For years now, TV critics have been making snap judgments about new TV shows based on the footage shown at upfront presentations, which is really unfair, if you think about it. Does anybody ask movie critics to make snap judgments based on trailers? (Well, actually, now that we think about it…) But all of that doesn’t mean we can’t get in on the fun here at The A.V. Club, and all week, Erik Adams and Todd VanDerWerff will be looking at the new fall show trailers and offering their thoughts. Remember: Sometimes a terrible trailer makes for a great show (as happened with Arrested Development) and vice versa, so we will almost certainly revise all of these opinions very, very soon. Up now: CBS.
A note: Apparently, the trailers CBS screened for advertisers and invited journalists at the network’s upfront are different from the ones you have access to. We got full trailers, while you get pieces that are mostly electronic press kit material, with lots of footage of the actors talking about how awesome the show is. Don’t you feel sad now?
The Crazy Ones (airs Thursdays at 9 this fall)
Todd VanDerWerff: The Crazy Ones seems specifically dreamed up to force me to go back to various past versions of myself, slap that kid in the face, and ask him what he’s thinking. The me of 1992 was a huge fan of Robin Williams, thanks to the one-two punch of Mork And Mindy reruns and Aladdin, two projects that essentially let the man turn loose, his unfiltered rambling proving comedically potent to an 11-year-old who liked a barrage of pop culture references, even if he didn’t understand all of them. The me of 1994 was just starting to get into the works of one David E. Kelley, a writer who never met a piece of subtext he couldn’t bludgeon over the head and drag out to centerstage. The me of 1999 thought Sarah Michelle Gellar was pretty much the best thing ever on Buffy, while the me of 2009 gave a rave review to James Wolk’s new show Lone Star. And somewhere in there, I’m pretty sure I voted for Kelly Clarkson on American Idol and/or bought the single of “Since You’ve Been Gone.”
Yet The Crazy Ones just made me break out in hives from frame one. Williams’ mania has long since passed its sell-by date—or is uniquely pitched to 12-year-olds—and Kelley’s brand of TV philosophizing lost most of its relevancy in 1999. (He actually made a pretty good, largely subtle—for him—medical drama called Monday Mornings earlier this year, but nobody tuned in. Go figure.) This sure looks like “Robin Williams acts crazy: the TV show,” and while I’m sure there’s an audience for that, I’m also pretty sure that audience isn’t me. There are some scattered moments that sort of work here and there, like Williams and Wolk improvising a sexy song about McDonald’s to attempt to lure Clarkson to an ad campaign, but then you’re just reminded that this is a show about advertising with what appears to be a fuckton of product placement. Seriously, for as often as people say McDonald’s in the trailer we saw, this might as well be Mac And Me.
Gellar might be the saving grace here, but she seems to be doing that strained “listen to me!” thing that made so much of the final season of Buffy such a chore. Instead, we get to watch as everybody shouts and Williams makes faces and it’s too, too wacky. And that’s to say nothing of the way the thing is filmed. CBS hasn’t done a single-camera comedy in so long that they don’t seem to quite grasp that the cinematic grammar of the format has shifted ever so slightly from their last attempts. Hell, I didn’t realize it until I saw this and realized how much more it resembled The Good Wife than an episode of Community or The Middle. CBS’ sharp, all-angles filmmaking doesn’t really enhance the comedy here, and it further creates the impression of a trailer confused as to what it’s trying to sell. Maybe what ends up in the pilot will be better, but still: ugh. (Then again, a lot of other critics seemed to like this trailer a lot, and I’m already sensing that CBS’ trailers are going to put me at odds with a lot of folks. Maybe even you, Erik!)
Erik Adams: I think James Wolk—America’s ad-man sweetheart, judging by his two biggest 2013 bookings—might end up creating more of a spark with Williams than Gellar. But it’s clear from the preview footage that no one bounces off Robin Williams like… Robin Williams—for good and bad, mostly bad. I want every episode of The Crazy Ones to contain an exchange between Williams and that giant portrait of himself, because a silent image of his face may just be the greatest scene partner Robin Williams, circa 2013, ever found.
Hostages (airs Mondays at 10 p.m. this fall)
EA: After shout-emoting his way through the first season of American Horror Story, Dylan McDermott returns to limited-run TV, once more playing a seemingly upstanding type with a dark, dark secret. This time, however, he’s also the one in the black hood: The big reveal of the Hostages trailer involves McDermott being both a skilled FBI negotiator and the terrorist holding Toni Collette, Tate Donovan, and family hostage for a two-week period. (And 13 episodes, I assume—Hostages is set to end in late January, thus making room for Intelligence.) That sets up a recurring theme of duality that looks like it’ll be more and more strained as the series plays out—this conspiracy, as most on TV do, goes straight to the top! It’s curious to me that so many of the networks are seeking the story-in-a-bottle refuge of limited runs this year—it clearly reduces the risk of having to commit to stars like McDermott or Collette for 25 episodes, and if Hostages plays its cards right (i.e. not as goofy as all the turns in this trailer), it could bring back some of the drama prestige cable has stolen in the last 15 years.
TV: This looks like goofy bullshit, but it also looks like my kind of goofy bullshit. My wife was disheartened at Collette’s “damsel in distress” role here—and a particularly salacious twist to close out the trailer screened for upfront attendees—and I feel that too, but it’s also probably residual anger about the cancellation of United States Of Tara. What worries me most is whether what we saw in this trailer was all from the pilot, because if so, it’s going to be even more packed with twists than the product of an unholy union between Scandal and The Vampire Diaries.
