Judging a show by its title: The 2012 fall TV preview, part 1

Judging a show by its title: The 2012 fall TV preview, part 1

It’s said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but no such aphorism exists for television. In fact, much of this year’s crop of new shows beg to be judged by their transparent titles alone: Guys With Kids, The Mob Doctor, and Chicago Fire all compete against short attention spans and crowded DVR queues by putting all their cards on the table during the opening credits. That isn’t the case with every new show this year, though, and in the process of evaluating pilots and preview clips, The A.V. Club took it upon ourselves to suggest new titles for the series with trickier nomenclature—and we even sought to clarify the nature of the series with the obvious names. This way, viewers will know exactly what they’re getting as they tune in for every big première of the season. All air times listed are Eastern. Read part two of our preview here.

Note: Most pilots screened for this feature are works in progress. Most will go to air as they are, but some will be recast, reshot, or re-conceived. Whenever possible, we’ve indicated this.

SUNDAYS

Call The Midwife: PBS, 8 p.m., debuts Sept. 30

What’s it about? Working alongside her fellow nurses and the sisters of the Nonnatus House convent, novice midwife Jessica Raine delivers children and assists expectant mothers in an impoverished area of London in the 1950s.

Can you get all that from the title? From the sound of it, Raine could be supervising births in any city during any era, two characteristics that are crucial to the series’ tone and subject matter.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Post-War East End Midwife. (Or, to be vaguer while recalling the title of another popular BBC drama: EastEndNurse.)

Should you watch it? Those who don’t are bound to be perplexed by co-workers and Twittering friends who suddenly take an interest in afterbirth around October. PBS is positioning Call The Midwife as the next Downton Abbey, and though it lacks that show’s tawdrier elements, it does feature the intimate drama and period details Anglophiles crave.

666 Park Avenue: ABC, 10 p.m., debuts Sept. 30

What’s it about? Attractive young couple Rachael Taylor and Dave Annable become co-managers of a handsome, upscale Manhattan apartment building, having failed to guess that the owner (Terry O’Quinn) is the devil. He uses the building as a talent pool, drafting people into his web in exchange for success in the big city.

Can you get all that from the title? Like everything else about this swanky-sinister series, it’s pretty on-the-nose.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Hellfire Of The Vanities.

Should you watch it? Many of the elements of a fun supernatural soap opera are here, but comparisons with Lost—and any show featuring O’Quinn is fated to such comparisons—are off-base. Part of the secret of a show like this is in how skillfully it keeps viewers guessing about what’s going on, and there’s nothing to guess about here: O’Quinn’s allegiance to the dark side, and the demonic nature of his powers, are explicitly laid out in the pilot. Which makes the heroes, who may take their sweet time about catching on, awfully slow on the uptake.

MONDAYS

Partners: CBS, 8:30 p.m., debuts Sept. 24

What’s it about? Two best friends who have been inseparable since boyhood, even though one, David Krumholtz, is totally hetero (as evidenced by his straightforward senses of fashion and humor) and the other, Michael Urie, is totally gay (as evidenced by his flouncy demeanor and affection for Bette Midler). Their relationship as partners in an architecture firm and enablers of the abhorrent term “bromance” is threatened when Krumholtz proposes to girlfriend Sophia Bush.

Can you get all that from the title? Maybe, but only with the foreknowledge that Partners was created by Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, the creative pair behind Will & Grace, whose gay-straight creative partnership inspired the series’ premise. The vague, one-word title also potentially encompasses the show’s secondary romantic relationships, not just between Krumholtz and Bush, but also between Urie and his boyfriend (Brandon Routh), who serves as the sweetly dimwitted, ahem, straight man to Urie’s sassy quip-machine.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Pretty much anything other than Partners, which happens to also be the name of a 1995 Fox sitcom with a strikingly similar premise and characters. Furthering connections: Both series feature direction from multi-camera veteran James Burrows, and the 1995 Partners was created by a couple of writers who went on to work with Kohan and Mutchnick on Will & Grace. The attention given to the series’ backstory has overshadowed the fact that the Partners pilot trades in some of the easiest stereotype-based humor since The Big Bang Theory. 

Should you watch it? Then again, The Big Bang Theory quickly evolved beyond its nerds-are-nerdy broadness into a better and more character-based show, and Partners has the potential to do the same. Urie in particular shows good instincts for imbuing his character’s cartoony presence with something that could develop into actual humanity once the writing mellows. Regardless, Partners’ magic Monday-night time slot—the position from which How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike & Molly all launched—means it has a solid chance of being a moderate-to-huge hit, so first-on-the-bandwagon types will probably want to check in for the première to evaluate Partners’ zeitgeist potential.

