My fall TV adventure: Grading the new shows for NPR and EMMY magazine
With just a few days left until I leave this space for good -- I'm headed to work at NPR as their TV critic on Monday -- I managed to sneak in one last freelance commentary for public radio in a conversation with All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel about the fall TV season.
The discussion, which included me cracking on Blair Underwood's disappointing Ironside remake, reminded me of a poll I filled out for EMMY magazine weeks ago about the fall season. Since EMMY's stories are usually hidden behind a paywall, I figured it might be fun to post my analysis here -- in the magazine, it will appear alongside answers from a bunch of other respected TV critics.
So check out my reaction here -- they're remarkable consistent with how I feel today, despite the fact that I wrote them months ago.
1. What is the best new series and why? (This refers to a series starting in the fall).
Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine stands out as the season’s best pilot for me, mostly because it casts both lead actors against type. Andre Braugher, TV’s “Mr. Gravitas,” plays a sly twist on the typical African American cop show commanding officer – a smart, ambitious gay man one step ahead of his dysfunctional but sweet squad. Andy Samberg steps up from a string of nebbishes and nerds to become a wisecracking but effective detective. By the pilot’s end we care about both characters; but can this become a series worth watching over weeks and months?
2. What is the worst new series and why? (This refers to a series starting in the fall).
Seth McFarlane’s Dads seems engineered for failure; a conscious collection of the worst clichés about dads, the most wooden jokes about millenials and the most racist situational humor in any new TV comedy. And that’s often a particularly low bar. Fox seems focused on the 2 Broke Girls comedy method, aiming for ratings gold by stranding two talented performers – this time, it’s Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi – in a great wash of mediocre material (including a joke where an Asian American employee is dressed in a skimpy schoolgirl’s outfit in a twofer of racial and gender offensiveness). The great Martin Mull and Peter Reigert are similarly underserved as sadly self-obsessed fathers who manage to be the most derivative characters among a long string of inexplicably dysfunctional parents in this fall’s new sitcom crop.
3. What series was canceled that should have been renewed?
My vote goes to TNT’s Southland, a show which raised its dramatic stakes to operatic heights with the suicide-by-cop of Michael Cudlitz’s long suffering patrolman John Cooper after his capture and torture by a pair of meth addicts. That Cudlitz didn’t even get an Emmy nomination after such a fine performance was the final snub for a consistently excellent series which deserved better.
4. What series was renewed that should have been canceled?
ABC’s The Neighbors, tagged as the worst new show of last fall, is the comedy that won’t die on a network which can hardly afford to shoulder underperforming shows. Created as a lame echo of 3rd Rock from the Sun, this collection of New Jersey jokes and fish-out-of-water alien gags should have been put out of our misery many months ago.
5. What is the most marvelous trend in TV?
This fall, one of the best trends might be a new kind of diversity: Showcases for characters facing physical disabilities. NBC’s Michael J. Fox Show and Ironside both star men struggling with different issues. Ironside is a revamp of the classic cop show about a policeman paralyzed from the waist down (energetic actor Blair Underwood takes the role this time around), while Fox’s show centers on a guy returning to work coping with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Combined with a supporting character who seems to have a brain injury in ABC’s Betrayed, we have a promising bump in roles featuring characters with disabilities that viewers rarely see at the heart of big-ticket TV shows.
6. What is the most maddening trend in TV?
The Obnoxiously Stupid Aging Parent is a character appearing in seven different comedies this fall; nearly every new comedy features an outrageously dysfunctional senior citizen whose selfishness, controlling habits and/or fading faculties are featured in a long string of horrifically unfunny routines. Worse, these parts strand showbiz legends in cardboard characters, from Robin Williams and Linda Lavin to Beau Bridges, Margo Martindale, Martin Mull, Peter Reigert, James Caan and George Segal. It’s the saddest allegory for how Hollywood handles aging as anything I’ve seen.
7. Who is the TV executive most worthy of respect?
The man of the moment is Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, the Chief Content Officer who replicated HBO’s playbook in creating buzzed-about, quality original series for the video streaming/DVD rental site. Popular series such as House of Cards, the return of Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black, made history in the industry while erasing all the badwill CEO Reed Hastings created by his ham-handed separating of Netflix’s video rental and video streaming services two years ago. Right now, Netflix looks like the future of television, and the company has Sarandos’ sharp eye to thank for that.
8. Who is the most promising performer? (This refers to an actor in a new fall series who has not had a prominent role on TV before.)
Nitpicky critics might jump on her American accent, but Pitch Perfect star Rebel Wilson leads a show perfectly calibrated to serve young girls looking for a comedy with heart in ABC’s Super Fun Night. Playing an earnest nerd trying to succeed without leaving her nerdy gal pals behind, Wilson drops the blithe cynicism of her past characters to play a type of woman we’ve never seen her tackle before – one of the fall’s most impressive and on target comedies.
9. Who is the most savvy showrunner?
Props here go to Parenthood’s Jason Katims, who created a showcase storyline for co-star Monica Potter so powerful, NBC upped the show’s series order and has finally decided to give the program some promotional attention. Though co-star Craig T. Nelson has publically groused about the network’s past lack of support, Katims has worked his magic behind the scenes, upping the show’s quality steadily and consistently, until the network had little choice but to reward the Little Family Drama That Could.
10. Who is the most welcome returning star (This refers to an actor in a new fall series who has had a prominent role on TV before.)
It’s an easy vote, but I’m still picking Michael J. Fox, who has seen a string of crackling guest star appearances rewarded with his own sitcom, centered on a character mirroring his own struggle for normalcy with Parkinson’s disease. Fox’s Mike Henry is a relentlessly positive guy willing to find the humor in his physical issues whose biggest problem is that spending too much time at home is snarking off his family. It feels like a role transcribed from the life of Fox, whose grace and upbeat spirit in dealing with his own challenges has been a model for many.