Programming

B&C's Annual Critics Roundtable: No Laughing Matter

In our annual virtual roundtable, critics praise some dramas like 'Last Resort' and 'Nashville,' but foresee a lack of breakout shows—especially in comedy 7/23/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

It’s common knowledge that Emmy awards largely mean
nothing when it comes to Nielsen ratings: massive hits like NCIS will never be feted in September. So as more and more
cable shows have crept into the nominations in recent years,
there has always been that caveat. However, this year none
of the best drama Emmy nominees came from the major
broadcast networks, and that is absolutely a statement.

But reinforcements could finally be on the way this season, with
one-hours garnering the most excitement from a roundtable of top
TV critics B&C polled. Critics found at least one rookie drama on
every network to like, led by ABC’s Nashville and Last Resort, which
were cited as the fall’s best pilots, and continuing
with CBS’ Vegas and Elementary, The CW’s
Arrow and Fox’s midseason The Following,
along with at least guarded interest out there
for NBC’s Revolution.

One reason drama looks better this coming
year: the dearth of comedy, a field cited as
weaker than last season, with no laffers making
the critics’ list as the fall’s best. That’s an
especially disappointing prospect, given that
the broadcast networks had been on a comedy
roll the last few years, launching breakout
hits including Modern Family, 2 Broke Girls
and New Girl, with the former two banking
major bucks in syndication.

“Last year, we had a decent run of really
good comedies,” says Matt Roush, senior critic
for TV Guide. “This time comedies in general,
with a very few exceptions, are just so bland
and uninteresting.”

As always, there is a potential chasm between
what critics like and what is a hit on broadcast
television. And it’s worth noting that the favorite
drama pilots were praised with a caveat of worry
about how each may do in a series format.

“The two shows I like best—Last Resort and
Nashville—I really don’t know what episode
eight of that show is,” says Maureen Ryan,
TV critic for The Huffington Post. “That both
excites me and scares me.”

Ho-Hum About the Fall

While critics agreed there may be fewer awful pilots than last
year, aside from the couple of standout dramas, the majority of new shows fell into an unimpressive
middle territory, leaving
critics a little ho-hum about
the fall lineup.

“There’s a sense of routine
in a lot of what I’m seeing
here—not a lot striving for
breakthrough,” Roush says.
“The [shows] all kind of feel
a bit familiar, even if I like
them. I think what I’m lacking
in this particular season
is a sense of surprise on
almost any level.”

Because of most networks’
reliance on unsurprising
programming, ABC
was given the edge
as the network with
the best new pilot
slate, thanks to its
adventurous dramas
such as country music
soap Nashville
and action-thriller
Last Resort. Even
the supernaturally
themed 666 Park
Avenue
, which critics
didn’t particularly like, earned the network points for taking a
chance on an unconventional premise.

“I think [ABC] had the biggest collection of interesting pilots,”
says Eric Deggans, TV/media critic for the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m
not sure if they’re going to achieve what they want with them, but I
like the chances that they’re taking with a lot of them. I like the fact
that they seem to try to be doing something different and they seem
to be trying to stretch their viewership profile.”

Playing to Its Strengths

As with the other networks, ABC’s comedies were found lacking,
with cheesy alien sitcom The Neighbors named one of the fall’s
worst, and critics finding nothing to laugh at in the Reba McEntire
vehicle Malibu Country. CBS ran a close second to ABC; as usual,
the network served up a slate of pilots that
may not be the most exciting, but look like
they could be viable TV shows.

“As far as smart programming for exactly
the audience they know that they
want, I think CBS has done a very good
job again,” says Ken Tucker, TV critic for
Entertainment Weekly.

CBS drama Vegas, which stars Dennis
Quaid as a Las Vegas sheriff in the 1960s,
earned points for its stellar cast (Michael
Chiklis costars) and a setting that didn’t
take over the show, as was the case with
last year’s unsuccessful period pieces, such as The Playboy
Club
and Pan Am.

Even Elementary, which suffered a burden of comparison to
PBS’ critical favorite, Sherlock, was a pleasant surprise to most
critics. The series looks like a sure hit for the Eye with its
procedural format and chemistry between Jonny Lee Miller’s
Holmes and Lucy Liu’s Watson.

CBS’ sole fall comedy, Partners,
about a man and his gay
best friend/business partner
whose relationship is tested
when he gets engaged, drew
collective ire and fell short of
expectations for creators David
Kohan and Max Mutchnick,
the duo behind Will & Grace.
But given its pedigree and spot
on CBS, where comedies often
improve during their runs (see
The Big Bang Theory), the series
has the potential to reverse
opinions.