Revolution: NBC, 10 p.m., debuts Sept. 17

What’s it about? Creator Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and executive producer J.J. Abrams (that show that disappointed you) team up for the tale of a world where electricity stopped working for some reason, and in remarkably short order, humanity returned to a jolly agrarian life straight out of an Old Masters painting. Sure, the residents grouse about how they miss technology and toilet paper, but their only real concern is the villainous (naturally) Giancarlo Esposito, who sends teenage heroine Tracy Spiridakos on the most perfunctory quest narrative ever.

Can you get all that from the title? Revolution is meant to evoke the American Revolution, but it doesn’t suggest, “Hey, what if the power went out all at once?” or “It’s time for this girl to prove she’s got what it takes!” Nor does it suggest, “With Billy Burke as a former Google millionaire!”

Suggested, more descriptive title: Teenage Future-Girl With Mad Archery Skills, Because That’s Popular.

Should you watch it? Though it’s reasonably propulsive, taking Spiridakos from point A to point B much more quickly than anything with Abrams’ name on it would normally do, Revolution is also weirdly dull, wrapped up in a mythology that isn’t particularly comprehensible or interesting. Still, there are glimmers of fun here, mostly from Burke and Esposito, and fans of the genre might find something of worth within the mess.

The Mob Doctor: Fox, 9 p.m., debuts Sept. 17

What’s it about? The doctor for the mob.

Can you get all that from the title? Yes, but some questions remain: Given the use of the definite article, is Jordana Spiro’s character unique in her position? Does Chicago crime boss William Forsythe keep her on retainer? How evenly will the series be split between crime stories and medical cases?

Suggested, more descriptive title: Dr. Grace Devlin Works Off Her Brother’s Debt To A Mobster While Trying To Establish Herself As A Promising Young Surgeon And Maybe Even Find Time To Sleep With Another Doctor Played By Zach “Matt Saracen” Gilford.

Should you watch it? Sporting a talented cast whose members have put in memorable turns elsewhere on the dial, The Mob Doctor could be dumb fun that throws together two of TV’s most reliable story-generating characters: gangsters and physicians. The pilot, however, is just dumb, straining to illustrate the parallels between Devlin’s two worlds. For the show to last, the backroom and the operating room can’t consistently split the spotlight.

Catfish: The TV Show: MTV, 10 p.m., debuts Nov. 12

What’s it about? Yaniv Schulman’s online romance with a woman he met on the Internet—who turned out to be an impostor—served as the basis for the feature documentary Catfish. As a result, Schulman is now besieged by the stories of folks who fell in love with people they’ve never met in the flesh. Each week, he helps one of them track down the object of his or her virtual affections—which is to say, he lifts a rock to see what crawls out.

Can you get all that from the title? Only if you know the movie, which was called Catfish for specific, spoiler-filled reasons.

Suggested, more descriptive title: The Online Stalkers’ Dr. Drew.

Should you watch it? Whatever its much-questioned veracity as a non-fiction film, Catfish felt like a found-footage psychological horror movie, and it traded on Schulman’s likeability and the suspense generated by the impression that something awful—or at least humiliating—would happen to its subject. The TV series automatically reduces this to formula, which means any appeal the material has beyond rank exploitation is gone. Schulman’s good reputation ought to take a hit now that he’s embarrassing strangers on camera for a living.

TUESDAYS

Ben And Kate: Fox, 8:30 p.m., debuts Sept. 25 (pilot streaming on Hulu)

What’s it about? Having more or less raised themselves, siblings Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson adapt to adult responsibilities in opposite ways: he as a feckless man-child seemingly bent on recovering his lost youth, and she as a doting mother preoccupied by the duties of single motherhood. A job watching Johnson’s daughter (played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones) just might provide Faxon with some direction, while freeing Johnson to live her own life.

Can you get all that from the title? In the tradition of Will & Grace, Gavin & Stacey, or Amos ’N’ Andy, there’s no good way of implying a relationship between titular characters by sticking an “and” between their names. Not to mention colorful supporting players—including Jones, Echo Kellum, and Lucy Punch—left in the lurch.

Suggested, more descriptive title: The original title of the pilot script by creator Dana Fox would do the trick: Ned Fox Is My Manny. But Faxon’s character is named Ben now, and “manny” is a horrible portmanteau on par with “bromance,” so why not try My Brother, My Babysitter?

