TCA press tour, day six: Fox would like you to meet a little show named American Idol
When you’ve got one of the biggest buzz hits on television, you can afford to do pretty much whatever the hell you want, and Fox finds itself in that enviable position now that it has Glee on its schedule. The network’s fall was so soft that two of its three new shows disappeared without a trace and the other, Raising Hope, lacks the strong ratings you’d expect for a show that just got a second season pickup. Its signature hit, American Idol, is entering a season where it’s betting almost entirely that its continued status as TV’s number one show relies on a complete and total retool of the show from the ground up (granted, one necessitated by the departure of Simon Cowell). And the network has shelled out millions upon millions of dollars for a pilot that sounds like nothing less than a high-concept reimagining of Land Of The Lost, minus the Sleestaks, plus the villain from Avatar.
And yet there’s Glee, one of the success stories of the fall, along with the continued growth of Modern Family. The series, which struggled a bit last year, has managed to grow from where it was post-Idol last season, and it’s one of the few shows on TV everybody here feels is necessary to watch to keep up with the zeitgeist, regardless of how anybody here feels about it. The show remains so popular and so unique and so fascinating that there’s really no way to talk about where television is right now without talking about it, and a good number of conversations I’ve had with people here focus on what we think of Glee. (The TCA membership seems largely in favor of the show, while admitting it has its problems.) Having Glee covers up for any myriad of Fox’s sins, just like having Modern Family makes ABC seem stronger than it actually is.
But Fox also has a host of new shows coming up this spring, and it offered sessions for all of them today, as well as a fairly illuminating executive session with the well-liked (by TV reporters, at least) Kevin Reilly, the man who might have saved NBC had they not fired him in favor of Ben Silverman. Fox, like HBO, uses “Fuck you! We’re Fox!” as the subtext for everything they do, and that means that the network is able to skate by past any number of problems, simply because they act like things are going the way they were supposed to. Lone Star flops? Yeah, they meant to do that. Bob’s Burgers has a great debut number? Of course it does! It’s on Fox! The new American Idol judging panel has a legitimate rock star? Well, duh. It’s just a surprise they didn’t get Bruce Springsteen himself!
The central question of the day was: “What’s going to happen with Idol?” The answer of the day, stemming from a panel dedicated entirely to the singing competition show, was: “Everybody on Idol feels fine. Will you be watching? Of course you will. FUCK YOU. WE’RE FOX.” Then we ran away, weeping, scared into submission. Fox tossed seemingly everybody involved in the show, from the producers to the judges to the host, up on a stage and promised us that everyone was getting along great and the show was different but not worse. The subtext was clearly, “You’ll miss Simon, but only a little bit.” And maybe that’s true. Cowell had clearly grown sick of the show by the end of his run, and he seemed to hold the decisions Americans made in a weird contempt. Having new judges who are just happy to be there could revitalize the show.
Or it could kill it. For all of his problems, Cowell was the closest thing the show had to a pressure release valve. If something was truly atrocious, you could often count on the man to tell things like they were. It’s not immediately clear that new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will do anything like this. Obviously, it’s hard to know this without seeing footage, but the way both essentially ducked a question about what they would say to a hypothetical terrible contestant suggests even they’re not sure what they’ll do when it gets to the final rounds, and it’s time to weed out the chaff. Being mean on national television is a hard, hard thing. Very few TV personalities care so little about their public persona that they’re willing to do it, and very few are able to get away with it like Simon could (largely due to a combination of British accent and smarmy charm).
It’s not as though Idol doesn’t have other problems either. As the show’s audience has slowly shrunk, the kinds of voters who would keep interesting singers in the competition or maybe even propel them to the win have either stopped watching or stopped voting in as large of numbers as the show’s baseline audience of teenage girls and the mothers who love them. This means that the last three competitions have been won by cute, non-threatening white guys, who often strum guitars. And those cute, non-threatening white guys have been unable to move records, precisely because they’re entering a marketplace already glutted with that kind of product. (Randy Jackson suggested at one point that this was the real competition of Idol. Getting past the singers on the show was only step one; competing with Lady Gaga was the ultimate proving ground, a proving ground nearly every Idol winner has failed at.)