Partners was not a good
pilot,” says Robert Bianco, USA
Today
’s TV critic. “CBS is one
network where often shows get
better after the pilot. Considering
it’s from the Will & Grace
people and it’s on CBS, I would
not write it off.”

Like CBS, Fox will launch
few new series in the fall,
though its three entries—drama
The Mob Doctor and comedies
Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project—made the network’s fall seem
like an afterthought to critics. They ragged on Mob Doctor, especially,
for its weak dramatic hook. Fox’s most exciting pilot, The Following,
starring Kevin Bacon as a former FBI agent back on the job to capture
a cult of serial killers, doesn’t bow until midseason.

“Fox, for the second year in a row, they’re banking everything
on The X Factor, pretending it’s a new show,” says Dan Fienberg, TV
critic for HitFix. “So either Britney Spears revitalizes X Factor and
makes it into what it was supposed to be last year, or she doesn’t,
and in that case I don’t know what Fox’s
fall looks like.”

There was guarded hope among critics
that The Mindy Project, which drew big
buzz during development season and features
likeable comedic star Mindy Kaling
(The Office), could improve after a so-so
pilot, a hope that was echoed for the subpar
crop of comedies overall.

“With sitcoms, I feel like if I like the
characters and the writing isn’t that good,
that’s much better than a show where I
don’t like the characters even though it has a great pedigree,” says Tucker, speaking
of Mindy.

The CW’s schedule, the first developed
under network president Mark Pedowitz,
was fairly weak to critics save for the comic
book-inspired Arrow, which was among
the fall’s most-liked dramas and is seen as
a needed big swing for the network’s stagnant
ratings.

“I was moderately impressed with Arrow,”
Ryan says. “I don’t think it’s going to remake
or reinvent the superhero genre, but I think it was actually
a solid rendition of that. And I think [series star] Stephen Amell is
very good.”

While critics praised Emily Owens, M.D. star Mamie Gummer, they
didn’t think the “Grey’s Anatomy for tweens” premise of the medical
drama was worthy of Gummer’s talent. The
CW’s third fall drama, the rebooted Beauty
and the Beast
, was particularly disliked as
unnecessary and poorly done.

At NBC, which last season inched out of
fourth place on the back of the Super Bowl
in a photo finish with ABC, critics saw a
group of pilots marginally improved over
a low standard. But they agreed this fall
won’t be the one to get the Peacock out of
the basement. Wednesday comedies Guys
With Kids
and Animal Practice and the Dick Wolf drama Chicago Fire
were among the most hated. But like the season as a whole, NBC’s
great fault is that it seems to lack a big breakout hit that the network
desperately needs.

“I think they’re screwed because I don’t see a big hit in any of these shows,” Deggans
says. “But I don’t think
it’s because the shows are
all terrible.”

NBC’s night-by-night
building strategy held
up in critical reaction.
Monday drama Revolution,
which will get the
sweet time slot after The
Voice
, was judged a decent
pilot, though some
critics worried viewers
would not sign on for
the serialized story line.
Likewise, critics saw Tuesday comedy Go On as a good effort, though
they wished Matthew Perry played a happier character than his
widowed sports radio host. The New Normal was also generally liked,
though critics saw some of the same tonal problems with it that have
plagued other Ryan Murphy shows.

The generic nature of NBC’s Wednesday-night lineup likewise
highlighted a slate seen as an effort to aim straight down the middle
in the hopes of grabbing new viewers, though the strategy had
several critics wishing the network had made some more radically
creative moves.

“This is another ‘throw everything up against the wall and see what
sticks’ development season. There’s absolutely no coherence to this
whatsoever,” Fienberg says. “It looks like they’re grasping at straws.”

Overall, the networks seemed to fall short of besting the 2011-12
season that saw several breakout series, with the bulk of the pilots
falling into middling territory and comedy disappointing on the
whole. With the bulk of this season’s excitement saved for dramas,
grading this year’s freshman class will take time to see how the pilots
translate to series.

“If Revolution can work, if Nashville, Vegas and Elementary are as
good as their pilots might lead you to believe, the season will begin
to look better,” Bianco says. “Last year, there was a lot of excitement
around New Girl. I don’t know that there’s anything this season that
matches that kind of early buzz.”

THE BEST

ABC impressed critics with its slate of risk-taking dramas this season,
none more so than primetime soap Nashville, starring Connie Britton
(Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story) as a waning country music
queen, with Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) as the ambitious rising starlet
attempting to steal her spotlight. With a stellar cast, music-friendly
story line and middle-America setting,
Nashville looks to be a fun, guiltypleasure
drama that’s more grounded
than Glee and more widely appealing
than Smash. Critics cited the pilot as
having the most potential.

