Crosstalk: The Fall TV Season Check-Up

Crosstalk: The Fall TV Season Check-Up

Noel: Gentlemen, we're getting to that time of the TV season where new series have aired two or three installments, and we can start making some hard decisions about what we're going to keep watching and what we're going to bypass so that we can get back to spending more time with our DVDs of The Wire. Judging by the early ratings, there don't seem to be too many on-their-way-to-the-scrap-heap "bombs," but there also don't seem to be that many hits. Fox has already cancelled Nashville, and I imagine ABC won't be giving Cavemen or Carpoolers too much room to roam, but nothing has flopped as noisily as last season's Smith, The Nine, and Studio 60. As for the breakout hits, Pushing Daisies had a mighty turnout for its much-hyped and quite good first episode, but even people who liked the pilot are wondering where the show can go from here (I liked the second episode a lot too, but I still wonder.) And while NBC has drew decent initial numbers for Bionic Woman, no one seems to be in love with the show in the critical community or the public at large, and without buzz, it's already falling ratings may well plummet.

We should talk about what shows we're backing for the long haul and why, but first, maybe a word or two about trends? Two years ago, the networks were throwing sci-fi mysteries at us, and last year was all about continuity-heavy serials; this year seems to be the geek-friendly action-adventure year. Bionic Woman, Chuck, Journeyman, Reaper…all of these are shows that could've been ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. And so far, viewers seem to be buying them all (if not exactly in bulk). Also, stylistically, all of these shows—plus Pushing Daisies, Life, Big Shots, Dirty Sexy Money and others—seem designed to deliver maximum visual boom for HDTV owners. Pushing Daisies is practically reference-quality, with all its colorful fields of flowers and key-lit morgue scenes.

Another trend, a not-so-fun one, is the lack of good roles for women. Bionic Woman has two plums—heroine Michelle Ryan and her predecessor/nemesis Katee Sackhoff—but elsewhere I'm seeing a lot of generic MILF types in support of the male leads, as well as a handful of sketchy flibbertigibbets in tight, low-cut shirts. And I can't count how many shows have featured one or more scenes of name-in-the-credits actresses posing in their underwear. I mean, I'm an unrepentant lech, and even I've found it a bit much.

(Also, what's the deal with "Young Folks" by Peter, Bjorn & John being used on every single show? I used to like that song.)

Keith, what have you noticed so far? What have you liked and disliked?

Keith: I'm a little behind on some of the new shows. The siren call of The Wire has kept me away from some of the pilots. (Oh, why have I never watched you before, The Wire?) But here's the thing: I don't entirely blame myself. I've been keeping a close eye on the new season, what with the launch of T.V. Club and all, and checking out new series here and there. But not too many of the new series have been leaping up and demanding to be watched. I know, I know, I need to see them to talk about them. And I will. As this Crosstalk progresses, I plan to catch up with Reaper, The Bionic Woman, Pushing Daisies, Aliens In America, and some other stuff.

I'm just not an easily persuaded TV viewer. I only have so much time in my life and I only want to watch television I love. I don't have a room for television I like. I watch too much TV already and I have to make room for all those movies and books and, oh yeah, human interaction. So while I look forward to the new fall season, it takes a really good show to defrost my heart enough to allow it in.

Take Chuck. I watched the first episode and liked it just fine. (More than our assigned blogger did, that's for sure.) The action was well-executed enough. I liked the geek references. (Wow, I haven't thought about Zork in a while.) I was happy to see Firefly's Adam Baldwin in a role that seemed to play to his strengths. And while I know not everyone feels this way, I liked lead Zachary Levi a lot. But was I compelled to check out, to paraphrase The Simpsons, all the exciting, sexy adventures Chuck and the gang are sure to have against their colorful backdrop? Honestly, not really. And that's the ultimate litmus test for a show at this stage of the game: Does it leave you wanting more?