Intelligence (airs Mondays at 10 p.m. at midseason)
TV: Other TV critics are comparing this to Chuck—if the hero of that show were studlier and looked like Sawyer from Lost. CBS wants to advance a comparison to The Six Million Dollar Man. Me, I just heard the opening bit about how Josh Holloway’s character had had a chip implanted into his brain that gave him the full power of the Internet and thought to myself that if CBS is so intent on people no longer making fun of it for being a network for old people, maybe it shouldn’t have picked up a drama pilot where the hero’s superpower is the ability to use the Internet. Yeah, there’s more to it than that—and a fun female cast backing up Holloway, featuring Marg Helgenberger and Meghan Ory—but it also sort of feels like one of those shows Fox would pick up and stick on Fridays in the mid-00s, and we all know how well that worked out. Also: The trailer sure seemed to emphasize Holloway giving the bad guys he fights colorful nicknames. Or maybe those are their real names and he found them through a quick WhitePages.com search and everything Holloway says after Lost just sounds like a nickname now.
EA: Intelligence, or Google Glass: The Series. Holloway’s bionic powers are the only thing differentiating this from the Mentalist/Castle mold, with Holloway’s bionic powers being the sticking point/starting point for bantering between him and his female partner. He definitely has the right steely visage for a half-robot.
The Millers (airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. this fall)
EA: I’m oddly fixated on the last bit of this preview—and the promo shot that CBS cut from it—where Arnett and Martindale cut a rug to “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.” Greg Garcia shows work best when their wackiness is laced with a little heart, and that moment certainly exemplifies that strength. It’s also just a weird, weird image, and CBS comedies don’t usually have much room for weird, which is why I’m holding out a lot of hope for The Millers. Not the kind of “weird” Beau Bridges shows off in the trailer, however—I don’t know what he’s on, or if he just felt cornered by the audience, but he’s going way, way over the top when he storms out on Margo Martindale (who’s great as always, if a little lost). But I always manage to tune Cloris Leachman out during Raising Hope, so maybe I can do the same for Bridges here.
TV: The divide that opened up among people who saw this was swift and wide. The crowd at Carnegie Hall ate it up, and while there were a few gags in the episode that made most everybody laugh—Margo Martindale chewing out her husband for being unable to use the phone chief among them—there was also a general sense of sorrow that she’d left behind FX for fart jokes. Well, readers, I laughed (though not at either of the two fart jokes), and cue up your 2 Broke Girls insults now, because I’m still pretty excited to see this pilot. So there.
Mom (airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m. this fall)
EA: For years, “She’s funny, she just needs to find the right material” has been the party line on Anna Faris. I’m not sure a Chuck Lorre multi-cam show qualifies as “the right material,” though the cut-down CBS presented today gives her the chance to pop those big, expressive peepers and lean into some big, comedic sobs—which she does better than anybody in the business. The main problem I can foresee is one of priorities: This preview is all over the place. At least three main settings with three main supporting casts are introduced, as if Mom is hedging its bets and hoping one of these paths will reveal itself to the right one—and that’ll be where it heads for the remainder of its run. Fingers crossed it’s the one that features Allison Janney most prominently—she and Faris look to have a great, contentious chemistry. (But boy did those studio-audience laughs ever sound punched-up.)
TV: That’s the thing about the CBS house style, Erik: The laughs are all real, but the studio audience is so heavily mic’ed that they might as well be fake because they sound as if they’re emerging from somewhere beneath your feet. On this, I just don’t know. I agree the trailer was really scattered, but Faris got some smiles out of me, and I think she and Janney could be fun together. What’s more, my brain remembers Grace Under Fire as being a pretty good sitcom, and this sure seems like Lorre’s attempt to remake that. If he and Faris can nail that down, this could be a formidable show, a return to the “women of the working class” milieu Lorre used to be so good at. But that’s a big if.
We Are Men (airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. this fall)
TV: Based solely on the trailer, this one’s a head-scratcher as to why it ended up on CBS in the first place. At least with The Crazy Ones, the talent assembled makes sense for why CBS would roll the dice on a single-camera comedy. But here, it’s hard to tell just what CBS saw in this. The fratty tone is all wrong for the night (which leads off with a rom-com and closes with two female-centric sitcoms), the cast is good but not full of huge stars (Tony Shalhoub being the biggest), and the jokes are all about how it’s time for guys to cut loose and be guys and men are what this country needs right now and etc. It’s almost as if everybody forgot the failures of Man Up and Work It. And yet, there it is, right there: TV wants to attract young men, and it thinks the way to appeal to them (outside of sports and boobs) is to tell them how hard it is to be a young man by showing them fantasy proxy figures who get to have lots of sex. Only since this is CBS, one of them is Tony Shalhoub. I’m skeptical, to say the least. Also: Odds on whether the characters sing the show’s title to the tune of Fun.’s “We Are Young” by the end of the season and/or in the promotional materials? I’d say dead even.
EA: If the noxious, fantasy-from-the-heart-of-a-Maxim-editorial-meeting vibe ever wears off, this could turn into a enjoyable little ensemble show. The cast is game enough; they just need to push past the faux-edgy bro-comedy on display here.
Tomorrow: We come to our blessed end with the sweet treasures of The CW.