Monday, September 30, 2013

I Watched Them So You Don’t Have To

There are of course two vital questions one must ask themselves during new show evaluation.  The first is whether the show is worth watching. The second is whether it’s going to make it to season 2.  Watching a sucky show once is not a big deal. Investing the time into a new show only to have it die is much harder.  I’m not young anymore.  I lived through Firefly and Dollhouse.  I can’t take another Life.  

When evaluating what new shows to add to my roster, I understand certain things.  I don’t actually want to watch 28 hours of television a week.  I like certain kinds of things (adventuresome dramas; funny comedies (it seems I must specify the funny part); a tidy crime procedural; Project Runway). I don’t like others (trapping people in a house/Siberia/an island in order to recreate Lord of the Flies; evening soap operas; attempts to find “love” on national television).  I’m not judging. I’m just saying I don’t like them.  

Although I have liked them in the past, I’m wearying of the LOST style “oh my god you can’t miss an episode insane cliffhanger every week” shows.  I HAVE to go to work every day. I’m not interested in punch the clock television.  I’m not saying I won’t add a “tune in next week” show to my list, but it’s got to be really good, and I can’t handle more than one or two.  

So, this year I share my new season watching with you.  I’ll tell you if it’s earned a place on my DVR, and I’ll also give you my 1-10 likelihood of survival scale.  10 is The Simpsons. It will last forever, long past the time we’ve all stopped watching it.  1 is Law & Order: Los Angeles.  Sometime in November it will start dropping out of the regular schedule, replaced by a game show hosted by Howie Mandel.  Then in December you’ll start getting “double episodes” on Friday nights. Then you will never see it again.  

I haven’t watched every new show.  I haven’t watched the shows I wouldn’t actually conceivably watch on a regular basis.  I haven’t watched Dads.  I’m skipping Siberia. But, I’ve got a pretty healthy selection.  

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
After a self exile from television, and a triumphant turn directing The Avengers and Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon returns to television with the Avengers crossover series.  Whedonites are understandably nervous. Will this be another Firefly: brilliant, wonderful, entertaining, full of lovable characters and immediately canceled?  Or will this be another Dollhouse: confusing, pedantic, full of unrealized potential and immediately canceled?

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think it’s possible Whedon has rolled double sixes on this one.  AoS is actiony, adventury, funny and leaves you wanting the next episode.  Far be it from me as a loyal Whedonite to suggest that Joss Whedon is in need of any improving, but AoS gives Whedon something in television he hasn’t had before, which is a creative partner that is not the network. Marvel may well provide the steadying hand Whedon needs to keep the story tight and moving, without pushing his “I must do it MY way” buttons.

Continuity between the movies and the series is provided by the character of Agent Coulson, played by Clark Gregg, and a first episode walk-on from Colbie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill. Gregg’s Coulson is a nice mix of gravitas and goof.  The rest of the team is still a bit anonymous attractive people, except for Ming-Na Wen who plays “the driver” who is clearly more than just the driver.  Whedon fans get their fanservice with obligatory walk ons of familiar faces: Shepard Book! Gunn! We missed you so much. We’ll accept you in these new strange outfits. The first episode sprinkles enough yeasty hints about secret pasts (What CAN Agent Coulson never know? What WAS “The Driver” doing before she hid herself in an office?) which will surely bake up nicely throughout the season.  

IS IT ON MY DVR? Obviously

LIKELIHOOD OF SURVIVAL: I’m giving it an optimistic 8.  I think Marvel will be Joss Whedon’s TV savior.  

The Blacklist

Age is being so kind to James Spader. I don’t mean he’s aging well, or becoming more beautiful with each coming year. I mean he has finally been allowed to shake the heartthrob mantle that never fit him comfortably and become what he always was, which is excellent at portraying bad guys who are both appealing and creepy as all get out.  

As I watched The Blacklist I found myself relaxing, not from the story, which is all that action adventure series ought to be, but from the sense that whoever is running the show knows what they’re doing.  Have they clearly watched Alias, 24 and Silence of the Lambs?  Yes, but Blacklist manages to stay on the right side of homage without falling into mimicry.

