Fall TV Trade Machine: Making All the Moves That Fix the Biggest Problems of a Troubled SeasonIllustration by Linsey Fields
In the long, hot summer of 2013, we here at Grantland introduced the Fantasy TV Trade Machine as a way to simultaneously kill time and save the shows we loved. It was a fun diversion, nothing more.
Then, last fall, the Machine took on a more pressing responsibility: If used correctly, it could serve as an instruction manual for fixing new network shows before it was too late. Tweaking them while they still had that factory scent — and before they were resigned to the remainder bin by unimpressed viewers — would benefit all involved: the overtaxed networks, the underused actors, and, most of all, the skeptical audience. The goal of the Grantland Fantasy TV Trade Machine is to make every show better. Its bedrock belief is that such a thing is possible. The Machine’s only rule? Do no harm.1 (Its existential irony: There is no actual machine. Not yet, anyway.)
This fall, I looked at a historically weak slate of broadcast shows not as a challenge but as an opportunity. Surely, with a few performers swapped here and there, even the saddest turkey could become a soaring eagle! Of course, I may have waited a bit too long to find out: The fall season’s biggest turkeys have already been led to the slaughterhouse. (That didn’t stop me from raiding the corpse of Selfie for expiring contracts and spare parts.) So the series I fed through the Machine aren’t the worst of the lot, but merely the most frustrating. I honestly believe they are all capable of improvement.2 As I started gaming out trade scenarios, I soon realized that a series of simple one-for-one swaps wouldn’t suffice. The problems of these freshmen shows were too ingrained, the miscasting too severe. Once I began moving pieces around, the process began to look like a game of dominos. Saving Mulaney meant disrupting Marry Me. But messing with Marry Me offered a window of hope for The Affair. And so on. There’s a chance this looks confusing. There’s a chance it looks like madness. But there’s also a chance that it’s all so crazy that it just might work.
Remember, no actual actors were harmed in the making of this fantasy trade list. (Though quite a few egos were likely bruised.) We trade because we love. And boy, do we love to trade.
THE SHOW: Mulaney
THE CURRENT CAST:
THE PROBLEM: Everyone loves John Mulaney — as a writer for Saturday Night Live, where he helped tweak Stefon; as a stand-up comedian; and as a polite, well-dressed human being. Unfortunately, not many people feel the same way about Mulaney, the multi-cam sitcom currently dying a slow and very public death on Fox’s Sunday night. Though the series has improved since its debut, the ratings have not, leading the network to shave its season order from 16 to 13.3 Fox seems committed to airing the remaining episodes, but a second season is both unlikely and, as of yet, undeserved. With its stilted rhythms and hit-and-miss humor, Mulaney has been unable to make a case for either its throwback style or its own existence. A drastic shake-up is needed. Luckily, that’s exactly what I’ve got.
Fox receives Casey Wilson (from Marry Me, NBC) and John Cho (expiring contract from Selfie, ABC).
CBS receives Seaton Smith (to Scorpion) and Zack Pearlman (to Stalker).
AMC receives Elliott Gould (to Halt and Catch Fire).
THE NEW CAST:
THE RATIONALE: I’ve spoken to John Mulaney twice now and I’m swayed by his unapologetic love for the multi-cam comedies of his youth. More important, I’m convinced by his talent and abilities that, if given one more chance, he could transform Mulaney into a sitcom worthy of that legacy. So if you, too, are willing to accept all of that — and judging by the ratings, you are definitely not — then let’s take it a step further. If the problem with Mulaney isn’t the format, it is definitely the context. Right now, Mulaney is trying (and failing!) to be two shows at once: an apartment-based comedy about wacky roommates and a workplace-based comedy about a nutty boss. Mulaney himself is the only connective thread between these two worlds, which is a problem since (1) even he would likely tell you that he’s the weakest performer on his own show, and (2) TV’s “John Mulaney” is, thus far, a sweatered cipher without many characteristics to call his own.
