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
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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."

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