The story is plain to anyone who has seen the ads for it. Spader’s character, career mercenary & an FBI most wanted criminal Raymond Reddington, walks into the FBI headquarters and turns himself in.  He promises information on the worst of the worst baddies in the world, people who the FBI want and serendipitously, Reddington would like to screw over.  He will only speak to newly minted FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen.   

In the first episode Reddington, who is kept in a box that’s half Silence of the Lambs, half Magneto’s plastic cave and entirely ridiculous (I hope they lose that), helps the FBI capture an evil Serbian warlord the FBI thought was dead. His presence also leads Keen’s life to explode in interesting ways that will undoubtedly keep her coming back for more answers.  

Some things are beyond obvious, although that doesn't make it any less entertaining to watch. I’m not even afraid to say this without a spoiler alert: believe me when I tell you the surprise twist will be if Keen DOESN’T turn out to be Reddington’s daughter, but who knows. We’re clearly in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.  


LIKELIHOOD OF SURVIVAL: Strong ratings out of the gate. Veteran TV actor who has earned his chops. On the other hand, show runner Joe Bokenkamp is new to TV from movies and I don’t know how much leash he’ll get from the network. I’m giving it a 7.5.  

Brooklyn Nine-Nine  

SNL vet Andy Samberg decided to cut short his “SNL vet attempt to transition to movie stardom” in order to return to TV in this cop shop comedy, saving us from a T’Shane movie and for that we must thank him. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is actually a solid show. Although Samberg’s outrageous detective is clearly the reason for the show, it works because of the solid cast behind him, particularly Andre Braugher as the department captain.   

Of course, it’s entirely familiar (the eccentric precinct full of wacky characters) and not a little improbable (sure that goofball that looks Andy Samberg is “the best detective on the team”), but it’s full of good nature and good will.  The key will be reigning in Samberg just enough that every episode doesn't feel like a too long SNL skit.  


LIKELIHOOD OF SURVIVAL: Ratings are decent but dropping, but it’s already got international distribution. There hasn't really been a good “cop shop” comedy since Barney Miller. I’m not sure the audience is there for it.  I’m having difficulty handicapping this one.  If it stays strong and doesn't go too goofy or ABC Afterschool Special, 6.5.  

The Crazy Ones

There’s a problem with The Crazy Ones and the problem is not Robin Williams, it’s the rest of the cast.  With the exception of James Wolk who appears to be the only cast member willing to enthusiastically dive into the crazy pool with Williams the rest of the cast look like they’re terrified.  Without a group willing to stand up to Williams’ wacky free associating antics, this show is DOA.  

If Robin Williams begins to free associate a “sexy” McDonald’s jingle that involves ketchup packets exploding in Kelly Clarkson’s face, any respectable roomful of people are at least smiling if not laughing like crazy.  A cast standing and watching Williams as if he’s the Oracle at Delphi is going to kill this show.  

Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in particular needs some real help.  Gellar is a strong workhorse of an actress (and I mean that as a complement), but her natural state is serious bordering on grave. I don’t think she’s a naturally gifted comic by any means, but she’s certainly capable of being quite funny if given the right material.  In The Crazy Ones it appears that someone told her she was Robin Williams straight man and she’s running with it.  Straight as an arrow. Rigid as steel. The show does not need her to be Robin William’s nag. It needs her to be the gentle nudge towards sanity.  

IS IT ON MY DVR: Yeah, but it’s on warning

LIKELIHOOD OF SURVIVAL: I don’t know. I didn't get a good feeling from this one, even with it’s very high early ratings.  I don’t think the show knows what it is.  Robin Williams & SMG are expensive.  If it doesn't find its footing quickly, my gut says it’s not going to last.  5

The Goldbergs

Yet another comedy about yet another wacky family.  I want to send Hollywood writers a blanket letter: your families are really NOT that interesting. Your childhood was nothing special. You are not a special snowflake. What separates The Goldbergs from the dozens of other wacky families on TV right now? They’re an 80s family!  You can tell from their wacky sweaters and the Mom’s frosted winged out hair!  