My solution? Mulaney needs to pick sides, and it’s not the one you may think. Despite the assertion of former Fox boss Kevin Reilly, Mulaney is not “Seinfeld for a new generation.” But it could still be 30 Rock for a broader audience. Mulaney’s sharply observed stand-up bits, about procuring Xanax and accidentally chasing women through the subway, simply don’t translate well to teleplays, and especially not when they’re needlessly neutered in the process. Focusing on the professional instead of the personal would allow Mulaney to draw a bright line between the jokes he tells onstage and the jokes he can mine from his years of experience in Studio 8H. So let’s dispatch the talented but ill-served Seaton Smith (he’ll be fine on Scorpion; see below) and the intensely aggravating Zack Pearlman (he’ll be lit on fire on Stalker). Elliott Gould is a wonderful actor, but totally wasted here as a gay neighbor whose primary personality trait is that he’s gay. Off to the greener (and more creative) pastures of cable with you! As far as I’m concerned, Mulaney now sleeps at the office.
So let’s get to work. Right now on Mulaney, Martin Short is hamming it up as Lou Cannon, the host of a C-grade quiz show. I wouldn’t make him any more kosher, but I’d promote Lou to the host of his own late-night talk show. John Mulaney is, as now, an ambitious, morally questionable new hire to the writer’s room. I’d keep Nasim Pedrad in the mix — she’s the best thing on the current version of Mulaney — but add her to Lou’s staff, perhaps as his PA. (It’s already in continuity for Lou to like her! Not that anyone but me is keeping track of Mulaney continuity.) With Selfie canceled, John Cho is suddenly available. Let’s bring him in as Lou’s overtaxed producer. And, to add romantic spark and conflict, let’s rescue Casey Wilson from the squawking ship that is NBC’s Marry Me. That show has an even better pedigree than Mulaney — it’s the baby of Wilson’s husband, Happy Endings creator David Caspe — and, so far, it also has better ratings. But, somewhat perversely, I still think Mulaney has more potential. On Marry Me, Wilson is flopsweating through nearly every scene, keeping a listing, unpleasant series afloat through sheer force of comedic will. On Mulaney, she could take a breath. Besides, the less physical type of backstabbing required to survive behind the scenes of a late-night institution is probably something she could play in her sleep.
I’m setting my imaginary DVR for this never-gonna-happen version of Mulaney as I type. It was never going to be a world-changing sitcom, but this way it could, at least, be an entertaining one. But, wait, if Casey Wilson is on Mulaney, what does that mean for …
THE SHOW: Marry Me
THE CURRENT CAST:
Sarah Wright Olsen
THE PROBLEM: As explained above, Marry Me is a hysterical sitcom in all the wrong ways. With its Adderall pacing and relentless cheer, it’s not making me laugh so much as it’s making me exhausted. Worse, the ensemble gathered around the solid leads is Exhibit A for the slapdash casting — part desperation, part shrug — that is sinking contemporary network sitcoms. I don’t believe that John Gemberling’s obnoxious, self-loathing beardo exists in the same universe as Sarah Wright Olsen’s type A diva. I don’t believe they exist at all.
NBC receives Dominic West (from The Affair, Showtime) and Da’Vine Joy Randolph (expiring contract from Selfie, ABC).
AMC receives John Gemberling, Sarah Wright Olsen, and Tymberlee Hill (all to The Walking Dead).
THE NEW CAST:
Da’Vine Joy Randolph
THE RATIONALE: So far, none of 2014’s heavily hyped sit-rom-coms have worked — and that includes Marry Me. So why not try a fresh approach? Let’s keep the romance and the impending nuptials, but swap the gender. Ken Marino remains as the everydude-ish Jake, but now he’s hopelessly in love with Jimmy, a loud and proud British expat played by Dominic West. After his five years of urban blight and frustration in Baltimore and one miserable summer in the Hamptons, I feel like West has earned the right to laugh — and he’s proved he’s capable of inspiring it in others.
Tim Meadows and Dan Bucatinsky remain as a long-married gay couple, but instead of serving as emotional soundproofing for Wilson’s freak-outs, they’re now Marino and West’s neighbors, acting as sounding boards and role models for a happy, long-term relationship. Stephen Guarino — already reprising his memorable role from Happy Endings — now makes even more sense in the regular cast as one of Marino’s exes. And Da’Vine Joy Randolph was a surprise breakout from Selfie’s shortened run. Let’s add her to the mix as West’s immigration attorney turned confidante. I’m not sure this version of Marry Me is better than what’s currently on TV, but it’s certainly more interesting.
