In one season, broadcast television's class of 2009 brought us a pop-culture phenomenon (Fox's Glee), an instant cult-camp classic (The CW's Vampire Diaries), multiple fresh new comedies (ABC's Modern Family and The Middle, NBC's Community) and CBS' The Good Wife, one of the smartest dramas to come along since The Mentalist. It also produced one of the most successful spinoffs in recent memory: CBS' NCIS: Los Angeles, which sold in syndication for a cool $2 million per episode, after all of seven weeks on the air.
That's why this year's freshman class of mostly indistinguishable series--and a few that look to be full-blown misses--is all the more disappointing to a roundtable of top TV critics B&C polled about the new season.
"It's almost as if people had something to prove last year," says Matt Roush, TV Guide magazine's television critic. "And now that they've proved it, they just kind of gave up this year in terms of developing anything that would really catch our attention."
To be sure, there is plenty of difference of opinion among the critics B&C polled (CBS' Hawaii Five-O is particularly polarizing), but they are united in their assessment that this year's class-despite A-list talent including J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, Chuck Lorre and Mitchell Hurwitz-is perplexingly
The appealing shows include Lonestar and Raising Hope on Fox. The list of appalling ones, however, is depressingly long: NBC's Outlaw, ABC's Body of Proof and My Generation, and $#*! My Dad Says on CBS. And a preponderance of the fall class fits squarely in the category of unimpressive but not impressively bad: Mike & Molly on CBS, NBC's Undercovers, Fox's Running Wilde and ABC's No Ordinary Family and The Whole Truth. And even given the critics' caveat--that forming a judgment based on one episode can be dicey--there is little that is truly distinctive in the raft of new product.
"There seems to be a real lack of excitement even from the people who make the shows," says David Bianculli, a host of NPR's Fresh Air and founder of TVWorthWatching.com. "It's Derivative Incorporated."
To be sure, there is plenty of difference of opinion among the critics B&C polled (CBS' Hawaii Five-O is particularly polarizing), but they are united in their assessment that this year's class--despite A-list talent including J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, Chuck Lorre and Mitchell Hurwitz--is perplexingly underwhelming.
Fox and CBS stand out as the networks with the best overall development this season, with new offerings in tune with their respective brands.
"I think you have to judge a network's schedule, in a sense, by what they're trying to accomplish," says Variety TV critic Brian Lowry. "In that sense, it seems to me that CBS has the clearest vision and adheres to it the most rigorously. It's not always the most exciting kind of programming, but I can see a clear strategy there."
CBS has several dramas that hit its meat-and-potatoes sweet spot, including The Defenders and the Tom Selleck cop drama Blue Bloods (which several critics thought was better than expected, especially for a series consigned to the Friday dead zone). Fox is bowing three new shows in the fall: Lonestar, which will air Mondays after House, and comedies Raising Hope and Running Wilde, which will air after Glee on Tuesdays.
"I think Fox should have a pretty decent fall, which used to be a real problem for them," Roush notes.
NBC is throwing too much new product at viewers to fill the considerable schedule holes left in the wake of Jay Leno, critics say. And while they have yet to see a pilot for Law & Order: Los Angeles, the rest of NBC's fall entries-dramas The Event, Undercovers, Chase and Outlaw, and new comedy Outsourced-failed to earn raves.
Critics agree that The CW, which will premiere two new hours, does not have another Vampire Diaries on its hands. But the network's two new series--Hellcats, a Mean Girls-with-pompoms melodrama about a cynical prelaw student who must earn a place on her college's cheerleading squad to secure a scholarship and stay in school; and Nikita, the latest adaptation of the Luc Besson film La Femme Nikita, with martial-arts star Maggie Q in the lead--were met with qualified support.
"Oddly enough, I did not hate Hellcats, as stupid as the premise is," says Philadelphia Daily News television critic Ellen Gray. "I think those girls sell it more than I would have expected. Although you look at that show and think, America is now evenly divided between people who can do remarkable things with their bodies and the rest of us who can only watch them do it."
'Very Little Faith'
"The CW shows are often better than you expect," adds Robert Bianco, USA Today TV critic. "They're like teenage children that you launch into the world too soon and then say, good luck. Nikita played like a very good cable drama. It's just that I have very little faith in CW shows going forward because so often we look at them and think, wow, this is a terrific pilot and then...that's it."
ABC is considered perhaps the least coherent in terms of brand and quality control. "As they traditionally do, ABC has some of the best and some of the worst shows," Bianco observes. "You just look at that network and think, do you have two different sets of development people that are at quality war?"
