Last year's mostly disappointing broadcast season produced a freshman class with predictable formats, a dismal return rate and a single breakout hit: a rushed-to-the-schedule reality show. So the bar was not set very high for this year’s crop to be better.
Perhaps that’s why this year’s freshman class—which includes period dramas, fairy tale fantasies and a special effects-laden adventure epic— gets kudos for effort, if not always execution, from a roundtable of top TV critics B&C polled. “Maybe the strength of this season is that it’s adequate, or at least there are some intriguing possibilities,” says Maureen Ryan, AOL TV critic. “There were some attempts to do some different things this year, and I’m really glad that that’s the way that they went.”
The rub, however, is that for most of the critics polled, that sentiment applies to the season as a whole, not exclusively to the upcoming fall premieres. In fact, many shows cited as appealing—Smash, Alcatraz, Awake, The River—are, notably, midseason entries.
“One of the trends for the fall season is we’re more excited about the midseason,” says Matt Roush, senior critic for TV Guide. “It’s very unusual. I don’t remember ever having this situation present itself in all the years I’ve been looking at fall lineups. It’s going to be like Christmas for me at midseason, but right now it’s kind of like I’m opening underwear.”
One reason why critics are a little ho-hum about the fall lineup is that two of the season’s biggest swings—the time-traveling family drama Terra Nova and Simon Cowell’s The X Factor—were not made available in pilot form after upfronts, when most other network programming was. Fox just made the first hour of the two-hour Terra Nova pilot available late last month (after B&C surveyed the critics) and it has shown only a sizzle clip of X Factor, based on auditions. With those shows largely remaining a mystery, the fall slate—and Fox’s strength—remains hard to judge.
“Fox has these two huge gambles that if they pay off will obviously be terri! c for Fox, and if they fail will pretty much crush Fox until Idol comes back,” says Dan Fienberg, TV critic for HitFix.
Despite the well-received Zooey Deschanel comedy New Girl, which nearly every critic cited as one of fall’s best, Fox’s unknown factors gave the edge to CBS as the network with the best new pilot slate. Medical drama A Gifted Man, J.J. Abrams’ crime thriller Person of Interest and the Kat Dennings comedy 2 Broke Girls received mostly passing marks. And despite jabs that Unforgettable is all that in title only, its familiar premise and a proven network star in Poppy Montgomery make it a promising companion to the NCIS duo.
“I give them the bene! t of the doubt because I think they’re the best-run broadcast network as far as understanding their audience,” says Tim Goodman, chief TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter. “Their track record of success is pretty impressive. I don’t doubt that they’re going to put out what they would consider a very strong fall lineup that will probably succeed.”
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that CBS has a small number of new pilots, and hence a small amount of risk on its schedule. At the other end of the spectrum are ABC and NBC—both in rebuilding mode and with newly minted leadership—whose large amount of development means their pilot slates are predictably a mixed bag.
After a promising 2009 season that gave ABC a smash hit with Modern Family and a reasonable success in The Middle, not much of anything is catching the eyes of critics in Paul Lee’s first pilot slate. Pan Am, ABC’s answer to the Mad Men nostalgia genre, received mixed reviews; the net’s " ashy Charlie’s Angels remake proved a collective punching bag; and its continued strategy to develop and pick up a bunch of pilots and see what sticks seems to have brought the network no closer to finding its brand.
“ABC has The Middle and Modern Family, these tent poles that could be the basis of a network revival, and they’re wasting them,” says Robert Bianco, USA Today’s TV critic. “I don’t know what ABC is doing. There are so many shows on ABC that make you wonder, where exactly is this network headed?”
Meanwhile, ABC remains complacent with its scheduling of aging hits like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, and the female- skewing network’s effort to broaden its male appeal this season with shows like Man Up, the Tim Allen vehicle Last Man Standing and midseason’s Work It— which was universally panned—felt inauthentic to critics.