But wait, you say. If Dominic West is getting hitched over here, what does that mean for …
THE SHOW: The Affair
THE CURRENT CAST:
THE PROBLEM: There are a lot of things that rub me the wrong way about The Affair: the lack of humor, the ponderous pacing, the sheer amount of Pacey. But the aspect of the show that rankles most is the miscasting. Dominic West is an exceptional actor, but he’s entirely wrong for the part of a self-proclaimed “neurotic” Brooklyn novelist. And Joshua Jackson was far more believable as a clone stolen from an alternate dimension than he is as a horse rancher. Thanks to these stumbles, The Affair is stilted when it should be sexy, confusing when it needs to be compelling. I know the show was just renewed for a second season. But in TV Trade Machine world, it’s never too late to blow it up and start again.
Showtime receives Scoot McNairy (from Halt and Catch Fire, AMC), Michael Cudlitz (from The Walking Dead, AMC), and Emily Mortimer (expiring contract from The Newsroom, HBO).
AMC receives Maura Tierney (to The Walking Dead) and Joshua Jackson (to Halt and Catch Fire).
NBC receives Dominic West (to Marry Me).
THE NEW CAST:
THE RATIONALE: Scoot McNairy is one of the most interesting young-ish actors working today. As good as he is as a bottled-up programmer on AMC’s so-so Halt and Catch Fire, he could be considerably better as a nebbishy novelist ready to explode. As president and chief operating officer of the Emily Mortimer Fan Club,4 I’m all too happy to free her from the sanctimonious shackles of The Newsroom. She has onscreen experience being cuckolded from her time in Match Point, a role that also allowed her to be entirely self-possessed and sympathetic. These are skills that will come in handy in what still appears to be a rather thankless role. But the move I’m most excited about is the addition of Michael Cudlitz. Strong and soulful, he’s been a revelation on this drastically improved season of The Walking Dead — and, given that show’s turnover, I can’t imagine he’ll be sticking around all that long. Dropping him into the placid waters of The Affair is like tossing a cannonball into a puddle. Not only does he make for a far more plausible rancher than Jackson, but the difference in age with Wilson and the difference in physicality with McNairy also add a new level of menace to what has been, thus far, a far too polite show.
Bonus: There’s no need to worry too much about the survivors whom Cudlitz just left behind, because …
THE SHOW: The Walking Dead
THE PROBLEM: There isn’t one. In its fifth season, The Walking Dead is better than it’s ever been. So why is it all over this column? Because no show on television is more vital to the TV Trade Machine project than The Walking Dead. Thanks to the demands of its premise, the series gobbles up fresh meat like … well, you know. And so, like a cagey GM, TWD involves itself in nearly every trade — Hoovering up expiring contracts, selling high on reclamation projects, and accepting nearly every stiff on offer. In this, the show reminds me of my beloved Philadelphia 76ers: Everyone is a potential asset; no one is ever untouchable. What matters is the long-term plan, not the personalities involved.
AMC receives Maura Tierney and, like, two extra children (from The Affair, Showtime); Elyes Gabel, Jadyn Wong, and Ari Stidham (from Scorpion, CBS); Alana De La Garza (from Forever, ABC); and John Gemberling, Sarah Wright Olsen, and Tymberlee Hill (from Marry Me, NBC).
Showtime receives Michael Cudlitz (to The Affair)
ABC receives Sonequa Martin-Green and Tyler James Williams (to Forever)
THE RATIONALE: I really like this spot for Maura Tierney. She’s a beloved TV actress, equally adept at comedy and drama. The one opportunity she hasn’t yet been given in her long and circuitous career is a chance to kick ass — or at least saw off a couple of heads. There’s a steely toughness underneath Tierney’s pleasant veneer. It was there on ER, and it was certainly evident in her own personal life when she overcame cancer in 2010. Put a pistol in her hand, take away her conditioner, and she’ll fit right in with The Walking Dead’s ragtag group of survivors.
As for everyone else? Well, zombies gotta eat.