No Ordinary Family, which stars Michael Chiklis as the patriarch of a family that discovers they have superhero powers, has a likable cast, but critics are concerned it'll be an interesting pilot that devolves into an uninteresting series.
"I like the cast so much," Bianculli says. "I wished [the pilot] were better. While there's a little bit of playfulness, there's an awful lot of seriousness. Is this Heroes all over again? The problem with Heroes is it was so much fun in the beginning as they discovered their powers, and then the show just lost itself. So, I don't know what they're going to do here."
And there is cautious optimism about Detroit 1-8-7, now that the show's creators have decided to jettison the distracting faux documentary conceit. But ABC desperately needs a fourth comedy to fill out Wednesday night, and though the slight Better With You may indeed be better than what it is ultimately replacing (the dreadful Hank), that's not saying much.
"This season," adds Bianco, "the most you can say is, not much."
While nothing sent the critics into paroxysms of glee, Fox's Lonestar, about father-and-son grifters who bilk unsuspecting investors until the son decides to listen to the angels of his better nature, is the drama pilot with the most potential. A fresh concept amid the glut of crime procedurals, it also has a likable lead in James Wolk, who plays the son. But everyone seems to be wondering how this show can sustain itself over the long haul.
The Fox comedy Raising Hope--from My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia--got high marks for its subversive quirkiness. Like Earl, the show revolves around a goodhearted central character stuck at dysfunction junction. Lucas Neff plays a twentysomething with few prospects who ends up with a baby daughter after a one-night stand with a wanted felon. He's surrounded by peculiar supporting players, in this case his scene-stealing family played by Martha Plimpton, Garret Dillahunt and Cloris Leachman.
Matt Roush: "Lonestar has a great new star with a lot of charisma. It's different from the other shows, but the pilot made me wonder what would happen next."
Ellen Gray: "In spite of myself, I loved Raising Hope. It's very clever. There seems to be some heart in it. I could not stop laughing, and at the same time I hated myself at times for laughing-which may be the absolute essence of any Fox comedy."
Several shows made this list, including $#*! My Dad Says, Hawaii Five-O, My Generation and Body of Proof, which stars Dana Delany as an infallible medical examiner. But the show that prompted the most impassioned lambasting was NBC's Outlaw. The improbable premise has Jimmy Smits as a womanizer, gambler and Supreme Court justice who quits the bench to go back into private practice, where he's determined to fight for the downtrodden. Early in the pilot, there is a scene in which a young woman from the ACLU harangues Smits' hang-'em-high jurist as he's emerging from a casino.That they end up in bed together is only one of the pilot's dubious turns.
ABC's My Generation and CBS' $#*! My Dad Says are the runners-up on the indefensible list. My Generation, about a group of friends, shot mockumentary-style in the present day and 10 years ago, elicited strong reactions from critics for its self-conscious characters and messy construction. When CBS bought the rights to a Twitter feed--$#*! My Dad Says--for a sitcom adaptation, it made headlines. The show itself, which stars William Shatner as cranky septuagenarian who barks out one-liners, is not likely to make the right kind of headlines for CBS.
Robert Bianco: "$#*! My Dad Says is completely inept and miscast and ill-conceived. It's an abominable show. But [Outlaw] is a howlingly bad show. A Supreme Court justice stops in the street to argue with a young ACLU girl about an upcoming case? Yeah, happens all the time; just can't muzzle those Supreme Court justices."
"The mock-documentary structure of My Generation is just terrible. This constant cutting back and forth makes the ludicrousness of that conceit all the more obvious. And five minutes in, you realize that someone is going to represent every single social and pop culture aspect of the last decade. It's so tedious and stupid and unbelievable."
David Bianculli: "If Outlaw were just performed differently, it could be a very funny spoof of itself. They could use the same dialogue, add a laugh track and tell the actors to wink at the camera. $#*! My Dad Says should prove that you shouldn't make deals like this. You expect the things the father says to be home runs, like Archie Bunker-isms. And they're not. At one point, he says, ‘Rule No. 3: No stupid jokes while I'm talking.' So, I'm thinking, well now, we're into mime for the rest of the half-hour."
"[My Generation] is very contrived. It's pandering to nostalgia for people who are too young to have nostalgia. And I adore Dana Delany. But in [Body of Proof] her character is so annoying, so always right. Even [Hugh Laurie's] House is wrong with his first five or six guesses."
THE INEVITABLE HIT
CBS' Hawaii Five-O may not peak on the artistry meters. Some critics hated it. (Gray: "It cannot die too quickly.") But the lush tropical setting, the pyrotechnics and the bikini-ready cast, plus little competition in its Monday 10 p.m. time slot from ABC's Castle and NBC's generic new Bruckheimer drama Chase, are probably a recipe for big commercial hit.
