Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2011 Edition
Well, here we are again. Summer seems to have flown past and now the fall pilots are upon us, this year in a flood of new shows that nevertheless doesn't seem to have yielded too many winners yet. Even leaving out the genuine turkeys (Whitney, The Playboy Club, Unforgettable), there aren't yet any shows that I'm genuinely excited by, and only a few whose pilots have left me intrigued.
- Ringer - Two episodes into this show, you really have to hope that the producers are paying Sarah Michelle Gellar a lot of money, because I doubt that anyone who is continuing to give Ringer a chance is doing so for its merits, which are few. The only reason to stick with Ringer despite its tepid and often nonsensical writing, thin characters and lackluster dialogue is the faint hope that the show will pull it together and provide Gellar, who since the end of Buffy has been absent not just from TV screens but from most movies except some small, unimpressive indie efforts, with a new and long-lasting vehicle. Not that Gellar is particularly good in the double role of twins Bridget and Siobhan, a just-dried-up alcoholic former stripper on the run from the mob and a Manhattan socialite who fakes her own death, leaving a gap that her sister eagerly fills. Admittedly, she has little to work with--not only does the writing do little to distinguish Bridget and Siobhan from one another, relying on the differences in their class and social settings to do the heavy lifting in the pilot and then forgetting that Bridget should have no idea how to be a Lady Who Lunches in the second episode, it also gives them little personality of their own. Aside from sharing a ruthless streak--Bridget goes from mourning her sister's apparent suicide to stealing her life in a matter of hours, and in the second episode coolly conceals (and briefly considers dismembering) the body of an assassin whom she has killed, while Siobhan is the person who dispatched the assassin, the better to cement the story of her death--there's really nothing notable about either sister, nothing that makes them protagonists whose travails we'd want to follow.
But Gellar is a problem here too. She plays both roles with so little energy and personality that it just becomes harder and harder to believe that this is the same woman who embodied a heroine for seven seasons. It's possible that this is an acting choice, that Gellar is trying to play her characters as deliberately unheroic, just ordinary women who are tired and battered-about by life. From the evidence of Ringer, however, this stretches her talents too far--instead of emotionally numb, Bridget and Siobhan come off as emotionally limited. None of this matters to the show, of course. Ringer makes the classic and increasingly common mistake of assuming that a twisty plot will make up for the dullness of the people it happens to. And, as has happened so many times before, this choice--which extends not just to Siobhan and Bridget but to the people around them such as Siobhan's stuffy financier husband, her failed novelist lover, and the people from Bridget's past who are pursuing her--scuttles the show, mainly because the plot so far is less twisty than it is full of holes (why, for example, does Siobhan, having already successfully faked her death for Bridget's benefit, need Bridget to assume her identity and be murdered in her place?). Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I'm going to keep watching Ringer simply because Gellar is in it, but if I were her I'd be hoping for its quick cancellation, because just as she is helping to keep Ringer afloat, it is swiftly burning up my fond memories of her as an actress, and my willingness to follow her to her next project.
- Revenge - This, on the other hand, is how you make a trashy high-concept soap opera about an imposter moving among rich, heartless, upper-class people. The plot is lifted right out of The Count of Monte Cristo--years ago, Amanda Clarke's father was framed for treason by his friends; now styling herself Emily Thorne, and with the help of a vast fortune left to her by her father, she rents a house in the Hamptons where that group still congregates every summer, and starts taking her revenge, making her way, one by one, to the chief architect of her father's downfall, the icy queen of the Hamptons set, Victoria Grayson. Like Ringer, the pilot does little to build any of its characters--the closest to a rounded personality is Victoria, played to chilly perfection by Madeleine Stowe, but she's got a fairly familiar and meaty type to sink her teeth into--the queen bee, outwardly charming and gracious but in reality ruling her social circle with an iron fist. As Amanda/Emily, Emily VanCamp does a good job of conveying steely determination, and an equal portion of ruthlessness, under a guise of innocence, but her character, who by definition has more complicated motivations and more thorny emotional journey to undergo than Victoria, is still largely opaque. The pilot makes up for this, though, by being deliciously fun and engaging, following Emily's initial forays into her new environment and her first strike against one of the people responsible for framing her father at the same time that it establishes her background and the large cast of players. Despite the ponderous voiceovers that bookend the pilot, Revenge doesn't seem to have anything substantial or thought-provoking to say about its title subject, or on the question of whether Emily is being righteous or self-destructive to pursue it, and to be honest that might be all to the good. This doesn't strike me as a show whose strengths are in the realm of philosophy, and I doubt that it can find something new to say about this old chestnut. But the pilot does set a high bar for twisty revenge stories, and teases a battle of wits between two equally determined, equally imposing characters each bent on the other's destruction, so if the show can deliver on those two promises it might certainly be worth following nevertheless.