THE SHOW: Forever
THE CURRENT CAST:
Alana De La Garza
Joel David Moore
THE PROBLEM: Unlike many shows, Forever knew exactly what it was from the start. It’s a light, general-interest drama designed to entertain, to occasionally charm, and, above all, to run six seasons in highly profitable cultural anonymity. (Let’s call this the Bones corollary.) Unfortunately, Forever has proved to be a bit too low-key. After a surprisingly robust debut, the ratings have sunk to the point at which the show’s title may prove to be more ironic than prophetic. This would be a shame. Forever isn’t great, but it’s not trying to be. On the broadcast networks these days, good is plenty good enough.
ABC receives Sonequa Martin-Green and Tyler James Williams (from The Walking Dead, AMC) and Archie Panjabi (from The Good Wife, CBS).
AMC receives Alana De La Garza (to The Walking Dead) and Joel David Moore (to Halt and Catch Fire).
THE NEW CAST:
Tyler James Williams
THE RATIONALE: The gentle banter between Ioan Gruffudd’s ageless Henry Morgan and Judd Hirsch’s well-aged Abe is pleasant, but not nearly enough to fuel an entire series. And so the first order of business is replacing the perfectly adequate Alana De La Garza with the potentially extraordinary Sonequa Martin-Green. I say “potentially” because in her two-plus seasons as Sasha on The Walking Dead, Martin-Green has shuttled between the background and the foreground. Sometimes she’s the show’s emotional center, her vengeful fury muted by her tender affection for Larry Gilliard Jr.’s Bob. Other times, she’s stuck mopping up other people’s messes — or their misses. The one constant is that, no matter what she’s doing, Martin-Green demands our attention. As Dr. Morgan’s new partner (and, of course, inevitable love interest), she’d add a shot of adrenaline to a show in danger of slipping into a coma. For similar reasons, I’m swapping one three-named actor for another in the role of Henry’s awkward assistant. Joel David Moore is fine, but I have him tagged for better things on cable. Tyler James Williams, the former star of Everybody Hates Chris, is having a moment just now, with a strong turn on The Walking Dead and a leading role in Dear White People. There’s no downside to either. But Williams’s upside is higher than Forever’s current, distressingly low ceiling.
In addition to a pulse, Forever also lacks a worthy adversary. Since its September premiere, the show has been teasing viewers with the shadowy presence of “Adam,” an unseen killer who claims to be afflicted with the same immortality bug as Henry. Well, bully for him. Despite its title, Forever doesn’t have time to dilly-dally with somnolent cases of the week. It needs an interesting villain and it needed him yesterday. Or should I say her? There’s no reason Adam can’t be a pseudonym of Eve, Henry’s true immortal foil. As for casting, I can think of no better candidate than Archie Panjabi, soon-to-be-late of The Good Wife. Panjabi plays a complicated heroine (more or less) on that show, but it’s high time she steered into the skid of her terrible press. (Nothing has ever been said on the record, but there has to be a reason the only actor still willing to share scenes with Panjabi is an iPhone 5.) If Panjabi can strike fear into the hearts of Emmy winners, think of what she’d be able to do to Forever’s dwindling fan base.
THE SHOW: Scorpion
THE CURRENT CAST:
Eddie Kaye Thomas
THE PROBLEM: Judging by the ratings, Scorpion doesn’t need my help. The show is doing healthy business among the procedural-addicted masses who help CBS stay flush, as well as with the 18-to-49-year-olds who keep advertisers swingin’ on the flippity-flop. It’s been granted a full season order, and renewal seems like a formality.
And yet. No fall show frustrates me more because, for as decent as Scorpion has been, it ought to be so much better. The premise is kicky and fun: A ragtag group of socially inept geniuses aid the government when the going gets tough. Former Idol Katharine McPhee is around to add humanity. Her silent, gifted son (played by Riley B. Smith) is around to add heart. I want to love Scorpion the way I love the unfairly forgotten caper flick Sneakers. But I don’t. And the reason is the cast. Stilted and bland, Elyes Gabel is no leader of men — not even the half-considered head cases he has following him. I say, let’s take a cue from the Scorpion playbook and think outside the box. And then let’s blow up the entire box and start fresh.
CBS reassigns Maggie Q (from Stalker).
CBS receives John Gallagher Jr. (from The Newsroom, HBO) and Seaton Smith (from Mulaney, Fox).
AMC receives Elyes Gabel, Jadyn Wong, and Ari Stidham (to The Walking Dead).
THE NEW CAST:
John Gallagher Jr.