The producers seemed almost apologetic about this point, at one point suggesting America got it wrong choosing Kris Allen over Adam Lambert in season eight. Producer Ken Warwick perhaps summed up this point best when he said, “The audience votes. There’s nothing we can do.” So, instead, the producers have gone to the reality show mainstay of radically rejiggering the format of the show (including some fairly large changes in the contestant selection process), but it’s not immediately clear how this is going to get over the white guys with guitars problem or even if the show thinks it needs to. So long as it remains the top-rated show on TV (six years running), it may not even care how well its winners perform in the music marketplace. I certainly wouldn’t.
Some quick hits:
--The other big curiosity of the day was Terra Nova, the network’s series about people from a pollution and ecological disaster-ravaged Earth who travel back to the Mesozoic to hang out with dinosaurs. The two-hour pilot has been filming in Australia for some time now, and no one’s seen any footage from it. While we didn’t get to see any dinosaurs in the footage (something the network seemed apologetic about), what was impressive was just how much what we saw looked like a big-budget action movie, outside of the relatively no-name cast (though both Stephen Lang and Jason O’Mara boast sizable fanbases). The footage, filled with guns blazing and mysterious jungles and foreboding portents of doom as it was, was exciting enough to propel the panel forward. We were curious to know what the show would look like. While the producers weren’t ready to answer plenty of questions (like how humanity can go back into the past without mucking up the future or whether we’ll return to the future as the show progresses), they did set their sights firmly on one fairly obvious TV target: Lost. Where Lost eventually became explicitly for its core audience, the producers of Terra Nova (including the oft-polarizing Brannon Braga) promised this one would be for everyone, from gamers to grandmothers. We’ll see.
--Fox was also here with a bevy of midseason series, including The Chicago Code, a nifty take on the cop drama from Shield creator Shawn Ryan and perpetual TV industry punching bag Tim Minear (both worked most recently on Terriers) that I’ve enjoyed without coming around to loving in the episodes I’ve seen; Traffic Light, yet another comedy about different couples in different stages of their relationships that bored me in its pilot but boasts so much talent that I’ll probably stick around for another few episodes; and Breaking In, a series where Christian Slater plays a security consultant who breaks into big companies and steals their most precious items, yet another comedic pilot that didn’t wholly work for me but still boasted enough talent that I’m curious to see more episodes. (This seems to describe literally every comedy debuting this midseason.) These panels were mostly sedate, outside of some intriguing talk on the Chicago Code panel about Jennifer Beals’ hotness.
--This may be me reading too much into things, but Fox almost seems surprised at the success of Bob’s Burgers, which drew a very good rating in its Sunday debut. The session for the show was scheduled over lunch, something that always makes it hard to ask questions, and didn’t feature series star H. Jon Benjamin (who was off filming his Comedy Central show). The other four voice actors in the regular cast, John Roberts, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman, and Kristen Schaal, made up for that in style, though, and creator Loren Bouchard talked about his love of old, nostalgia-ridden burger joints run by vaguely ethnic men, also suggesting that though Bob’s Burgers is set in the present, Bob’s mustache will always mean a part of the show is set in the ‘70s.
--The Fox executive session was, for once, not overridden by controversy. That doesn’t mean we didn’t try to make it seem as though it was, asking several questions about Lone Star that have already been thoroughly and completely answered by executives Kevin Reilly and Peter Rice. The two reaffirmed their commitment to quality drama, saying they think the network should continue to pursue these types of cable-esque shows, and they reaffirmed their love of the show. At one point, it almost seemed as though they were going to announce the airing of six additional Lone Star episodes in the summer, but they quickly backed away from that, perhaps realizing that series creator Kyle Killen has said there’s too much work to do in post to air them.
--Other brief bits from the executive session: Fringe’s move to Fridays is predicated on a desire to keep the show alive as much as anything else. If it can pull its Thursday number on Fridays—admittedly, a tall order—then the network can keep renewing it for years to come. If it can’t, it’s probably canceled. The network’s in a tight spot because the show would be an instant mark for cancellation in any other spot, no matter how well its DVR numbers do, but the impression of Friday shows dying quickly is so ingrained in the show’s fanbase at this point that there’s little to no way to convince them the network hasn’t done this to kill the show. Reilly and Rice seem to genuinely like the series and want it to continue, but both they and the show’s fans are in a tight spot. Also, Raising Hope has gotten a second season order, while Running Wilde and The Good Guys are officially canceled.