We launched the Grantland Fantasy TV Trade Machine1 this past August not as a mechanism to point out television’s flaws but as an exciting, if wholly imaginary, way to fix them. All it requires is some ingenuity, a made-up set of rules, and the sort of unblinking optimism that’s more rare in Hollywood than an original idea. Now that the inflated hopes and promise of the 2013 season have fallen like leaves, revealing some barren, uncomfortable truths about the network’s autumn offerings, it’s time to bring the Trade Machine back for a second go-around. For this particular bit of pre-Thanksgiving charity, I took four of the most auspicious new network shows — NBC’s The Blacklist and The Michael J. Fox Show, CBS’s The Crazy Ones, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — and came up with series-improving trades that range from the sensible to the insane. Some actors may not like it. Some audiences may never forgive me. But the goal here, as always, is not to fleece anyone or to further enrich the wealthy. Rather, the objective is to achieve some sort of parity: All trades should help both sides. The more good TV there is, the better it is for everyone — especially those of us who have to watch it for a living.
The Show: The Blacklist (NBC)
That The Blacklist is one of the few breakout hits of the new fall season is undeniable. In the weeks since its debut, the show has occasionally drawn more of the much-coveted 18-to-49-year-old audience than any other network drama, and it has done all this despite a raft of flaws more visible than James Spader’s scalp. I addressed many of them in a column two weeks ago, but to sum up: Spader is both the ham and the cheese of this particular sandwich. The show built to contain him is often stale — and the less said about the watery condiments strewn around the better. With its clever summer-blockbuster concept, every hour of The Blacklist ought to be a picnic. Instead, it carries itself with the weight and general demeanor of a thundercloud.
NBC hasn’t had a franchise with this much potential in a decade, so it’s in the network’s best interest to act quickly. Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington didn’t make his way to the top of the fictional underworld by displaying any sentimentality; NBC needs to adopt a similar attitude. The best move is to sign Spader to an extension — unnecessary, since the standard network deal is for seven years, but a nice bit of time-buying PR — and then clean house entirely around him. It’s tempting to think of reaching out to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as the first move. The two shows are both highly anticipated action hours suffering from dangerous levels of blandness. Prior to this fall, I’d say Ming-Na Wen would be an upgrade over the inessential Megan Boone, but Wen’s trade value has been severely damaged since she debuted as the dour Agent May, a kickboxing cipher who makes a leather fetish seem duller than cricket. It’d be nice to imagine a blockbuster, cast-for-cast trade that might somehow enliven both shows, but the truth is, shifting dross from one show to the other would be little more than a credit default swap of the lowest order.
In actuality, The Blacklist‘s most logical trade partner is Homeland. Both shows are popular and blessed with good bones but require massive transplants of nearly everything else. The first day I’m in the GM chair at NBC, I’m calling Showtime to see if it will take Diego Klattenhoff back. The actor was fine in the inessential role of Major Mike; all that was required of him was to caress Morena Baccarin and play video games with Jackson Pace. Given added screen time and responsibility on The Blacklist, he has revealed himself to be so stiff that forest rangers in California have begun checking the redwoods for runaways.2 Under the casual auspices of regifting Klattenhoff, I’d poke around and see what else might be available. Would Homeland ever consider parting with Claire Danes for the right price? Just two months ago, at the Emmys, it seemed unthinkable. Now, with Carrie running wild through a disappointing season like a pregnant, tequila-drunk, headless chicken, I bet Showtime would at least have to listen.
Yet as much as I’d like to see Claire Danes paired with Spader, reaching for popcorn instead of lithium, it’s not a good fit for a trade. The classic top-heavy series, The Blacklist doesn’t have enough assets to send back. I’m sure Homeland would be willing to part with Nazanin Boniadi, the Iranian British newcomer who plays Fara, for the right price. But here I think NBC would balk. It’s honkingly obvious to all that The Blacklist intends to reveal Elizabeth Keen as Red’s daughter. And though Boniadi is feisty, beautiful, and no stranger to crazy secret lives, I don’t think NBC is ready for this level of color-blind casting, even if the audience is. (As Sleepy Hollow, the fall season’s unasterisked breakout hit has proven, diversity generally makes things better.) Homeland is ready to deal. It just needs another partner. Which set me looking in some unexpected places …
Homeland RECEIVES Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, and Harry Lennix.
