B&C's Annual Critics Roundtable: No LaughingMatter

In our annual virtual roundtable, critics praise some dramas like 'Last Resort' and 'Nashville,' but foresee a lack of breakout shows—especially in comedy

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