Wednesday, May 25, 2011

2011 Upfronts: The Search for Hope in a Universe of Bleakness*

*Or so you would have believed if you read the coverage of the upfronts by any of the TV critics you read or follow on Twitter. Granted, it's the end of a grueling television season; granted. critics took the cancellations of shows like Lone Star and The Chicago Code especially hard; and granted, I'm coming at this from a position of seething jealousy for people who get to cover things like this for a living, but regardless: the notes from the front lines of the networks' presentations of their new fall schedules were oppressively grim. Here's the thing: I don't think these shows look so bad! Okay, some of them do. The ones about clairvoyant detectives and cross-dressing workplace comedies -- those look pretty awful. But more than a few of these new shows look decidedly promising. Sure, most of them premiere at midseason, but hey! I can wait them out.

For now, here's the handful of shows that caught my eye and will compete for precious DVR space come fall.


Up All Night (NBC, Wednesdays at 8pm)
On paper it looks like a hasty collection of actors whom TV people have decided should have successful TV shows, but since those actors are Will Arnett and Christina Applegate and I love them, I'm cool with it. They play parents of a newborn baby, and NBC decides to fly in the face of that arcane rule about babies ruining comedy shows. As a bonus, Maya Rudolph (who, after Bridesmaids and especially Away We Go, seems like a movie star vacationing on TV, even though the truth of the matter is that she's still kind of trying to establish her post-SNL identity) plays Applegate's boss. Arnett and Applegate seem to have solid chemistry, which will likely make or break the show. The time slot is no picnic, but the fact that it looks like the comedy version of Parenthood (at least on the surface) will hopefully endear it to the NBC audience.

Revenge (ABC, Wednesdays at 10pm)
Well, I've dropped Gossip Girl, so I think I could use a new infusion of primetime soap into my life. Emily VanCamp plays a girl who returns to the Hamptons to take ... well, revenge ... upon the evil richies who apparently conspired to ruin her father decades earlier. The cast is full of pet favorites of mine -- like all Everwood fans, I feel possessive of VanCamp, and she's joined by Nick Weschler and Connor Paolo (my favorites from Roswell and Gossip Girl, respectively) as working-class brothers -- and they even dug up Madeline Stowe to play the ice queen of the Hamptons! It's all very melodramatic, and the lines between the Evil Rich and the Noble Poor could use some serious blurring, but the central plot is compelling and VanCamp plays against type as a stone-cold vengeance seeker quite well.

New Girl (FOX, Tuesdays at 9pm)
This one is going to sharply divide people -- at least the ones I encounter daily. You're either a Zooey Deschanel person or you're not (I am), and you're either allergic to twentysomethings-and-their-mating-habits comedies of you're not, and you either grimace and say things like "quirky" when you see a show where the main pretty girl does things like sing-and-dance awkwardly and fall down and such. Here's where I come down: of all the September premieres, this was the trailer that made me the happiest. Deschanel looks goofy and cute, and I love the trio of guys her suddenly single girl moves in with -- Max Greenfield, my suddenly favorite person in the world Jake Johnson, and Damon Wayans Jr. (who I guess is going to have to be re-cast? Because ABC picked up Happy Endings for another season?).

Smash (NBC, Mondays at 10pm, midseason)
I love the look of this one so much, I'm actually angry that I have to wait til mid-season. A non-winking show about casting a blockbuster Broadway musical with my once-beloved Katharine McPhee from American Idol in the ingenue role; with Jack Davenport, Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston (!), and Christian Borle (who I just recently saw and loved on stage in Angels in America) as the behind-the-show players, and starring My Block in Hell's Kitchen as Itself. Get here IMMEDIATELY.

Alcatraz (FOX, Mondays at 9pm, midseason)
J.J. Abrams is back! With a show about a mystery! I'm as surprised as you are. So yeah, there's a decent chance this could be all sizzle and no steak, but watching Fringe turned out pretty well for me, so that's something to hold onto. The plot involves all of the prisoners in Alcatraz getting raptured (timely!) some time back in the '60s, and now they're somehow coming back, having not aged, to commit their crimes again. Not enough? How about Hurley from Lost?? ...Okay, how about Sam Neil unofficially reprising his role from Happy Town!

The River (ABC, midseason)
There are so many reasons why a show like this might not work -- too much ambition for a network show; setting up a mystery it can't pay off; expecting an audience to put up with shaky-cam over the course of a 13+ episode season; teasing a horror conceit on a network that doesn't really do horror. If this were on cable, my doubts would be significantly lessened. But my interest in the concept is piqued enough that I can't not give it a shot.

Awake (NBC, midseason)
Along with Smash, NBC actually boasts the two pilots I'm most looking forward to. This is another concept that, were it on cable, I'd be a lot more confident about it. Jason Isaacs is a cop who gets into a car accident with his wife and son, after which his life kind of splits, Sliding Doors style. In one life, his wife survived the crash but his son died. But when he goes to sleep, he awakes to a life where his son survived but his wife died. Meanwhile, because it's network TV, he's a cop with cases to solve in each reality, all while struggling with therapists (Cherry Jones! B.D. Wong!) to sort out which "life" is real. Only he's quite understandably loathe to give up this duality where he gets to keep his wife AND son, even if it means that he doesn't actually ever sleep? One would think this narrative would, by necessity, go to some dark places. Does NBC have the stomach for that?