The Blacklist RECEIVES Katie Aselton and Mark Duplass.
The League RECEIVES Parminder Nagra and F. Murray Abraham.
In the very first TV trade column this summer, I wrote, “Homeland needs options a lot more than Carrie needs her meds.” That’s even more true now that the third season is crashing down all around us. This trade provides flexibility, if nothing else. Klattenhoff is back in the fold as Major Mike and Harry Lennix is as fine a no-nonsense authority figure as you can find. (And when you’re dealing with a show as nonsense-enriched as Homeland, guys like that are more necessary than ever.) Maybe he could take on the role of a new president in Homeland‘s fourth season? The show has studiously avoided showing the chief executive in the past. But I think, at this point, it’s worth tossing out nearly everything that’s been tried before. As for Boone, she could be used to address Homeland‘s most problematic area: the personal life of Carrie Mathison. As I wrote last week, the character is a total mess, defined and consumed completely by Brody. If Damian Lewis plies his trade elsewhere next year, the need for Carrie to have a BFF or a rival (or anything that doesn’t have red hair and a thing for Yorkshire Gold) will be even greater.
The League is not a show discussed much around these parts. It’s not because I don’t watch it — I do! It’s because the show is such a well-lubricated hang that I can’t think of a single thing about it that merits coverage. It’s because it is such a smooth operation that I feel pretty confident The League can survive a major shakeup. Mark Duplass is nominally the star, but Pete is such a bland sourpuss that I can’t imagine anyone missing him. I’d love to see the show focus in on the remaining guys with the game and funny Nagra tossed into the mix — perhaps as Shiva’s sister? And no actor alive has as much fun with hooey as F. Murray Abraham. Sign him up for a season-long arc as Rafi’s dirty father and just see what an Oscar winner is truly capable of.
But the real prize here is Katie Aselton, a smart and tough performer underused and underappreciated in the locker room that is The League. She’s an instant upgrade over Boone’s tepid Elizabeth Keen and a far more unpredictable foil for the scenery-ravaging Spader. Duplass, Aselton’s real-life husband, is a quality pickup as well as Red’s new governmental liaison. Duplass proved he can do bureaucratic chic in Zero Dark Thirty, and with him onboard the potential romantic spark with the young female profiler won’t have to be faked in post-production. Sure, the show would have to recast the rest of the FBI team, but that’s no great challenge. Subtraction is often the best way to add quality. The Blacklist is looking brighter already.
The Show: The Crazy Ones (CBS)
As I wrote last week, Robin Williams’s clown car of a comeback vehicle doesn’t need any help on the commercial side: It’s a monster hit. But creatively it’s not where it needs to be, particularly due to the show’s massive gender imbalance: Williams and James Wolk spend each episode riffing and preening, gobbling up oxygen and attention like first-year drama students, while the once-formidable Sarah Michelle Gellar is left to fume and fluster. What Williams’s Simon Roberts needs isn’t a child who acts like his mother. It’s a child who acts like him — only better. The one thing that can drown out crazy is more crazy, and a show about a formerly out-of-control father forced to handle his out-of-control daughter is a lot more interesting than a show about a grown man doing Three Stooges bits in public. Thankfully, I know just the actor who can play that daughter — and her show is in even worse shape than The Crazy Ones, meaning a straight-up swap would be attractive to both sides.
Super Fun Night RECEIVES Sarah Michelle Gellar.
The Crazy Ones RECEIVES Rebel Wilson.