The ABC drama Last Resort—from
The Shield creator Shawn Ryan—also
got high marks for being a fresh and
different concept, though seemingly
off-brand for the female-skewing network.
The action-thriller stars Andre
Braugher (Men of a Certain Age) and
Scott Speedman (Felicity) as leaders
of a rogue submarine whose crew
takes refuge on an exotic island after
being attacked by their own country.
While critics gave both Last Resort
and Nashville props for originality,
some did so with a caveat of concern about how the great pilots
might translate to series.

Eric Deggans, Tampa Bay Times:Nashville is a show we don’t
see a lot in series television, so there’s a lot of promise there. And
the actors are great.”

Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly: “I really was very pleasantly
surprised. I think it’s really hard to capture country music and the
country music industry in a drama, and I thought [Nashville] did a
really good job of it.”


Maureen Ryan, The Huffington Post:
“I didn’t know what [Last
Resort
] would do next. Not just being a great execution of an hour of
television, but something that I had not seen. It felt like a very different
format and idea, so that made me happy.”


Matt Roush, TV Guide:
“Last Resort was such an interesting and
such-a-completely-different-from-anything-else-on-TV type of show.”

THE WORST

Several shows made this list, including Animal Practice, Beauty and
the Beast
, Partners and the Dick Wolf firefighter drama Chicago Fire.
But predictably, the show that took one of the worst beatings from
critics was ABC’s The Neighbors, about a family who moves to a suburban
New Jersey community populated by aliens. Perhaps even more
hated than the show’s cheesy plot line, however, was ABC’s tone-deaf
scheduling of it in its
plumbest time slot,
Wednesdays at 9:30
p.m., after the whipsmart
Modern Family.

Equally despised
was NBC’s Guys
With Kids
, the Jimmy
Fallon-produced
multi-camera sitcom
about three thirtysomething
dads trying
to hold onto their
youth, which critics
panned as generic
and predictable. The
Peacock’s Chicago
Fire
, meanwhile, was
lampooned as a lessinteresting
version of
the former NBC drama
Third Watch. Animal
Practice
garnered
predictable jabs for
the monkey being
the show’s funniest
character.

Tucker: “I thought Guys With Kids was particularly annoying. Every
line was pretty predictable, and it just seemed kind of sad.”

Roush: The Neighbors for me is not the worst show, but it’s
absolutely the worst scheduling of any show. Why in the world you
would pair [it with] Modern Family—that would be like casting the
Three Stooges in a Woody Allen movie.”

THE
PLEASANT
SURPRISE

While noting that it will be disappointing
to fans of PBS’ Sherlock, critics mostly
agreed that CBS’ Elementary was better
than the average CBS procedural and
had a good chance of working for the
network’s audience. The modern-day
take on Sherlock Holmes, starring Jonny
Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as
Joan Watson, faces an uphill battle of
comparison with critics to the PBS series
(much the way NBC’s Prime Suspect did
last season). But most critics agreed that
the shadow of Sherlock doesn’t extend
to the target CBS audience, meaning the
comparison won’t matter much when it
comes to mass appeal.


Dan Fienberg, HitFix:
“I was struck
by how proficient and solid it was and
how well it’s probably going to mesh with the CBS lineup. It is a
better-than-average CBS show, and it didn’t necessarily need to be.”

Tucker: “I thought the umpteenth variation on Sherlock Holmes
was going to be dull. But I thought that Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy
Liu had really good chemistry.”

THE INEVITABLE HIT

Fox’s The Mob Doctor was universally mocked for its parodysounding
title (“It comes across more like a Saturday Night Live skit
than an actual TV series,” says
USA Today’s Robert Bianco).
But not everyone hated the
execution as much as the title
would lead one to believe,
thanks mostly to star Jordana
Spiro (My Boys) making otherwise
ridiculous material seem
convincing. But while admittedly
suffering from a silly title
and predictable premise, the
medical drama could play into
the tastes of network audiences
weaned on CSI.

Deggans: “I didn’t hate
The Mob Doctor as much as I
thought I was going to hate it.
Jordana Spiro is a really charismatic
actor and saved a lot of that show. To me, that’s the kind
of show where critics may not like it that much, but the public
might really dig it.”

Roush: “There’s also a sense that sometimes these shows are
just bad enough to be popular, because [The Mob Doctor] plays
into what people watch on network TV. So maybe that one’s just
mediocre enough to work.”

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com
and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

November