The Goldbergs has a surprisingly decent cast, including George Segal as the wacky grandpa, Jeff Garlin as the wacky dad and Patton Oswalt as the narrator.  Unfortunately the cast can do nothing at all to overcome the generic, banal script. There are no surprises.

I had already given up on the show, an episode about the 16 year old son fighting for his right to drive, but the end provided a fitting summary of the whole experience: The 16 year old having earned his right to drive sits in the car in the driveway. He looks over his shoulder and starts to back up and, oh my gosh can you guess what happened? Aw, that’s right! He accidentally drives forward and smashes the garage door. Wha Whaaaa.  


LIKELIHOOD OF SURVIVAL: Well, if there’s a God, 1. If it gets strategically placed between some strong shows, it will be one of those shows that is on for 18 years, but no one ever watches.   


In days of yore, we had many mystery procedural shows which centered around a main character.  Your Perry Mason, your Columbo, your Rockford Files, your Magnum PI and even your Ironside. The main character provided continuity, a goofball charm or a crotchety curmudgeon-ess and enough backstory to keep you wanting to know more. But the backstory was the “back” story.  It was not the story.  The dark mystery was the mystery that needed solving every week and was, neatly, by our hero.  Every few years you might get a sweeps week two parter in which Magnum helped a friend with PTSD, but the show runners understood an essential deal with the audience: the weekly mystery can be as dark as you need, as long as the frame, the main character and the regulars, stay light.  

I had high hopes for Ironside, a retooling of the long running late 60s/early 70s series starring Raymond Burr.  Blair Underwood is hot, an actor of charm and style, and frankly I think the TV world needs a few more “resolved by the end of the episode” crime procedurals that don’t have Law & Order in front of them.  

Alas, Ironside is a bummer.  The backstory is clearly “the story” here: how Detective Ironside ended up in the wheelchair; how he battles his demons; how other people around him battle their demons related to him being in a wheelchair.  

Although there is a mystery being solved during the first episode, the bulk of the show is about flashbacks to Ironside’s past (He and his partner specialized in a “Bad Cop/Bad Cop” partnership that involved hanging perps off of roofs to elicit confessions).  The other non-mystery solving part of the show is proving, in case you had any doubts, that despite being in a wheelchair, Ironside is a tough, macho, virile motherfucker, ok?  He’s angry all the time. He drinks whiskey. He bangs the ladies.  He has some nice seated jujitsu moves. He’s homophobic. Yay!   

I was really “whatever” by the end of it.  It’s nothing new. Blair Underwood deserves better.  

IS IT ON MY DVR: Yes, but not for long

WILL IT LAST? I don’t know. It’s paired with Law & Order: SVU, which is limping to the finish line. It’s got nothing outstanding to make it stand out. 4

The Michael J. Fox Show

You have to give the creators of the show credit: casting Michael J. Fox as a news anchor forced to retire because of Parkinson’s disease who is invited back to work by a producer who sees a potential sympathy ratings bonanza before his eyes is, well, clearly tailor made for Fox, and we are all in on the joke (WINK!).

It’s not bad. The cast is endearing. Michael J. Fox is still Michael J. Fox, even with the tremors and stiff gait.  It’s nice to see a show that treats a lousy, rotten, disease as a fact of life, as it is for millions, and not a “movie-of-the-week” schmaltz fest.  Some of the jokes are too cheap and easy: Fox exclaims “How did you find me?” after he is located under a pile of vibrating balls in a bouncy house, and the best humor is, actually, the stuff that’s not Parkinson’s related, like Fox’s character’s insistence that Matt Lauer has it out for him.   The stunt casting of his real life wife Tracey Pollen on the second episode was unnecessarily cheesy.   

It seems like The Michael J. Fox Show could find it’s footing, once it calms down a little.  

IS IT ON MY DVR: No. It’s a busy night. I’ll catch it on re-runs.

LIKELIHOOD OF SURVIVAL: Well, in the contrived “battle of the returning legends”, Robin Williams The Crazy Ones trounced The Michael J. Fox Show 15 million viewers to 7 million, which is a shaky start. However, it’s clear from the show that NBC is heavily invested. It’s practically a cast member. Also, would YOU fire Michael J. Fox?  6.5 for now.