Rebel Wilson deserves better. She’s a remarkably funny, physically fearless performer who proved in Pitch Perfect and Bachelorette that she’s able to toggle smoothly between genuine emotion and bra-exposing buffoonery. And yet she’s marooned on Super Fun Night, a dreadful weekly prison of her own making. That Wilson wrote and produced this hyperactive mess — currently dying a slow, unfun death in the plum post–Modern Family slot on Wednesdays — is a knock against her own instincts, but it says nothing about her ability to elevate other people’s material. Dropping her into the staid, pleased-with-itself Crazy Ones would unsettle things in the best possible way. Wilson can go toe-to-toe with Williams in any situation and, better, she’d do so as a comedic peer, not a sycophant. (That Williams’s character bottomed out as an alcoholic while on a boozy walkabout in Australia is almost too perfect. Here comes Rebel, the Aussie love child he didn’t know he had!) Right now The Crazy Ones is crazy only in the way it’s crazy to have a second spoonful of Pinkberry or to sleep in till 7:15. Its survival is as predictable as its plots. Adding Rebel Wilson would be the spark of actual insanity the show needs to thrive.
And don’t spill any tears for Super Fun Night. Adding Sarah Michelle Gellar as the new star risks nothing (other than Gellar’s ego; but then again she spent last year on The CW), but the potential rewards are considerable. Yes, Wilson is (maybe) becoming a draw at the movies, but sometimes stars’ sensibilities work better on TV without the stars themselves; it’s the reason 2 Broke Girls is prospering and Whitney is buried in an unmarked grave. Similarly, the main problem with Night is that rather than pit Wilson’s innate zaniness against the world, it allows said zaniness to leech into everything. If the goal is a sitcom about three likably goofball friends, then it badly misses the mark. Night plays more like an anthropological study commissioned by antisocial aliens from the Zebulon sector to help address their innate terror of sex and the outdoors. Adding Gellar, who excels at playing adult humans, could bring Super Fun Night back down to a more recognizable version of Earth. Thirtysomething female friendship isn’t a topic much explored on contemporary TV — the Liz Lemons and Mindy Lahiris of the world are more comfortable smoking in the boys’ room. Why not try something new? It sure beats what Super Fun Night is doing now: trying too hard.
The Show: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
A decade of dominant blockbusters convinced the world that the Marvel Universe is the most exciting, creative place imaginable, where superheroes and villains, gods and monsters roam freely like wild animals across the Serengeti. Two months of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have managed to make it seem as interesting as a petting zoo. Everyone was onboard with the idea of a companion TV show that would tease out the less powerful (and, it needs to be said, less popular) corners of the Marvel U. A grounded take on comic-book adventures is a smart way to bring wide-screen adventure to a smaller screen. But no one could have expected Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to feel this cramped and inessential.
Even accounting for the labyrinthine corporate power structure3 required to vet any creative decision (remember this is a multibillion-dollar sandbox in which Clark Gregg and his specially recruited life-model decoys are playing around), S.H.I.E.L.D. is amazingly, riotously dull. It has none of the trademark Joss Whedon pop and fizz; its tone is frumpy and flat. It seems inevitable that there are changes being made behind the scenes to pep things up — again, check the price tag on the sandbox — but the toughest hurdle for the series is its original sin of casting. Gregg was a pleasant-enough presence as a know-it-all in The Avengers, but his two-steps-ahead shtick gets awfully old when he’s not pulling it on Thor. As outlined above, Ming-Na Wen seems to have based her performance on the frowny-face emoji, making her awfully tough to move, even to a better situation. But the rest of the team is a drowsy collection of barely sketched-out drips. Forget about saving the world or ABC’s bumpy Tuesday nights. If S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to save itself, the main cast needs to be blown up like Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion.
Though this may seem simple — who doesn’t have a fantasy of pushing down one of those tiny levers and waiting for the dust cloud to emerge? — it’s actually not. Part of the rules of the TV Trade Machine involves at least the appearance of equal value. So as much as I want to exile some of these zeroes to the part of the Ice Road the Truckers can’t reach, it doesn’t work that way. We need to set them up to succeed in a new setting even while rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. from the ground up. A smart series GM would already be scouting the waiver wire, looking to make low-risk pickups from recently canceled shows (Summer Bishil was lively enough on the DOA Lucky 7) or newly deceased characters (the leonine Erik LaRay Harvey, late of Boardwalk Empire, would make a fine secret agent). J. August Richards, so memorable in the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot as a man given great power but shirking on the responsibility, should be brought back immediately4 and installed in the main cast. But these short fixes can get you only so far. This patient is both critical and expensive. There’s not enough time to worry about the quality of the new blood when a transfusion is so desperately needed.