Scott, what, if anything, has left you wanting more?

Scott: I have a long list of shows that have left me wanting more (and an even longer list of shows that are left wanting), but let me comment first on Noel's trendspotting. I too have noticed the ramped-up cheesecake factor in new shows like Gossip Girl (field hockey fights! super-expensive lingerie! barely legal actresses!), Bionic Woman, Dirty Sexy Money, The Big Bang Theory, and even returning favorites like Friday Night Lights, which opened with the, um, ratings-booster that is Adrianne Palicki in a bikini (enjoying a popsicle, in case that wasn't suggestive enough for you). As any good salesman will tell you, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak," and these shows have aggressive in bringing as much cable-ready naughtiness to network TV as the FCC will allow. The trouble, as you say, is that we haven't seen a single substantive lead role for a female actress among the new shows. An argument could be possibly made for Bionic Woman, but I'm not going to be the one to make it, since a sexy half-cyborg hero—especially one this boring—isn't exactly what I mean by "substantive." It's possible that the Women's Murder Club, which premieres this week, will redress the balance, but since it involves women solving murders rather than committing them, I don't have much of an interest in it.

The only big trend—and I'm not the first to point it out—is an emphasis on extraordinary wealth and conspicuous consumption in these shows, specifically Cane, Dirty Sexy Money, and Gossip Girl, the latter two of which set stinking rich Manhattanites on the loose. Ultimately, I'm not convinced these shows are seriously commenting on wealth so much as allowing viewers to fantasize about unlimited indulgences. I'm reminded of something Martin Scorsese's character says in Quiz Show: "People ultimately don't care about the knowledge or education or even the honesty of the shows. They just tune in to watch the money." Cane is a bore, an Americanized telenovela that's too classed up to be fun as a soap opera and too lightweight to live up to its stately, Godfather-like ambitions. Of the three, Dirty Sexy Money is most conscious of how money gets thrown around, but for all its positive attributes, the show strikes the same glib note about how disconnected its characters are from reality, like the young woman who expresses her independence by moving out of the house and setting up camp in a luxury hotel suite. Gossip Girl appeals to me more because it's so blatantly irresponsible and trashy, and doesn't take a moralistic tone about rich-kid shenanigans when their actions speak well enough for themselves. If the show had a breakout character like Seth Cohen or a Julie Cooper instead of a collection of interchangeable brats, it'd be a guiltier pleasure than The O.C. 

So what's left me wanting more? The dust hasn't entirely settled yet, but of the new shows, I'm probably fondest of Aliens In America, a CW sitcom that takes the potentially dodgy premise of a Pakistani exchange student in Middle America and spins it into something genuinely funny and sweet. The first two episodes make me worry that it will be too preachy week after week, but it doesn't need to be, since its pro-tolerance message is just a natural side effect of its fish-out-of-water premise. What I'm really looking for in these shows is long-term durability and I can see Aliens turning out crisp, smart, unpretentious half-hour episodes for the indefinite future: The characters are bright and winning, the gags sophisticated and unexpected, and its sneaky take on American xenophobia is daring without being off-putting. Of course, it's currently being rewarded with ratings that are hideous even by CW standards, but the network has reason to be confident in its quality and it could thrive with a little nurturing.

There are a small handful of other new fall shows that I'm still watching, including one that has the potential to be the season's best, but I'll be coy about them now because those second and third episodes will be the ones that tell the tale. Surely I'm not alone in thinking that following up a strong pilot has been a major problem so far, right? I'm looking at you, Reaper

Noel: Yes, I seem to following Keith's lead on shows like Reaper and Chuck, both of which seem perfectly fine—maybe even good—but have given me little reason to hang around for a third episode or beyond. And honestly, it usually doesn't take much to keep me tuning in. Really just a strong performance or two, a few funny lines, or a tantalizing overarching mystery can keep me going for weeks beyond when I should've pulled the plug. Neither Reaper nor Chuck struck me that way. However I haven't been able to quit Journeyman yet. The "solving mysteries across time" premise may be silly, but the tangled family relationships between the hero, his wife, his brother and the people they all once were has kept my attention far more than the show's avertable-crisis-of-the-week format. I'm invested in Journeyman, at least for now. (Though with its lousy ratings, I my investment may not have time to pay off.)