“ABC has all these sitcoms about the tragic plight of the American male in 2011, and I’m not really sure that anyone bothered to do the research on whether or not that was actually true,” Fienberg says. “They’re making the gamble that that’s the Zeitgeist. If they’re wrong, those shows are going to fail en masse.”
At NBC, which has been lagging in fourthplace, there are—finally—signs of hope. And while executives have been preaching for years about stopping the bleeding, it seems this season, under the new management of Comcast and Bob Greenblatt, they might have a chance to do just that.
“NBC’s been through so much turmoil, and quite frankly I’m just glad it wasn’t a stack of pilots that made me want to cry,” Ryan says. “When you’ve got a pilot roster where at least half of them are good or pretty good or decent, then you’re doing something right. It’s a credible lineup. For NBC to have a credible anything is pretty amazing.”
If they break out, critically-anticipated midseason shows—like the Glee-inspired Smash and altered reality drama Awake—could have NBC showing improvement by season’s end. The Peacock is still expected to struggle in the short-term, though. A fall entry like the 1960sset The Playboy Club seems unlikely to pop on network TV, and Prime Suspect faces an uphill battle to live up to the original version, which starred the acclaimed Helen Mirren. And muddled scheduling will likely crush any potential shown by comedies Whitney or Up All Night.
But at the fourth-place network, the bar is low, so slight improvement or even holding steady will be treated as success. Greenblatt himself preached patience at the network’s upfront in May, and critics agree he’ll need more than one season to turn around a network with not much in the tank. And in the end, the battle for the basement may be more dependent on the third-place network’s success than NBC’s.
“I don’t think NBC itself has done enough to get out of last place, but ABC may have done enough to help them,” Bianco cracks.
The CW’s schedule, despite a changing of the guard in the boardroom, was mostly as expected to critics. Pairing The Secret Circle, about a coven of teenage witches, with the net’s biggest hit The Vampire Diaries, about a group of sharp-toothed teenagers, may be unadventurous programming, but it seems a likely recipe for success.
“They’re the same show in essence and that will make their audience happy,” Bianco says. “And sometimes all you have to ask of a network is that it makes its own audience happy.”
But despite The CW’s giddiness in bringing Sarah Michelle Gellar back to the network, the pilot for Ringer felt mostly out of place on the channel to critics (perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that was developed for CBS), and drew uneven reviews.
“I see why they put it on The CW, but when you watch it, it felt like neither fish nor fowl. It felt too mature for The CW and too youngskewing and substantial for CBS,” says Eric Deggans, TV/media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. “When something that outlandish, that was rejected by your sister network is your highest pro! le show—I expected more from them, to be honest.”
Overall, the networks seemed to meet, if not exceed, critics’ expectations for improvement over a lackluster 2010-11 season, branching out from trite formats and taking several big chances. But with the nets treading cautiously by sitting on some potential hits, grading this year’s freshman class will take some time.
“Midseason I think is when things will really get interesting,” Deggans says. “The fall is not quite as impressive.”
While critics saved the bulk of their enthusiasm for midseason pilots, Fox’s New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel as a quirky, recently- dumped 20-something who moves in with three male roommates, is the comedy pilot with the most potential. Drawing unanimous praise after garnering early buzz at the upfronts, the show seems to have overcome a somewhat predictable premise with an interesting script and charming characters (though Damon Wayans Jr., who appears in the pilot, is being recast after Happy Endings got renewed).
The CBS drama Person of Interest—from Lost creator J.J. Abrams—got mostly high marks for putting an interesting twist on the typical CBS procedural form. The thriller stars Jim Caviezel as a presumed dead former CIA agent who teams with a mysterious billionaire (Lost scene-stealer Michael Emerson) to fight crime in New York City. Critics gave both Person of Interest and A Gifted Man props for elevating a typical crime or medical procedural show to a higher level, much as CBS’ The Good Wife did for the legal drama in 2009.
Matt Roush: “This year it’s really the comedy that jumped out at me, nothing more than New Girl. It’s adorable and it’s funny. It’s one of those shows that every time I see the trailer on TV, I stop at the promo to watch it again and it makes me want to watch the pilot again.”