Arrow RECEIVES Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet.
The Wrong Mans RECEIVES Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. RECEIVES Willa Holland, Mathew Baynton, and James Corden.
Arrow is a fine show. Actually, it’s a good sight better than S.H.I.E.L.D. right now. But it has never known quite what to do with the spunky Willa Holland, who plays the titular hero’s sister like she’s perpetually getting away with murder. Adding her to Agent Coulson’s flying HQ would be pouring Pop Rocks into … well, tap water. But it’s still liable to get the necessary, bubbly reaction. As for the stiff Dalton and the slight Bennet, they’ll be fine. Arrow is always in need of additional jawlines to menace/protect Starling City, and Stephen Amell, as Oliver Queen, could always use another love interest, even if this one does say things like “hacktivist.”
OK, this part of the trade is a bit unfair. But Marvel is making a habit of stomping its traditional rival, DC, across most forms of media. Why not do it on the Trade Machine, too?
Besides, it’s the second part of the trade that’s exciting. Hulu/BBC 2’s The Wrong Mans is an absolutely wonderful — and wonderfully compact — six-episode comedic thriller. I loved it enough to want its creators (who also double as the stars), Baynton and Corden, to quit while they’re ahead. Like the departing Fitz and Simmons, the two are British and are awfully good at appearing both brainy and in totally over their heads. Unlike Fitz and Simmons, Baynton and Corden are also blessed with chemistry and crackling personalities. I have a feeling the vaguely bean pole–ish Baynton could be a leading man if only he were asked politely, and the unpredictable Corden is basically a gamma bomb in a sensible jumper. They may not be plausible crime fighters, but at least they’d be fun. The rebooted, reenergized S.H.I.E.L.D. ought to take its cues from the early Marvel comic Tales to Astonish, not its current inspiration: Tales to Please Everyone and Gently Bolster the Bottom Line.
So where does that leave The Wrong Mans? In great shape, thanks for asking! While lounging by the pool on their off days, Baynton and Corden can come up with a completely different six-episode story line for an entirely new cast. Henstridge has a bit of a spark, so I can see her as the lead — possibly paired with Joanna Page from the Corden-cocreated Gavin & Stacey? — in the second season of a retitled The Wrong Womans. De Caestecker can do … something or other. (Love interest? Make runs to the chippy?) And as a gesture of good faith, Disney ought to make some of its English action figures, like Tom Hiddleston and Hayley Atwell, available for cameos. It’s the least it can do considering David just saved Goliath’s bacon.
The Show: The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC)
Recent history has proven that workplace sitcoms can be successful, and so, too, can family sitcoms. But pity the poor tweener,5 the throwback show that attempts to illustrate the fullness of life and ends up skimming on both ends. This is the quandary faced by The Michael J. Fox Show, a series that was meant to save a network but is unlikely to survive for a second season. Oh, sure, the show is pleasant enough, but “pleasant” isn’t really an argument for watching something in 2013. The Michael J. Fox Show seems to exist solely because its star wanted it to exist. Inoffensive and forgettable, it’s utterly lacking in purpose or drive both at home and in the office — mainly, I’d argue, because it can’t decide where it wants to center itself. Because of this, and despite NBC’s desperate hopes, the one place Fox is going is nowhere, and it’s going there fast.
