Crosstalk: The New Fall TV Season, Pt. 3
Noel: There are only a few more shows left to cover, but two of them are pretty strong, I think: 30 Rock, and The Nine (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET). Let's save the sitcom for later and start with the serialized drama, which along with Heroes has me hooked on a TV genre that I'm largely sick of. It's a tricky premise, too: There's a bank robbery, leading to a hostage situation that drags on for two days and ends with some people dead and nine strangers bonded for life; the show follows the strangers as they try to get back to their normal lives, while flashing back to the robbery a little at a time, to show how what happened there changed them. The show's creative team has to find a way to conceal key parts of the backstory while moving the main story forward.
Judging by the huge audience drop-off from the first episode to the second, TV audiences apparently don't want to wait around all season to get through the prologue, but I've found the first two installments pretty deft, as the tidbits of bank action tease us with what went wrong, why everyone's behaving so strangely, and whether one or more of our "heroes" may turn out not to have been so heroic after all. But mostly, what I like about The Nine is the way it captures how an intense, shared experience can leave people feeling wrung out and empowered at the same time, and how those people wish they could relive those moments, as scary as they were, rather than get back to dull old reality. Even if the complex narrative structure of The Nine eventually breaks down, I hope that feeling of loss persists.
Did you see The Nine? And are there any other new dramas I'm missing?
Keith: I did see The Nine, but it didn't really do much for me. It's a neat enough premise, but I'm not sufficiently intrigued to tune in each week to find out what happens. Of the main characters, only John Billingsley's zero-to-hero stood out to me, and I'm really tired of the J.J. Abrams/Aaron Sorkin montage-set-to-wistful-song device, while The Nine apparently can't get enough of it. I think I'm done, but if enough people tell me it gets better, I might check back in later in the season.
Speaking of shows that America is failing to fall in love with, I like Friday Night Lights (NBC, Tuesdays 8 p.m. ET), which (stay with me on this) is a fictionalized TV adaptation of the semi-fictional film adaptation of a non-fiction book about a season spent with a Texas high-school football team. Peter Berg, who directed the movie, is behind the show, which feels much like the film, which floated some well-done, albeit kind of familiar sports drama on top of a dreamy tone and strong, unshowy performances. It's the same here. I appreciate the feel for the high stakes attached to small-market school sports, the knowing take on the high-school caste system, and the details of family life. Also, love that Explosions In The Sky music, which returns from the movie (although sadly, the band won't be scoring the show). I'll admit that I haven't watched episode two yet. It's sitting in my TiVo while I decide whether to get attached to a show that probably isn't going to make it.
So should we talk sitcoms? Or are you still trying to catch your breath after the nonstop hilarity of Twenty Good Years?
Noel: I have to confess that I was all set to mock Twenty Good Years (NBC, Wednesdays 8 p.m. ET), starting with the theme song, the hopefully titled "It's About To Get Good." But it actually doesn't suck, for two reasons: Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow. Even when the jokes are dire—and they frequently are—those two are out there plugging. Even with the weird combination of single-camera and three-camera shooting, and the clearly sweetened laugh track, God help me, I think I'm going to watch at least one more episode.
Bravura performances do a lot for Twenty Good Years' timeslot companion 30 Rock (NBC, Wednesdays 8:30 p.m. ET), too, especially with Alec Baldwin throwing his cock around as an NBC network boss, and Tracy Morgan getting his weird on as the crackpot comedy star Baldwin shoehorns into Tina Fey's femme-friendly sketch-comedy show. The jokes are funnier too, and snappily delivered, without leaning on the common modern sitcom crutch of frenetic editing. The cast keeps the pace up.
Like you, I've seen the original pilot of 30 Rock—which featured Rachel Dratch instead of Jane Krakowski as Fey's best friend and star of her show—and it's amazing how much better the revised version works. Not just because of the casting change, but because the scenes run shorter and the jokes come quicker. I've also seen the second episode, airing this week, and the quality doesn't drop off. This is a really fine show, with its own sensibility.
It's tempting to compare 30 Rock to Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and to find the latter wanting in a couple of key areas that the former gets right. I can't say whether 30 Rock's actual comedy sketches are going to be better than Studio 60's, because we haven't seen enough of them yet, but 30 Rock does seem to have a better sense of perspective regarding what a sketch-comedy show is and how it works. No one's pretending that the fate of the world is at stake, which is the vibe Studio 60 has been giving off. It's also nice that Fey sets her show on NBC itself, and can make jokes about her own network. Much less phony-feeling.
What's your take on the whole 30 Rock vs. Studio 60 debate? And are there any new fall shows that you feel like you'll still be watching come winter?
