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Best in Class: B&C's Critics Roundtable

With broadcast television under siege on many fronts, the networks may have even more riding on the upcoming crop of fall programs than ever. So B&C called in the experts—a select group of television critics—to break down each network's prospects and pick out the best of the new bunch. Following is an edited transcript of B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie's panel discussion with Robert Bianco (USA Today), David Bianculli ( and NPR's Fresh Air), Ellen Gray (Philadelphia Daily News), Matt Roush (TV Guide) and Maureen Ryan (Chicago Tribune).

ABC: Back to Family Comedy Roots

Marisa Guthrie: ABC will roll out an all-new Wednesday night, trying to build a comedy night—again. They've also got Flash Forward, which they're hoping will fill the coming void left by Lost.

Robert Bianco: I think what ABC is doing that's most important is trying to launch not just a sitcom block but a sitcom block that is more like the comedies ABC used to do. The Middle is Roseanne, and I thought a very good attempt to recreate that ethos. I thought Modern Family was the funniest sitcom I've seen in quite a while.

David Bianculli: Doing an entirely new evening of programming? I've only been a critic for, like, 33 years, but in 33 years I don't think it's ever worked.

Guthrie: They tried this last year, too, with three new dramas on Wednesday night.

Ellen Gray: Well, clearly they have a Wednesday night hole, but I agree with Robert that there's a lot to be said for trying to do these comedies. But where does Cougar Town fit in with Modern Family? One of them I really liked; one of them was just horrendous.

Matt Roush: If they're going do a [comedy] block, they do have to do all-new shows because they've got nothing. You're not going to try to launch a new night around Scrubs. That thing was dying by the week. They have to start somewhere and [hope] one or two of these shows can pop; I think The Middle and Modern Family have the best shot at that.

Ryan: They've
tried these Lost-come-latelys a few
times, and I think what they completely fail to grasp is that Lost was something that came out of the
blue. Lost was not just a big
ensemble drama where there's this ongoing storyline and it's fairly complex and
ambitious; it's more that it was something that wasn't previously on TV. Every
time I see them trot out these would-be Lost
shows I think, "OK, they're just trying to copy the elements that made Lost successful without getting the
bigger-picture idea that Lost was
something fresh and new."

Gray: There's also
the fact that you kind of wonder why they're trying to copy the Lost blueprint since year-by-year it
seems to be losing audience. They're trying to copy something that every year a
new group of people come to me and say, "I'm giving up." Even my mother is
giving up. Do they want something that complicated?

Roush:Lost came on the scene and broke all the
rules; nobody thought it was going to be as big as it was.

Bianco: I don't
think that as critics we want to discourage networks from being more ambitious
than that. I think we may be putting too much focus on Lost comparisons. Flash
will stand or fall on its own.

CBS: Steady, Not Sexy

Guthrie: CBS is adding a new comedy, Accidentally on Purpose, and dramas NCIS: Los Angeles, Three Rivers and The Good Wife. And they're moving The Mentalist to Thursday. Typically conservative offerings for the fall?

Bianculli: It's another smartly conservative set of moves for CBS. Based on current events, they're probably going to get a lot of spin out of The Good Wife. It almost reads like a show that was done in the aftermath of the fine governor from South Carolina [Mark Sanford] rather than one that was done beforehand. And I was surprised that [The Good Wife] isn't that bad. However, I was surprised by how bad Three Rivers is.

Gray: As one of the women of a certain age I think Good Wife is aimed at, I really liked it.

Bianco: I may not expect excitement all the time from CBS, but I expect solid competence. I think The Good Wife is a solidly competent show. And Three Rivers is shoddy and incompetent. It's also as if they want to punish the Moonlight fans. They're going to de-sex [Alex O'Loughlin] as much as they possibly can. Put him in a bad haircut, in badly fitting clothes, and make him just come across as a schlump and a lout and say, “There, you thought he was a star? Well, we'll show you.â€

Roush: Regardless of [O'Loughlin's] appeal, the idea of a show that is built around somebody having to die every week to fuel the storyline is a downer. They are fixing the show, recasting the show, but I'm not sure you can fix what we've seen of Three Rivers so far. It's the only part of their schedule that looks wobbly. They've done a smart thing by plucking Medium from NBC. I think Medium and GhostWhisperer are going to be pretty powerful, and no one's going to get any real traction with shows like [NBC's] Southland and [Fox's] Dollhouse. I think that CBS has really shored up that night as well as all their other nights. Moving The Mentalist after CSI is going to make their Thursday that much more mainstream and stronger.