I wanted to like Mom. I love Anna Faris and I’ve been hoping that TV might finally give her the opportunity to be something beyond the “dumb like a fox” blondes Hollywood has for her.  I also love Allison Janney.  The challenge in liking Mom is how hard the show-runners seem to be working to make you NOT like Mom.  It’s like a bet.  Let’s make a comedy with a really unappealing story line and dare people to watch.  

If Mom had the kind of “the brakes are off, I can’t believe they just said that and holy cow is that Cloris Leachman is in her underwear?” joie de vivre that the show Raising Hope does for example, the plot could work.  But it’s your standard Chuck Lorre style fixed camera show about a recovering alcoholic who hates her mom, also a recovering alcoholic, and is hated by her teenage daughter who just found out she was pregnant. The one bright spot (the main character has an adorable boyfriend) is quickly doused when you find out he is married.  

The “joke” of course is that despite her best intentions, Faris’ character has turned out just like her mom (irresponsible and maybe slutty but I don’t want to judge), and has been rewarded with a daughter just like herself. Ha! So...funny?  I fear that in writing this, I’ve come across as a judgy pants. I’m not, but the show itself certainly is.  


WILL IT SURVIVE: Anna Faris deserves better. 2. BUT it's a Chuck Lorre production, which means it will last forever and ever and ever. 11.

Sleepy Hollow

I was on the fence about Sleepy Hollow before I watched it, and I’m still on the fence.  It’s not a bad show. I just didn’t care about it very much. The premise is that Ichobad Crane, hero/victim of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is a former Revolutionary War soldier who is somehow transported to modern day, conveniently at the same time a “headless horseman” type person starts running around the small town of Sleepy Hollow and beheading people.  

Crane is found and eventually taken pity on by police Lt. Abbie Mills, whose partner was one of the people mysteriously beheaded.  There’s a lot of complicated plotifying about the Headless Horseman being a harbinger of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse or one of the Four Horseman, I’m not sure. And he’s after his skull which is buried in the grave of Crane’s dead wife, who is really trapped in some hell dimension, and something about 4 white ash trees and lots of portentous readings from the Book of Revelation.  It’s a lot to hang on a short story about the dangers of superstition.  

The actors are pleasant to look at, and it’s not remotely unrealistic that the staff of this incredibly small town police department in New England looks like the pages of a Benetton ad.  If you’re a fan of Once Upon a Time or Grimm or any of the many supernatural mystery series there’s plenty to like here.  I’m just a cranky monkey.  

IS IT ON MY DVR: No. I have to save room on my plate for Dracula.  

WILL IT LAST?: Fox is committed. They’re pairing Sleepy Hollow with Bones.  It had the best ratings of all of Fox’s new shows. 8

Trophy Wife

It’s another wacky family show, this time told from the perspective of the new wife/step-mom.  
A “reformed party girl” (the show’s description, not mine) finds herself married to a lawyer and step-parenting his children from his two previous marriages.  As is the way with blended & reconstituted families, his two ex-wives (one an extremely overachieving and judgmental surgeon and the other a loopy earth mother with boundary issues) are also still very much in the day to day picture.

The cast for Trophy Wife is pretty strong, including Marcia Gay Harden (for heaven’s sake!) as the terrifying first wife, Bradley Whitford as the husband/father, and Malin Akerman as the “trophy wife”.  It’s a pleasant show with a reasonable number of laughs.  There’s a nice message, not too heavy handed, about loving the family you’ve got and not the one you imagined.  

IS IT ON MY DVR: No, but I may visit it On Demand

WILL IT LAST?: Ok ratings out of the gate. ABC airing it following Agents of SHIELD. It could last a few seasons.  6

Clearly there are many more new shows that I did not review, nor plan to get to this season.  Hostages looks good, but its premise exhausts me just thinking about it.  Some I haven’t had a chance to catch yet, including Super Fun Night and Sean Saves the World. I will be tuning in for Dracula when it finally drops at the end of October, and Almost Human in November. I’m on the fence about Reign which, as a history goober, seems irresistible but I fear is actually going to be more akin to Gossip Girls in historical dress.   

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