Should you watch it? True to the series’ spartan name, Ben And Kate’s pilot is as low-concept as sitcom premières can be without being the umpteenth variation on Friends. However, that keeps the door open for a lot of hysterical, partially improvised digressions from a game, talented cast. It’s worth recommending just as the rare comedy pilot to make space for laughs amid the exposition.

Emily Owens, M.D.: The CW, 9 p.m., debuts Oct. 16

What’s it about? Mamie Gummer is the show’s eponymous, fresh-out-of-medical-school protagonist, ready to finally start her adult life. Gummer thinks an internship at the same hospital as her longtime crush Justin Hartley will let her break out of her shell, but the unexpected presence of her old high-school rival Aja Naomi King demonstrates that people can’t truly escape their pasts—or themselves.

Can you get all that from the title? She’s female. She’s a doctor. Yep, that pretty much sums it up, for people who don’t care about any other character on the show. That said, Gummer is the obvious star here, and her winning performance earns the character’s titular role, supporting players be damned.

Suggested, more descriptive title: As the latest in a long line of quirky-and-awkward-yet-loveable female characters, Quirky Female Doctor is the most easily descriptive. But if The CW is looking for a new advertising slogan to reel in its target audience, maybe Justin Hartley Wears Glasses?

Should you watch it? Hart Of Dixie fans who accidentally leave the television on when that show ends likely won’t be too disappointed with this. But in spite of a few pleasant performances, the pilot is far too much of a mixed bag to fully recommend.

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Go On: NBC, 9 p.m., debuts Sept. 11 (pilot streaming at nbc.com)

What’s it about? Following the death of his wife, Matthew Perry attempts to return to his job as a sports-radio personality—but boss John Cho demands Perry undergo group therapy with stern Laura Benanti and her eccentric gang of coping misfits.

Can you get all that from the title? Read with Perry’s signature sarcasm, maybe. Otherwise, the phrase is “move on.” “Go on” is what the unseen wife character did that left Perry’s character in this fragile emotional state—a vulnerability that pervades the show.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Playing off of the split between scenes at Perry and Cho’s workplace and the sessions with the group, Long-Time Listener, First-Time Mourner.

Should you watch it? There’s a serious Community vibe running through the pilot (Perry and Benanti are very much a Jeff-Britta pairing), and that alone is worth a recommendation. Of the varying forms of “broad comedy” NBC is pushing with its new sitcoms this fall, this would be the strain to root for: character-based and emotionally honest, if a little heavy on the saccharine.

The New Normal: NBC, 9:30 p.m., debuts Sept. 11

What’s it about? Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha catch baby fever and hire unfulfilled single-mom Georgia King—who’s hoping to make a better life for herself and her 8-year-old daughter—to serve as their surrogate. Adding to the fun is King’s grandmother (Ellen Barkin), who followed her from the Midwest to add racist, homophobic shenanigans to the mix.

Can you get all that from the title? It’s a bumper-sticker title for a bumper-sticker show.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Ryan Murphy’s Kid Power, or When In Doubt, Put “Baby Elephant Walk” On The Soundtrack.

Should you watch it? The idea behind this show is that the traditional concept of the nuclear family no longer applies, and lifestyle choices that once seemed extreme are practically mainstream now. That point gets made in passing a dozen times in any typical hour of television programming, and by trying so hard to make a conscious point of it, The New Normal feels as if it was conceived not as something to watch and enjoy, but as something to be written about and denied broadcast in Salt Lake City. It’s too good-natured to be described as this year’s Whitney, but when Barkin is up in the camera lens, braying about “ass campers” and “salami smokers” and telling an Asian woman, “You people are so darn good with computers, and thanks for helping build the railroads,” it’s in that ballpark.

The Mindy Project: Fox, 9:30 p.m., debuts Sept. 25 (pilot streaming on Hulu)

What’s it about? Freed from the annex of Dunder Mifflin Scranton, Mindy Kaling infuses her theories about, grudges toward, and unyielding affection for romantic comedies into an ensemble sitcom set in a medical practice.

Can you get all that from the title? The focus here is squarely on Kaling, ignoring the best friends/supporters (Anna Camp and Zoe Jarman) and co-workers/potential Harrys to her Sally (Chris Messina and Ed Weeks) that could elevate The Mindy Project from Bridget Jones, OB/GYN to a less-surreal, more pop-culture-aware, obstetrics-focused Scrubs.

Suggested, more descriptive title: As a tribute to the late screenwriter Nora Ephron, whose films are among the rom-coms excerpted throughout the pilot, I’ll Have What She’s Delivering.