Brian Lowry (Variety): "Based on the time period and name recognition, you'd think CBS has a pretty good shot with Hawaii Five-O. That said, I doubt they're going to be able to spend as much blowing stuff up in future episodes."
Roush: "It's a very agreeable, painless show with really appealing qualities to it. Alex O'Loughlin will finally have a show that will please his fan base and allow him to be in a hit. He's got a really strong ensemble, with Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park and especially Scott Caan, and I think that's going to carry the show a long way, that and explosions."
Bianco: "I did not particularly like [Hawaii Five-O] and I don't share their faith in Alex O'Loughlin as a TV star, but you could look at it and think this show will probably work for [CBS]."
THE BIG DISAPPOINTMENT
J.J. Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost, may be a victim of his own success. Now very busy with a big-screen career, Abrams' most recent TV project, Fox's Fringe, also received a mostly tepid critical reception. But Fringe has gone on to attract a highly loyal if not enormous core audience. However, Undercovers, about a husband-wife spy team (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw), does not have Fringe's paranormal underpinnings to give it a leg up with the hard-core sci-fi-geek viewer base.
Like Abrams, Mitchell Hurwitz and Chuck Lorre are also burdened by great expectations. Hurwitz created Arrested Development, one of the most critically adored series ever. And the prolific Lorre is the man behind multiple critically hailed (The Big Bang Theory) and commercially successful (Two and a Half Men) sitcoms. Hurwitz's Running Wilde, on Fox, is about a soulless rich guy (Will Arnett) who wants to be a better human being to impress his childhood sweetheart (Keri Russell). Lorre's Mike & Molly, which will get the plum 9:30 p.m. Monday slot after Two and a Half Men, is a romantic comedy about an overweight couple searching for the right diet who find love instead.
Roush: "[Undercovers] kind of feels to me like a USA Network show with a bigger budget. It's not as special as you want it to be. It doesn't have the teeth, the edge, when you think about how Alias burst across the scene. It's just a very genial show about two really beautiful people having spy adventures. I'm very conflicted about [Running Wilde] because that's the kind of show I should like. But [the characters] are so patently unpleasant. There should be some charm in that smarm, but I don't see it."
Gray: "[Undercovers] just didn't do it for me. I much prefer to watch Chuck. They're very pretty. But I think maybe that's it: They're so pretty, they're so competent. It's almost like, what's the problem? [Critics] have that innate we-love-Mitch-Hurwitz gene, but I was disappointed. [Running Wilde] seemed a little too precious. It's one of those shows where there's a lot of talent running around being clever. But I'm not feeling a whole show yet."
"I could see Mike & Molly becoming something. I have learned to never bet against Chuck Lorre. He'll keep tweaking until it works, which I think we saw with Big Bang Theory."
Maureen Ryan (Chicago Tribune): "Undercovers certainly looks like a J.J. Abrams project-it's glossy, classy and engaging. Whether the world needs one more spy drama remains to be seen. It certainly feels a little too light to rescue an entire network-NBC needs a lot of help and this show might perk along nicely, but it does not scream ‘Peacock Savior!' I think Will Arnett and Keri Russell are talented, but their new comedy, Running Wilde, is kind of painful to watch."
NEXT SEASON'S 'LOST'
NBC's marketing plan for The Event--its big-budget conspiracy thriller starring Jason Ritter, Laura Innes and Blair Underwood (as the POTUS)--takes a page from ABC's FlashForward playbook. The network did not send a DVD of the pilot and instead has held screenings at NBC headquarters in New York and Los Angeles. But whether viewers will commit to another serialized drama remains to be seen.
Roush: "It's not as dark and grim as FlashForward was. And it does take a twist at the end. But it's a risky show for them. I hope it pays off. With the end of 24 and Lost, there's a huge void this season for these kinds of shows. My problem is, I'm not sure the world is waiting to find out what the event is."
Bianco: "You have Fox pushing Lonestar and NBC pushing The Event, and they're opposite each other [Monday night at 9]. You would think only one of those is going to catch on. And they're both complicated, you-must-watch-every-week series-probably The Event more than Lonestar. So, that will be interesting."
Gray: "Everybody wants the next Lost. Why does everybody want the next Lost? I loved Lost. But I watched it get more complicated and less watched. Once people figure out that they can't figure it out, it's over. The Event is the same kind of show. [Viewers] are just nervous. They've been dragged down the rabbit hole way too many times."
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