I'm also captivated by Aliens In America, despite a second episode that took a distressingly sitcom-ish turn at the end. Still, the characters have been likable, the tone light, and the jokes frequently funny. I trust that any show with those qualities can iron out its kinks by midseason—if it gets to run that long. And I have similarly warm feelings towards Dirty Sexy Money, because its sprawling cast and their distinct individual storylines seem limitless in possibility, especially with Peter Krause holding the show together with his trademark expressions of bemusement and exasperation. (Has there ever been an actor more perfectly suited to TV than Krause? Besides maybe Ted Danson?) I hear what you're saying about the "plutography" aspect of DSM, but as a not-rich person myself, I enjoy the fantasy of limitless wealth. And I'm really enjoying the way Donald Sutherland's being used on this show, as a disappointed billionaire patriarch who certainly must have done some bad things in his life to have reach such a position of power, but who comes across as so sincere and even shaken by his no-good kids and cheating wife. There's a real beating heart to this show; and that's what I look for when I'm trying to decide what to keep watching.

Which doesn't really explain why I'm also hooked on NBC's Life, but what can I say? I like Life. There's almost nothing original about it: Not the "I've got to find out who really committed the crime I was accused of" arc, and not the "I solve crimes by finding the oddball clues that no one was looking for" routine, and not even the "I'm a spiritual person trying to get free of material things even though man I love material things" theme. And yet, the show looks great—hooray for HD!—the performances are solid, and the mysteries so far have been interesting. It's a procedural with entertaining characters, just like House: Smart, polished, reliable. I hope Life gets to run a while.

And I think it might. Currently, Nielsen Media Research has been tinkering with their measurements, trying to find a way to get DVR-watchers and second-airing-watchers included in the overall ratings. Because of this, I'm not sure any of the networks really know yet how their shows are doing. The numbers are down, but then the numbers are down for almost everything, just as they've been trending ever since the explosion of cable channels and the proliferation of the internet made real-time network-TV-watching kind of a quaint entertainment option.

Nevertheless, it's hard to think of any new shows that people are excited about the way they were jacked up for the return of The Office, or, next year, Lost. Which brings up another question: Is there any new show you're liking more than the shows you already watch? And how do you think the returning shows have been so far? Still laughing at 30 Rock? Still cringing at Friday Night Lights' big plot twist?

Keith: My first thought is that we should keep in mind that nobody was all that excited about The Office at the time, either. But as it got better its audience grew and so did the excitement around it. My old TV strategy, before I got TiVo and we started writing about it on the site with our first TV preview a couple of years, was simply to wait and see. I didn't want to waste time on a bad show and I didn't want to get attached to a good show that would leave me hanging. I still think it's a pretty good, if decidedly passive, strategy for those without TiVos or professional obligations. It took me three episodes after its excellent pilot to catch on that Millennium was going to just keep going in circles. And because it looked to be an early victim of low ratings, I stayed away from Friday Night Lights after the pilot for a while. But sometimes quality can't be denied and I got sucked back in.

And sometimes it hurts to care about a show. I do cringe at Friday Night Lights' big plot development. It just doesn't sit right with me, although everything else in that first episode back was the show at its best. I hope it doesn't infect the show. And I also hope it doesn't turn make us fans into how Tasha once described post-Phantom Menace fans of Star Wars. They're like the kid who dropped their ice cream cone in the sand, picking off the grains saying, "It's still good! It's still good!"

