If the latest figures on TV consumption are to be believed, Americans have developed an addiction to the small screen as never before, spending a whopping 34 hours per person, per week watching in 2010 — the most time ever recorded.
So it makes a perverse bit of sense that the industry has responded like a jittery pusher, rolling out a deluge of new material at the start of 2011 that feels suspiciously like a whole lot of desperation tossed against the wall of our shrinking attention spans.
No one less than the Queen of All Media kick-started it all Jan. 1, dropping a cable channel packed with programs teaching us all how to live our best lives. With at least a dozen more new shows debuting in January alone, it's as if the powers that be in television-land have decided to wear us down with the weight of their new efforts — debuting show after show in a machine-gun spray of fresh faces in hopes that something, anything, finally will stick.
Which is where I come in.
Somebody's got to pick through all the American Idol rivals, Modern Family ripoffs and Americanized versions of European TV hits cropping up this winter to make sure your 34 hours are spent in the most productive way possible. So here it is: a giant-sized edition of my TiVo/Ti-NO column, showing the best and worst new shows coming at you this week. In a telling alignment, all the best shows are on cable, while the worst appear on network TV.
The lessons learned here will serve in sorting through the smorgasbord to come; think of it as a primer on how low (and high) the industry will go to leverage your attention. And don't be surprised if the trip gets a little ugly.
SHOWS TO TIVO:
Lights Out, debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX: Somehow, the struggles of an aging heavyweight who has lost his fortune became this marvel of a series, outlining the racheting tension in the life of former champ Patrick "Lights" Leary like an ever-tightening piano wire. Journeyman actor Holt McCallany gives a career-making performance as the earnest but street-savvy Leary, who can't admit to his family members that their nest egg is gone, wiped out in a bad real estate deal, or that he may have early signs of boxing-induced dementia. It may feel a little like Rocky redux as a bombastic, Don King-style promoter pushes a rematch with a muscle-bound new champ whom Leary's wife opposes. But this piece is more about the toll taken by secrets families keep, the ways those who love you most can hurt you worst, and the strength of sharing truths, however painful. The result: one of midseason's most addictive new series; TV's equivalent of the kinetic novel you can't put down.
Episodes, debuts at 9:30 tonight, Showtime: At first, this biting tale of a hit British sitcom destroyed by its translation to American television will feel like every other Hollywood satire you've ever seen. Clueless network executives. Bullying, miscast stars. And members of a Botox-drenched, sex-obsessed industry too focused on fear, money and power to recognize a hit show if it exploded in their faces. But where this awkward romp gets interesting is when the characters move beyond showbiz caricature — especially in former Friends star Matt LeBlanc's role as, um, Matt LeBlanc. As a Hollywood-savvy, often indulgent star who seems a more sophisticated version of Friends' Joey Tribbiani, LeBlanc gets between the married English producers struggling to overcome the load of horrible ideas foisted on them by a desperate network, to a surprising, disastrous result. Who knew the slow destruction of American television could be so entertaining?
Shameless, debuts at 10 tonight on Showtime: After Episodes' fictional TV translation, Showtime offers the real thing: a drama adapted from an award-winning British show about the most dysfunctional family on the planet. William H. Macy weaves through the initial episodes as alcoholic Frank Gallagher, a father of six stuck so deep in his addictions that he mostly leaves the parenting to 19-year-old daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum). Macy may be the big name here, but Rossum's Fiona emerges as the show's beating heart, working two jobs to keep her fragmented family together while Frank blows his disability checks on bar tabs and fake Ecstasy. His clan is a percolating, eccentric collection of young hustlers — from the gay son sleeping with his boss to a brainiac brother who trades tutoring sessions for oral attentions from a willing girl. And like a particularly intense bender, it's an occasionally fun, sometimes scary ride headed to places you can't possibly predict until you get there.
SHOWS TO TI-NO:
THE CAPE, airs at 9 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8 (NBC): What's worse than a muddled, nonsensical series about a superhero you've never heard of? When the show can't decide what it wants to be — a campy satire of comic books, complete with Dick Tracy-style cartoon villains, or a gritty, impossibly earnest superhero romp, like a certain Dark Knight. The result is a confusing mess that wastes fanboy-friendly stars such as True Blood's James Frain and Firefly's Summer Glau on a guy whose only power is flinging around a cape like Batman imitating Béla Lugosi. Comic connoisseurs are left to quietly tally all the existing heroes much more worthy of NBC's development money.
Bob's Burgers, debuts at 8:30 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13 (Fox): Why would Fox bother making an animated comedy about the most depressing family-run burger joint in the world? Where rumors that it uses human remains actually boost business? And the joke about the cook having an unexplained rash is one of the least disgusting gags in the pilot episode? I have no answers, beyond speculating that the producers who birthed this mess must have deployed compromising photos of several Fox executives while cutting the deal for this particular program.
Off the Map, debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday on WFTS-Ch. 28 (ABC): Truthfully, executive producer Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice) has created a perfectly serviceable drama about a fresh-faced crew of young doctors plopped into a rugged, resource-poor clinic in South America. But close your eyes and you'll swear they're channeling dialogue from an old Grey's episode, drafted with the same mix of snappy one-liners and flirty propositions that make Rhimes' other two series so hard to distinguish from each other. On the bright side: It's not another CSI (though when you watch the scene where they remove a stingray from a patient's leg, you may wish it were).
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.