Eric Deggans: “New Girl, I went into that pilot knowing the premise and knowing the actor starring in it, I knew the whole story, but I still enjoyed it. Normally that’s the kiss of death for critics with a sitcom. But I thought they figured out a way to make the characters charming and make the actual script interesting enough that they overcame that.”
Robert Bianco: “I don’t think the clips did New Girl justice. I was not expecting to dislike it; I was not expecting to like it as much as I did. I think Zooey Deschanel in that gives a great and original comic performance. It’s a sitcom character we haven’t quite seen.”
Tim Goodman: “Person of Interest was definitely one that I think I would keep up with. The caveat being that in a pilot situation you can get burned. So many times you find a pilot that’s great and then it just doesn’t follow up.”
Several shows made the list, including How to Be a Gentleman, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Once Upon a Time and PrimeSuspect, which stars Maria Bello in a remake of the British cop series. But the fall show that took the worst beating by critics was ABC’s rebooted Charlie’s Angels. The flashy action heroine drama, which first aired on the network in the 1970s, stars Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly and Rachael Taylor as the butt-kicking trio in a series that suffers from an implausible story line and borderline sexist clichés.
Fox’s I Hate My Teenage Daughter, about two single mothers raising “mean girl” daughters, looks to be a flop despite an experienced sitcom actress in Jaime Pressly (My Name Is Earl). Likewise, CBS’ How to Be a Gentleman seems unlikely to improve the problem post-The Big Bang Theory timeslot where $#*! My Dad Says fumbled last season. Both comedies were deemed the weak points of Fox’s and CBS’ otherwise strong schedules, respectively.
Bianco: “The two remakes (Charlie’s Angels and Prime Suspect)—not only are they bad, but they strike me as shockingly unnecessary. You expect a remake of Prime Suspect to not be as good as the original and it doesn't come close. It's shocking that a remake of Charlie’s Angels can be so much worse than the original because the bar was not really set all that high.”
THE INEVITABLE HIT
Paul Lee went to major lengths to lure sitcom star Tim Allen back to primetime, but the resulting comedy Last Man Standing, which falls into ABC’s overpopulated “man in a woman’s world” genre, fell flat with critics. While short of calling it the season’s worst, most were disappointed with the execution. (Feinberg says, “You’d think that Tim Allen knows how to do a basic sitcom, and it turns out in this particular case that he can’t.”) But if Allen’s appeal proves intact, the show could do business for ABC despite a tough timeslot opposite NCIS and Glee.
Deggans: “To critics, it’s going to feel like Tim Allen is kind of running in place. It’s like if his old character from Home Improvement got divorced and married into a different family. But people like Tim Allen. And particularly I think if they can elevate their writing a little bit and make it a little sharper and make the characters a little more appealing, I think people will like that show even though critics will probably hate it.”
Perhaps no shows drew more mixed responses from critics than the two 1960s era dramas, Pan Am and The Playboy Club. Despite a certain aesthetic appeal, most couldn’t understand the strategy of copying a cable show—AMC’s Mad Men—that, despite it’s pop culture cred, draws only about 2 million viewers a week. While the scales tipped slightly in Pan Am’s favor as the favorite of the two nostalgia entries, the stories will have to broaden out in future episodes to have any chance at success on network TV.
Maureen Ryan: “The Playboy Club was just painful to me. It’s not even that if you’re a fan of Mad Men you might be irritated at the way they take elements of that and make them boring. It’s almost like even if you’ve never seen Mad Men for a second, it just doesn’t really hold up. Pan Am, at least I didn’t feel vaguely insulted by it.”
Deggans: “I didn’t hate Pan Am and The Playboy Club, they weren’t this cavalcade of sexist nonsense that I expected them to be. They weren’t good, but they weren’t as awful as I feared they would be. You could tell they were trying really hard to avoid the most obvious criticisms they were going to get for doing the shows; I’ll give them that.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito
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