Eddie Kaye Thomas
THE RATIONALE: Leave the genius-ing to the writers. What Scorpion needs badly is personality and chemistry. And I think, thanks to my tinkering, that it may finally have it. Maggie Q is the best thing about CBS’s hideous Stalker — yes, that’s like praising the crudités on the Titanic, but still. She’s a fun, physical performer, and I actually enjoy watching her order people around in the few minutes Stalker devotes each week to the living before it gets back to fetishizing the demented and the dead.5 With her chilly charisma, she’d be perfect as the team’s new engineer. Next to Q, I’d throw in John Gallagher Jr., a warm actor currently in aesthetic exile on The Newsroom. A colleague recently referred to his character on that show as “the saddest man in the universe.” Replacing Gabel as the real-life founder of the Scorpion crew should cheer him up. And while comedian Smith isn’t working as Motif on Mulaney, there’s something about him that suggests skills beyond punch lines. Why not slide him in as the team’s resident laptop-hammering hacker? Eddie Kaye Thomas, the best of the preexisting bunch, is fine right where he is.
McPhee can also stay, of course, because she’s a national treasure. And Robert Patrick isn’t going anywhere because he’s a national monument. (I mean that quite literally. One more crag on that oaky face of his and he can be legally classified as a Sequoioideae.)
THE SHOW: Halt and Catch Fire
THE CURRENT CAST:
THE PROBLEM: Despite some ardent fans, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire limped into its second-season renewal. The show took far too long to find its legs and, if we’re being honest, I still feel like it may have found the wrong pair. The most exciting parts of Halt’s first year involved Cameron, Mackenzie Davis’s some-kind-of-wonderful hacker, and Kerry Bishé’s Donna, a working wife and mother who happens to be just as good a programmer as her troubled husband. If AMC wants Halt to do more than just run code, it needs to invest in a major upgrade. Here’s how to do it:
AMC receives Elliott Gould (from Mulaney, Fox), Joshua Jackson (from The Affair, Showtime), and Joel David Moore (from Forever, ABC).
Showtime receives Scoot McNairy (to The Affair).
HBO receives Lee Pace (to Game of Thrones).
THE NEW CAST:
Joel David Moore
THE RATIONALE: We’ve had plenty of prestige-chasing cable dramas about difficult men attempting impossible things. Isn’t it time to reboot one of these old boxes from the female perspective? Pessimists might look at this trade as AMC losing both of its gifted stars. I see it as a chance for the network to promote real talent and put them in an incredible position to succeed. A show about Davis and Bishé attempting to shake up the staid world of American computing in 1980s Texas would be fascinating and — this is huge for spinoff-crazy AMC — totally original. Joshua Jackson could step easily into a Lee Pace–like role (cocky charlatan more interested in bank than bytes), and Joel David Moore certainly fits right in as some sort of gawky computing savant. Throw in Elliott Gould as a millionaire who could either fund their dreams or crush them — it’s about time he started playing cool again; enough with the constant kvetching — and you’ve got the hardware for a series that could win the next generation of great dramas, not settle for fourth place in this one.
THE SHOW: Game of Thrones
HBO receives Lee Pace (from Halt and Catch Fire, AMC) and Karen Gillan (expiring contract from Selfie, ABC).
THE RATIONALE: HBO didn’t need to get involved in the Trade Machine this fall, and yet it smartly parlayed two expiring contracts (Emily Mortimer and John Gallagher Jr. from The Newsroom) into two Marvel movie stars on the rise. Though I haven’t read the books, I have no doubt that there’s some sort of cocky, sword-twirling knight debuting soon that Pace could play in his sleep. As for the spunky Gillan … well, would anyone really mind if she were to make a surprise appearance as Ygritte’s long-lost arrow-shooting cousin, Ygrotte? Jon Snow must have learned a few things during the long offseason, and I’m sure she’d be happy to give him a chance to try them out. See? Everyone’s happy. This is how HBO stays atop the Iron Throne. And how the Picasso of the TV Trade Machine paints his masterpiece.
Filed Under: TV, TV Trade Machine, Fall TV, Game of Thrones, halt and catch fire, Scorpion, Selfie, marry me, Mulaney, john Mulaney, Forever, ABC, CBS, NBC, HBO, AMC, Showtime, Fox, the affair, The Walking Dead