Keith: Okay, first, 20 Good Years Really? Is it just that we're so late in the process that your faculties are shot? I like Lithgow and Tambor too, but this is already limping like a horse that needs to be put down. And I'm not sure there's anything I hate more than a laugh track that's been added to scenes that clearly weren't shot before a live audience, unless it's seeing Lithgow in a Speedo.
I'm with you on 30 Rock, though. I don't want to sound like I'm bagging on Dratch, who I think is really funny, but the pilot that aired is much improved over the original pilot. I think that has less to do with the casting change than a general tightening of the gags. As Ken Tucker's Entertainment Weekly review pointed out, nothing about the show within a show makes sense—it's a live, primetime sketch comedy apparently aimed only at women—but I go with it because it makes me laugh.
Circling back to where we began, that's more than I can say for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which had one of the best first episodes of recent years, and has blown it in ways large and small each subsequent week. I still like the relationship between the leads, but I'm sick to death of their self-righteousness and self-congratulation. Every other scene seems to be Matthew Perry or Bradley Whitford congratulating each other on their genius or talking about the genius of Sarah Paulson's character. Paulson is fine in the role, but the sketches just aren't there. It's like a movie that spends all its time talking about the genius of a painter who only draws stick men. There's more. I'd count the ways, but I'll hand that over to you.
Noel: I'm of two minds on Studio 60. Yes, the sketches are surprisingly lame—with remarkably Sorkin-esque dialogue, have you noticed?—and I'm having trouble buying the premise that any of these folks are comic geniuses, or that America is falling in love with their show, or that a decade-old drunk-driving incident involving a network executive would spark a major scandal. (How many people in America even know what a network executive is, let alone care who they are and what they do?) And last week's episode, about the scramble to fix a plagiarized joke for the West Coast feed, seemed implausible and overwrought.
But at the same time, even though the fix was ridiculous, the scramble was entertaining to watch, and it reminded me of what I like about Aaron Sorkin shows: the thrill of watching people work. I'm also still loving Matthew Perry, who handles the combination of insecurity and authority very well, and Nate Corddry, who finally got the chance to make an impression last week. (That's another unfortunate Sorkin-esque fault to Studio 60: the huge, underutilized cast. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't one of the people in the writers' room last week Lucy Davis from the British version of The Office? And she only had one line!)
I'll be sticking with Studio 60 for as long as NBC wants to run it, because it does hit some highs between the lows, and because there aren't too many other shows this fall that are calling me back. The Nine, like I mentioned earlier, has me pinned for now, and Heroes, I'm really enjoying. I'll keep watching The Class and 30 Rock because I'm starving for sitcoms, and those two are reasonably funny and quirky. But I've already decided I can live without Jericho and Ugly Betty, even though their networks have picked them up for full seasons. And the networks have saved me some time by giving up on the likes of Smith, Kidnapped, and Justice, either by canceling them outright or sticking them in untenable timeslots.
So all in all, this wasn't the best crop of new fall TV. At least Lost, Veronica Mars, The Office, My Name Is Earl, and How I Met Your Mother are staying strong, and even Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives have been improving lately. There's still more decent TV to watch than time to watch it, by and large.
Now bring on the game shows!
Keith: I guess more-decent-TV-to-watch-than-time-to-watch-it is a fair enough gauge for the health of the medium. Well, that and the slow, steady decline of reality shows.
As for me, I'm sticking with Heroes, Studio 60 (almost out of spite), and 30 Rock, from the new shows. I liked Ugly Betty, but I've already pegged it as this year's Everybody Hates Chris: a totally decent show that I probably will never watch again. I will probably keep on watching Friday Night Lights until the plug gets pulled, although I'm tempted to bail early so as not to get too attached. Then there are all the favorites from past seasons. Man, when did we start watching so much television? And when do you know when it's time to stop?
Noel: Well, for me, I think I'm rebelling against the modern trend toward judging every show on an episode-to-episode basis—something I find really annoying when it comes to my favorites, like Lost—by taking a wait-and-see attitude toward new series, and giving them a few weeks to reveal what they're going to be. But honestly, as disappointed as I am that Smith got cancelled, do I miss it? Not really. There isn't a single new show from this season—not even Heroes—that it would hurt me never to see again, the way it would hurt me if Lost or Veronica Mars went away. (Although I do have a lot of fondness for that 30 Rock, I have to say.)
And looking across my collections of TV-on-DVD, I see favorites like Columbo, News Radio, The Simpsons, and The Andy Griffith Show—and I see shows I haven't gotten around to watching yet, like The Wire and Big Love—and I wonder why I even bother looking for new TV to fall in love with every fall. It's not like I don't have better things to do, or even to watch.
Maybe it's because I'm a TV addict from way back, and I know that having a lasting relationship with a TV show can be more satisfying than just about any other kind of entertainment, outside of a good book. To quote The Simpsons, "They've given you countless hours of free entertainment. If anything, you owe them."
On the other hand, we all know the next line, don't we?