Apartment 23 (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:30pm, midseason)
The concept -- nice Midwestern girl moves to the big city, finds a roommate who turns out to be a horrible, diabolical, urbanite bitch -- is kind of limited. But Krysten Ritter plays the bitch, James Van Der Beek plays himself (Ritter's best friend), and from the four minutes' worth of the pilot I saw, it's comedic sensibility is there. Which is a fancy-pants way of saying I laughed a lot. But if people think the characters on Cougar Town are unlikeable ... (though maybe that's what makes them perfect time-slot partners come November)


Of the two shows this fall that are being tagged as "Mad Men wannabes" because they're set in the 1960s, The Playboy Club (NBC, Mondays at 10pm) is the one that didn't bore me (sorry, ABC's Pan Am), but that may just be because I have yet to see the former. Also, with Smash set to debut in its time slot at midseason, NBC maybe doesn't have a ton of confidence in Eddie Cibrian and Amber Heard's show. Prime Suspect (NBC, Thursdays at 10pm) looks a lot better -- Maria Bello's triumphant return to the old ER time slot! -- but I'll want to see where it falls along the procedural/serial divide. Ironically, it's the procedural elements that give me more faith in NBC's Grimm, one of two modern-fairy-tale themed shows this fall (sorry, ABC's Once Upon a Time). Well, that and cutecutecute David Giuntoli (I mean, really) in the lead role. When will he get the accolades he deserves for being the most successful Road Rules alum?

The good news for ABC is that the pilot for Good Christian Bitches (they may have retitled it "Good Christian Belles," but fuckin' MAKE ME) captured my interest way more than I thought it would. Leslie Bibb is good for TV, and while Cheno gets the prime villain real estate, the awesome Miriam Shor could well be the story if the show succeeds. Her and Annie Potts, who gets to be both haughty and funny, which is great. Lord knows when they're gonna haul out Shonda Rimes's new show Scandal (ABC, midseason), with Kerry Washington as a political fixer with the TV-cliche name of "Olivia Pope." Like most Shonda shows, the supporting cast is strong (Henry Ian Cusick, Columbus Short, Guillermo Diaz), and I hope the characters aren't too annoying.

This seems to be the year that I've officially outgrown The CW, but I'm going to give Ringer (CW, Tuesdays at 9pm) a shot pretty much solely because it stars Sarah Michelle Gellar. Much like Katie Holmes, I think she's born to headline a network television show, and I'm hoping she gets another hit.


Free Agents (NBC, Wednesdays at 8:30pm) features the beloved (by me, at least) Kathryn Hahn, but appears to be stranding her on an unfunny sitcom, romancing Hank Azaria. I'm hoping the triumvirate of Whitney (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30pm), Are You There Vodka, It's Me Chelsea (NBC, midseason), and 2 Broke Girls (CBS, Mondays at 8:30pm) don't become a referendum on women in comedy the way Bridesmaids was this summer, because those shows look awful. Sorry, Kat Dennings! Terra Nova (FOX, Mondays at 8pm) is either going to be Too Big To Fail (timely reference!) or one of those high-profile FOX belly-flops, but either way, Avatar is Avatar and I won't be watching the TV version. Finally, The Finder (FOX, Thursdays at 9pm, midseason) is a spinoff of Bones, which is fine. I just wish they hadn't perpetuated Hollywood's continuing employment of that block of wood from 7th Heaven.

Tomorrow I'll post how my Fall TV grid shakes out, because sad OCD like mine shouldn't be hidden underneath a bushel!


notanillusion said...

Oh my god, I am going to watch the SHIT out of Up All Night! How refreshing to see Will Arnett playing a person for once! (No offense, GOB, I still want you to marry my boyfriend and me on a segway.) Plus, I love me some Sue Ellen Crandall. Also, Maya Rudolph seems to be fighting for heart space next to Allison Janney for "Crazy person I would most like to be my boss." (Even though Mr. Sunshine wasn't very good.)

Val said...

Wait, the lead guy in The Finder is that dork from 7th Heaven?! I love me some Bones but when the spin-off episode happened I was annoyed from the first second that dude showed up on my screen.

At least now I have a solid reason why in addition to the entire cast and concept, you know, sucking donkey.

Danny said...

Totally intrigued by The River. Horror hasn't yet found a proper home on television (oh Harper's Island. I had such high hopes!) but that certainly looks promising. Though I do wonder how they plan to avoid making it feel like a 13-hour movie chopped up to fit into a TV season.

Great picks!

Claire said...

Maybe it's how the previews were edited, but a lot of these shows seem like they would be better as movies than weekly series. I don't think that some of these can really sustain their premises for that long.

Joe Reid said...

I can't say as I disagree, Claire. I think that's one of the major stories of the new TV season -- I admire the hell out of the ambition of some of these series, but I wonder how equipped the networks are to tell these stories well.

Kaitlyn said...

Dammit, why isn't Revenge starting next week? It looks like the PERFECT summer soap.

Joe Reid said...

I thought the same thing, Kaitlyn, except I don't think anybody watches primetime soaps -- or anything scripted on networks -- in the summer anymore.

dustdevil liz said...

When I saw the previews of "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am" last week, I wished that CBS would jump in the retro game and resurrect "Swingtown." And reading this(Jack Davenport! Miriam Shor!)made me even more nostalgic for Swingtown.