Should you watch it? The première is spottily funny, and overemphasizes cameos from Bill Hader and Kaling’s former Office-mate Ed Helms at the expense of the regulars. Schedule weekly checkups once late additions Stephen Tobolowsky and Ike Barinholtz start making their rounds.

Vegas: CBS, 10 p.m., debuts Sept. 25

What’s it about? CBS continues its occasional quest to win grudging approval with this surprisingly ambitious period piece, which aims to tell the story of Ralph Lamb, the storied sheriff of Las Vegas who faced off with the mob in the early days of the Strip (i.e., the 1960s). Dennis Quaid plays Lamb as a taciturn cowboy who thinks he’s out, before poorly implemented zoning laws pull him back in. (Ain’t that always the way?) The show also includes Michael Chiklis as a mob boss and Carrie-Anne Moss as the only thing keeping the show from having an all-male cast. 

Can you get all that from the title? Well, the show is set in Las Vegas, and the distinct lack of a dollar sign standing in for that “s” indicates that someone is aiming for more respectability than the earlier Robert Urich vehicle of the same name. But the title doesn’t indicate the period setting, the fact that CBS ponied up for some major star power, or the way the pilot takes its sweet time, and is often enjoyable while doing so.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Though the show’s producers are talking a big game about their patience with the Lamb story, they also likely know which network they’re on, and they should probably just re-title this You’ll Put Some Mad Men In Our Cop Show When We Say You Can Put Some Mad Men In Our Cop Show.

Should you watch it? Though it moves very slowly and adheres to the CBS case-of-the-week format, Vegas is also gorgeous to look at. Quaid and Chiklis bring their considerable talents to bear on a rivalry that should be fun to watch play out, and though the procedural formula is present, there are also several hints of larger, overarching stories that will blossom in weeks to come, much like a former occupant of this time slot, The Good Wife.

Underemployed: MTV, 10 p.m., debuts Oct. 16

What’s it about? The network that brought you the weird, scripted-reality hybrids Laguna Beach, Jersey Shore, and The Hills decides to go all-in with a show that’s sort of like those, but also completely scripted. Apparently seeking a weird middle ground between those earlier shows and Girls, Underemployed hails from Craig Wright, the playwright responsible for Dirty Sexy Money, thus making him the natural choice to write about the current unemployment crisis among recent college graduates. And that’s pretty much all this is. Pretty people in their 20s stand around Chicago, fretting about how they aren’t achieving their dreams, as a generic indie-rock soundtrack burbles away.

Can you get all that from the title? Though the title ends up being a plot point in the story of the show, all it suggests is that this is going to be a show about people working shitty jobs. While this is true, the title doesn’t convey the proper level of 23-year-old angst. Or the way the show turns stuff that feels like it should have real stakes into something out of an IKEA advertisement.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Considering the show has all the dramatic weight of a Reader’s Digest “Life In These United States” anecdote, let’s just call it Being 23 Is Super-Tough, You Guys.

Should you watch it? It’s hard to argue this is absolutely essential, but the show is weirdly involving, with its characters blithely gliding past all sorts of traumas, barely even breaking the surface of the waters they float upon. There are a handful of nice moments, and even though the show works too hard to make everything A-okay, at least the characters are forced to sacrifice some of the time.

Brickleberry: Comedy Central, 10:30 p.m., debuts Sept. 25

What’s it about? This animated series centers on a vain, loutish park ranger and his co-workers, including a competent woman ranger and a manipulative talking bear cub.

Can you get all that from the title? The title—also the name of the park the main characters oversee—sounds like an ice-cream flavor. It also sounds like that flavor would make you puke, so at least it’s half there.

Suggested, more descriptive title: Family Guy Goes To Jellystone.

Should you watch it? A coarse, blatant rip-off of a show that many people have charged with being a coarse, blatant rip-off, Brickleberry only has one comic strategy: ramping up the offensiveness without ever taking a break. AIDS jokes, racist-stereotype jokes, Parkinson’s jokes, and multiple-amputee jokes all pour out in a nonstop toxic flood. Out of deference to the recent troubles of executive producer Daniel Tosh, some of the rape humor was reportedly excised from the pilot, but plenty remains.

Tomorrow: Our fall TV preview continues, covering Wednesday through Friday, with shows about DC’s Green Arrow, secret aliens, and a stolen nuclear submarine. Plus: that medical sitcom with the monkey, which sadly isn’t called Medical Sitcom With A Monkey