But mostly it's been a series of happy returns. How I Met Your Mother feels a little off (I'm confident it will right itself), 30 Rock remains funny, and The Office keeps rolling with the changes. I love how Jim and Pam's new relationship throws off the balance and brings out latent hostilities in unexpected people. (Toby, sure, but Phyllis?) I'm still behind on Heroes, but that show plays better back-to-back anyway, so I don't really feel like I've made a bad decision.

Meanwhile, on the Keith Catches Up With The Pilots front, I watched Bionic Woman last night. It felt dumbed down from a much more ambitious take on the material. The only scenes that had any spark involved Katee Sackhoff's evil proto-Jamie Summers. I guess I have to start hoping that the revamped Knight Rider will be good.

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Scott: The botchjob on Bionic Woman still baffles me. Having Battlestar Galactica's David Eick and Katee Sackhoff imported as showrunner and Jamie Summers' evil nemesis, respectively, sounded like a can't-miss proposition. Add to that the gleefully malevolent Miguel Ferrer and the premise of a superhero with bionic lady parts, and you'd have to go out of your way to screw it up. But that's exactly what the show does. It's not just the flat, clunky dialogue that's a problem, but the super-serious tone, which sucks all the fun out of what should be a frivolous affair. No one except Sackhoff is having a good time, so it's no wonder that the show only really perks up when she flashes that mischievous grin of hers. The pilot episode really rushed through the origin story, too: Just establishing how an ordinary woman becomes bionic and starts coming to grips with her new powers would have been more than enough to cover in a single hour. But in the blink of an eye, she's past all of that and ready for action. What's especially irksome is that the follow-up episode makes her a reluctant heroine once more, as if the pilot never really happened at all. So it's one step forward, one step back.

Follow-up episodes often tell the real story. Over on his blog By Ken Levine—which includes a hilarious post about what would happen if Aaron Sorkin wrote a show about baseball—the veteran TV writer recently posted about why "week two is often weak two." The gist of it was that TV producers have months to fuss over the pilot, but only a week to bang out the second episode. Levine suggests that viewers show a little patience if a promising show stumbles a bit in Week Two, because it may find its groove later on.

With that in mind, I still couldn't help but be disheartened by the second episode of Reaper, which worked like gangbusters in the Kevin Smith-directed pilot and then tried to do the exact same thing the next week, to much lesser effect. The show partially recovered with a passable stand-alone episode in its third week, but if it keeps hitting the reset button, my interest will start fading fast. Comparisons have been made to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and that sort of promise is clear in the pilot, which introduced a lot of compelling elements: a sharp best-buddy rapport between the reluctant hero and his schlubby friend (though Tyler Labine's second-rate Jack Black routine begins to grate), hell-sprung villains with cool powers, and of course the coup de grace, Ray Wise as the Devil. But the Buffy-verse was set on expansion from the beginning, and always struck the right balance between satisfying Monsters Of The Week and a "Big Bad" story that unfolded as the season progressed. I'm not convinced that Reaper has that kind of ambition, and I see myself bowing out soon if it doesn't have more up its sleeve.

The dazzling Pushing Daisies pilot presented another issue: How in the world can they keep this up? Other than maybe Twin Peaks or Firefly, I've seen few network pilots made with such cinematic brio, and in this case, with such obvious expense, evident from the candy-colored production design to the slick special effects to director Barry Sonnenfeld's trademark visual gags, which are technically challenging to say the least. There's no question that the show's weekly blast of whimsy will send some into sugar-shock, but count me among those who are charmed by it for now, and willing to look past some its overly precious ideas to the see the obvious care and intelligence that's been invested in it. The "mystery" of the second episode—something about crash test dummies for a car that runs on dandelions (yes, dandelions)—didn't do much for me, but how about that impromptu (and weirdly moving) rendition of "Hopelessly Devoted" or the offbeat detail of Chi McBride knitting himself "handgun cozies"? The next few weeks could tell a different story, because we'll have to see what happens after ABC banned Sonnenfeld from directing future episodes and demanded the production costs be brought into line. If the show settles into a more modest winner like creator Bryan Fuller's similarly cutesy Wonderfalls, it'll be a fine compromise.