- Up All Night, New Girl, and 2 Broke Girls - Every year there's a veritable deluge of sitcom pilots, and every year I wonder whether to even bother writing about them, because sitcoms rarely work, or even give a very good sense of how they might work, in their pilot episodes. I was underwhelmed by the Community pilot two years ago, and that's become one of my all-time favorite shows, and most of the other sitcoms I follow, like How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock, are shows I picked up when they were already several years into their run. So writing about these three shows (and not about the other sitcoms I've sampled like Whitney, which was terrible, and Free Agents, which was uninteresting) has less to do with assessing them as shows--I'm not even sure whether I'm going to continue with any of them--than with having found something to comment on in all three of them.
Of the three, Up All Night is the one I'm least interested in, though not for any flaws in the show itself, in which high-flying, hard-partying hipster couple Chris and Reagan (Will Arnett and Christina Applegate) decide to keep an unplanned pregnancy and have to adjust to life with a baby, and to the notion of themselves as adults who are responsible for another, entirely helpless, human being. The show is funny and well done, but the only thing about the pilot that grabbed me was its depiction of Chris and Reagan's relationship. We all know how a premise like this is supposed to play out, the kind of reductive stereotypes--the childish husband who won't grow up, the shrewish wife who now has two children to whip into shape--they often trade in, and Up All Night is refreshingly devoid of these beats. Even more importantly, it convincingly argues that Chris and Reagan are not just a successful couple but uniquely suited to each other's quirks, which they lovingly indulge. In a scene in the pilot, Reagan comes home after a tiring first day back at work to find Chris playing video games on the couch and eager to tell her about his new friend, a fellow stay-at-home dad who is also a surfer. In a standard sitcom, this would be Reagan's cue to berate Chris for his childish interests, but instead she shares them. "You've always wanted a surfer friend!" She enthuses. It's nice to watch a sitcom about a married couple who love each other because, not in spite of, their foibles and weird traits, and even nicer that neither Chris nor Reagan are "the normal one," but rather that they help each other cope with the world by either validating the other's weirdness or talking them down from it when they it goes too far. I'm less interested, however, in the new baby premise and the stories that emerge from it, and rather dubious about the character of Ava (Maya Rudolph), Reagan's self-absorbed diva of a boss who is rather heavily featured in the pilot, which is why I still doubt that I will be following this show, but Chris and Reagan's relationship may yet bring me back.
New Girl is the funniest sitcom pilot I've seen this fall, but also the one that made me feel most uncomfortable about laughing along. The title character is Jess (Zooey Deschanel), a cute but very odd young woman with habits like showering in a bathing suit or singing out loud about whatever's happening to her at any given moment, who after a hard breakup rents an apartment with three men, hard-nosed Coach (Damon Wayans Jr., who is apparently leaving the show after a few episodes, which is a shame as he's quite good in the pilot), brash womanizer Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and Nick (Jake M. Johnson) who is still smarting from his own recent breakup. In his review of the New Girl pilot at the AV Club, Erik Adams praises the show for turning the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept on its head--Jess is a quirky person whose weird habits and offbeat outlook on life, instead of being winning and charming, are off-putting to the men around her. While this is true, and while the show is to be praised for taking that approach, and particularly for doing so with the current reigning queen of Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ishness, I'm not sure that by doing so New Girl has managed to crack this pernicious character type so much as it has found a new, and even more aggravating, way of perpetuating it. The pilot revolves around the three men trying to help Jess get past her post-breakup funk by finding a rebound guy, to which end they have to teach her to sham normality long enough to score a date. The question that's left largely unanswered, though, is why they're going to so much trouble to help someone whom they all seem to find so completely offputting, and the uncomfortable answer that the pilot finally seems to give us is that Jess's weirdness makes her so pathetic and so incapable of functioning in the world (despite the fact that she functioned just fine before moving in with the other characters) that the only decent thing the male characters can do is steer her along and look after her. By the end of the pilot, which sees Coach, Schmidt, and Nick horribly mangling "Time of My Life" in a crowded restaurant to cheer Jess up after being stood up, the show seems as if it ought to be titled Three Men and a Special Needs Adult. What's missing is any sense of what Jess thinks about all this, how she feels about being weird and out of sync with the rest of the world. Presumably this is something she's been dealing with her whole life, and yet the pilot portrays her as entirely oblivious to her effect on others. It spends a lot of time detailing the reactions of the male characters to Jess's weirdness, but never bothers to check how Jess feels about being weird. In the end, New Girl circles right back around to the core problem of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl type--the fact that a female character is defined by the effect that her weird personality has on men.