As of now, the best parts of Fox involve its star’s interactions with the two most important people in his life, both of whom happen to be refugees from the prestige minefields of cable. Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt is a warm and vivacious delight as Annie, Fox’s schoolteacher wife. And Wendell Pierce, late of The Wire and the ending-next-month Treme, is having a ball as Fox’s news producer pal, even if the show can’t seem to decide just what to do with him. These three are actors worthy of building a show around. And though I’m certain NBC’s phones have been ringing off the hook since September with trade offers for Pierce — Scandal would love to have him as a muckraking journalist; FX should be throwing everything not named Timothy Olyphant at the possibility of landing Pierce as a co-lead on the upcoming Hoke — I’m going to operate under the premise that the only version of the Fox Show that will work is one involving the karaoke-loving Harris.
What’s more, I think the Harris–Mike Henry friendship is key to the show’s survival. One of Fox’s undimmed abilities is the way he can charm even when misbehaving. It’s why Alex P. Keaton made supply-side economics seem cuddly and why his best work of late involved playing against type on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Good Wife. Yet The Michael J. Fox Show coddles its lead with a bubble wrap of sainthood: Mike is a great reporter, a better dad, and is managing Parkinson’s disease with good humor and grace. It’s only in the work scenes with Pierce that Fox loosens up and gets a little dirty. I’d initiate trade talks with the ultimate goal of making the Fox Show a zippy, Manhattan workplace comedy, not the gloppy, Upper West Side group hug it is today. It’s drastic, but no one said comedy had to be pretty. In fact, it usually needs to be the opposite.
The Mindy Project RECEIVES Juliette Goglia and Jack Gore.
Dads RECEIVES Katie Finneran.
The Michael J. Fox Show RECEIVES Xosha Roquemore and Giovanni Ribisi.
Juliette Goglia, as Mike’s precocious daughter, Eve, is one of the Fox Show‘s bright spots. But there’s simply no real place for her or Jack Gore, who plays her inessential little brother, Graham, on the new, work-focused iteration of the series. Better to pack them off to another sitcom suffering an identity crisis. I’d say that The Mindy Project‘s schizoid second season isn’t working, but the show won’t stop moving to let me take my shot: It keeps adding cast members and changing tones in a frantic attempt to get the formula right. My feelings on what works best for Mindy were forged back in the early episode in which Dr. Lahiri hung out at high school, and they were reaffirmed in the late-season half-hour set at a frat party: Mindy Kaling plays best with children. I’d much rather see her character saddled with a sudden family — perhaps a never-before-seen college best friend has suddenly passed away? — than gifted with another casting-coup love interest. Unlike with Michael J., it’s the work stuff on Mindy that isn’t working.
As for Dads, well, what more can I say? My initial trade involved shipping the entire cast off to The Walking Dead in exchange for a nation’s eternal gratitude, but the commissioner nixed it as unfair to zombies. So I decided to go in a different, more serious direction. It remains baffling why Giovanni Ribisi, a fine actor, would deign to set foot in the festering outhouse that is Dads. (Unless, of course, all the money Fox saved on things like “sets” and “jokes” ended up in Ribisi’s bank account.) Consider this a lifeline that he may or may not deserve. In his place, I’m offering the immense, if broad, talents of Broadway vet Katie Finneran. In her new role as the sister to Ribisi’s character — and thus the daughter of Martin Mull’s creepy drunk Dad — Finneran would add a much-needed dose of good cheer to the angry, unfunny comedy of Seth MacFarlane and friends. Better yet, she could knock the sexist smart right out of Seth Green in one take.
As for The Michael J. Fox Show, it’s now a sort of Murphy Brown for a new generation, with Fox as the put-upon reporter, Pierce holding steady as his pal, current guest star Anne Heche bumped up to regular cast as his Faith Ford–ish rival, and Ribisi doing what he does best: playing an uptight prig brought in by management to get the station’s house in order. Roquemore is barely used as is on Mindy; I think she’d be a fine addition to Mike Henry’s new workplace family.6 As for Brandt, well, maybe she’ll get a job in a different part of 30 Rock — bringing her near enough to the main cast to interact with them regularly and close enough to Fox to keep Mike from getting too comfortable. In fact, that’s a jittery feeling the Trade Machine ought to impart upon all of TV’s tirelessly working actors: No job is safe. And no bad show needs to stay that way.