Despite a few high points—Aliens In America and Pushing Daisies especially, and to a limited extent Dirty Sexy Money—I feel like declaring the fall season a bust overall. Watching returning favorites like The Office, Friday Night Lights, and, in the pay cable realm, Dexter, fall more or less back into a groove, I was struck by how much sharper they were than the new shows. Friday Night Lights introduced a distressing plot development, but the first episode was also bookended by two montage sequences (set to the great Wilco song "Muzzle Of Bees") that were as beautiful and moving as anything I've seen on television. Those who demand that The Office adhere to some standard of office-drone realism were put off by the "Fun Run" for a rabies cure that opened the season, but funny is funny, and the likes of Cavemen or The Big Bang Theory aren't even managing that much. And flawed as they might be, there's nothing on the schedule like Heroes or Lost that invite viewers to obsess over complicated mythology or hidden connections between characters. Pushing Daisies aside, the networks have shied away from anything truly ambitious or original.

Am I wrong? Any new shows you guys are ready to obsess about?

Noel: New shows? Obsess? Not really. Even the ones I like could be cancelled tomorrow and I wouldn't rend my garment. (Though like you I'm eager to see if Pushing Daisies can maintain its level of invention on a smaller budget.) But there are a couple of returning shows that have been rolling merrily along.

One of them is on NBC's Thursday night, and it's not The Office (which I realized last season was going to be merely funny from now, and no longer as sharp as it once was) or 30 Rock (which has been hilarious but spotty, and probably needs a week or two to find its natural rhythm again). No, it's My Name Is Earl, the forgotten stepchild of neo-Must-See-TV-Thursday, which has revived itself by sticking Earl in prison, where he still tries to perform good deeds, but with limited resources. I know some people find Earl's hick stereotyping offensive and/or unfunny, but as a born-and-bred-and-rooted Southerner, I see it as an absurdist abstraction, not mocking docu-realism. And unlike The Office, My Name Is Earl is more upfront about its gag-addicted style—although it's still gets to some pretty poignant and wickedly satirical places. Comedy snobs may well discount everything I write from here on in, but I don't care. My Name Is Earl is a good show, and deserves greater appreciation.

The other returning show that's been aces so far this year is House, which disappeared down a rabbit hole in season three but has come out the other side all the better for season four. The gimmick of having Hugh Laurie pick a new team from an army of applicants has been both funny and useful, providing a new way in to the same old medical mysteries. But it's been even more illuminating to follow what's become of the old team, as they start new jobs while still hearing the voice of their crackpot genius former boss ringing in their ears. The past two years of House have been all about what "being House" is doing to House himself. This year seems to be about how it's affecting the people closest to him. Anytime a show can hold to what made it entertaining in the first place, while also evolving to a point where its fans can see in a whole new way why they've always liked it… well, that's why I like to watch TV.

Keith: I've only seen the pilot to Pushing Daisies but I was totally blown away. I'm allergic to tweeness and whimsy when they feels forced but I'm the first to be won over when they work. (It's the difference between a Belle And Sebastian song and one by The Boy Least Likely To.) I don't know if they can keep it up, but I could probably watch that episode on a weekly basis. Does that count as obsession?

Otherwise, no. I like Dirty Sexy Money, which I took on as a weekly TV Club assignment. I don't love it yet, but I keep rooting for it. It has all the elements of greatness but needs to line them all up. Nothing else has pounded its way through my cold, cold heart yet. (Though I'll confess I still have some catching up to do.) Otherwise, it's back to the old favorites. And I can't improve on how Noel closed his last entry beyond saying, that and a really comfortable couch are why I like to watch television. For 44 or 22 minutes at a time everything else can wait.