another gussied-up version of the show NPR’s Linda Holmes brilliantly labeled The Adventures of Mr. Superabilities and Detective Ladyskeptic. In that, it’s no different than Fox’s Rosewood or, really, dozens of other carbon copies from the past few years. A show that prides itself on being forward-thinking is actually staring in entirely the wrong direction. It doesn’t take a pre-cog to foresee early cancellation.
Sunday, September 27
God, I hated every second of this phony, self-important pilot, and, worse, I hated every obvious reason it was made. Quantico is, in effect, the Shonda Rhimes version of Homeland, though Shonda herself has nothing to do with it. It’s about Alex Parrish, an attractive FBI rookie (played well enough by former Miss World Priyanka Chopra) who wakes up dazed and confused in the smoldering rubble of Grand Central Station. In order to solve the crime — and clear her own name — she must investigate her own recent past, which mostly involves flashbacks to her earliest months at the FBI academy at Quantico, a zesty place filled with Abercrombie models who spew glib nicknames (a blonde is “Taylor Swift;” a Mormon is “Romney”), sweat backstory, and smirk intrigue.
This is exactly the sort of show you can sell to a network in 2015. It has a giant hook, it has attractive people in peril, it wantonly destroys a national landmark, and, yes, it does have sex in the first 10 minutes. (Alex and fellow trainee Ryan pull a reverse McDreamy in a rental car the day before orientation.) The problem here is that professionals like Rhimes and the Homeland brain trust aren’t involved. Lacking their style and chops, creator Joshua Safran (Smash) simply tosses attractive people and scary ideas into the air like LeBron James in a chalk factory. The grandiosity of the display will likely lead to more forgiving reviews than my own; I wouldn’t be surprised if Quantico did quite well in the ratings. But beware anyone who says the show is “well-made.” It is “well-made” in the way frozen hamburgers are “well reheated” at your local fast-food franchise. These are borrowed ingredients. This is processed cheese.
The thing is, Quantico isn’t built to entertain. It’s designed to trick and distract, to buy a few more desperate moments of our overbooked attention with smugness and flash. In this, it’s endemic of the state of broadcast television in 2015. It’s a show so eager for someone to watch that it has completely disregarded the idea of ever making anyone care.