2 Broke Girls is a more traditional kind of sitcom--multi-camera and with a laugh-track--and the pilot suffers from a lot of the flaws that afflict this format, most notably the fact that the secondary characters are broadly drawn types who only seem to have one joke in them. But the core of the show is intriguing. It concentrates on the meeting between Max (Kat Dennings), a working class girl who waitresses at a Brooklyn diner, and Caroline (Beth Behrs), a former heiress, now penniless and friendless after her father's arrest for fraud, who gets a job at the same diner. Max is the rather familiar type of a tough girl who is secretly vulnerable, and for a while it seems that 2 Broke Girls is aiming for the well-worn trope of the meeting between street-smarts and book-smarts, crudeness and sophistication, experience and naivety. Then the pilot turns the tables by revealing that, in her own way, Caroline is just as mercenary and ruthless as Max, and by having them form not just a friendship but a financial partnership, merging Caroline's head for money with Max's baking skills with the goal of opening a business. It's nice to see a show whose central relationship is a friendship between women, especially one whose foundation goes beyond the dubious sitcom standard of opposites attracting--Max and Caroline have things in common and seem to genuinely appreciate one another and benefit from each other's company, and the two actresses have a winning rapport. The introduction of a financial goal helps to ground the show and to give it a sense of direction--the pilot ends with a slide showing the total amount of money the girls have saved up towards their goal of $250,000--and that along with the strength of the core relationship could help to propel 2 Broke Girls to great things, so long as the wrinkles of the pilot--and most especially its reliance on ethnic stereotypes in the case of several of the secondary characters--are ironed out.
- Person of Interest - Of all the new shows this fall, Person of Interest has the most big names attached. Jonathan Nolan, of "Christopher Nolan's brother and frequent collaborator" fame, is credited as the show's creator and also wrote the pilot. J.J. Abrams is a producer, and the show represents his reunion with Michael Emerson, who for a lot of people was the main reason to keep going with Lost in its later seasons. Emerson plays Finch, a millionaire who recruits Reese (Jim Caviezel), a former government agent, to help the helpless. There's some guff about how Finch finds these souls in need of saving, which involves a supercomputer that spits out names of people who are going to be at the center of a crime, either as victims or perpetrators, but the pilot does little with this and doesn't indicate that the series will be particularly interested in investigating its premise as anything more than a McGuffin that points Finch and Reese towards their next case. Of course, that's just my guess, and one that's a little hard to back up given that the pilot does little with most of its elements--setting, premise, characters--and is in fact one of the most dreary, uninvolving hours of television it has ever been my misfortune to sit through. The dialogue is wooden, and usually delivered in mournful pronouncements by actors who seem to have been instructed never to look each other in the eye or move their facial muscles and whose characters are never developed beyond their rather hoary types, and the plot is too-familiar and not very engaging. The whole thing makes one sentimental for Human Target, which was by no means a great show (and which like Person of Interest had trouble depicting women as anything but objects to be rescued or, when their rescue fails, mourned) but which took a similar "repentant killer swoops into people's lives and saves them from harm" premise and did something witty and fun with it, delivering sharply constructed, clever stories where Person of Interest simply sleepwalks through its premise. You have to wonder whether any of the big names involved in the show realized what a dud they were creating, and whether they were so secure in the power of their big names that they sent it out in the world nonetheless. Hopefully they're in for a rude awakening.