Gray: What about Accidentally on Purpose? Doesn't that
feel like the show they always try to push outside their comfort zone and then
they cancel it?

They've done so well with comedy. I had hoped that would be funny.

Roush: Oh, what a
taskmaster! You wanted the comedy to be funny?

Bianculli: I
know. These days that's often far too much to ask, and I'm afraid it just
didn't work for me.

Roush: It's kind
of like NBC back in the glory days of Must See TV; that slot between Friends and Frasier and Seinfeld. CBS
has such a great lineup of comedy on Monday. There's always that one fly in the
ointment. And this is a particularly noxious fly.

Guthrie: It fits
thematically with [ABC's] CougarTown. We seem to be on the cougar trend in
TV in general where we have women of a certain age paired with the younger man-or

Bianculli: If it
were funny, [Accidentally on Purpose]
could fit with The New Adventures of Old
. There's that big "if" there. And then with CBS, all ages are
relative. I mean, Jenna Elfman is not a cougar on CBS. Nobody is a cougar yet.

Roush: Where's
Angela Lansbury when you need her?

Bianculli: Jessica
Fletcher is a cougar on CBS.

Ryan: I don't
want to live in a world where Jenna Elfman is a cougar. 

The CW: Stuck in a Redux Niche

Guthrie: The CW has Melrose Place—another '90s redux—The Beautiful Life and Vampire Diaries; all fit with their young-female target. Are they on to something here? Or is this too small of a niche?

Maureen Ryan: The C in CW must stand for “clone.†Melrose Place is about 3,000 times more fun than 90210, but it's still a junkie retread. Beautiful Life is a clone of America's Next Top Model. Vampire Diaries is the most derivative thing you've ever seen. I don't care what book series comes first; this thing is completely indebted to Twilight and not particularly innovative. There's just no originality at all in anything that they're doing. Some of the stuff might be fun, guilty-pleasure television, but there's nothing that really jumps out the way that the really best stuff from The WB did back in the day.

Bianco: I don't think you're building a network at all. You're building this tiny niche for 2 million white-girl teenagers. I can't imagine who else would want to watch this stuff. The Vampire Diaries—it would beg to be Twilight. It's closer to One Tree Hill with fangs. And The Beautiful Life, a world where the only gay person in a modeling world is some lecherous agent? Yeah, that's how it works.

Bianco: It's sometimes unfair to call CW shows the worst when there's Trauma and Three Rivers out there; like, pick on bigger fish. But it's hard to imagine anything quite as bad as Beautiful Life.

Fox: Singing a New FallTune

Guthrie: Fox has already premiered Glee, to not-disastrous ratings. They have new Friday-night
comedies Brothers and The Cleveland Show, a spinoff of Family Guy. Obviously they've had issues
with the fall pre-American Idol, and
they're hoping to shore that up with So
You Think You Can Dance

Ryan: Maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but I think they
have a pretty strong-looking fall. The amount of interest I get from readers
[about Glee], I think they've really
successfully kept that buzz going. And I'm interested to see what [executive
producer and creator] Ryan Murphy does with Glee.
Lie to Me has Sean Ryan as a showrunner,
which to me says they're really serious about making that House/Lie to Me block work. Glee
and So You Think You Can Dance is
a pretty good night of TV. And Thursday with Bones and Fringe, I have
to think that they're contenders. For Fox it's a matter of standing pat until Idol comes back, but I think that
they're actually making the attempt to shore up the fall.

Gray: I hope the fall doesn't hurt Fringe. I'm looking at that schedule for Thursday night, and I
think my DVR might explode.

Roush: Yeah it's way overstuffed. They're premiering so few
shows, and so few shows that actually matter, so they're going to put all their
muscle behind Glee. In the same way
that American Idol profits by being
kept off the air for half a year, Fox can make this special by being about the
only new show that they're really going to be putting their muscle behind. I
think that is a very special show for the new season. It's great fun, it's
campy, it's got super music, and they can do some great stunts and guest
casting. Of all the shows, [Glee]
feels like an event. 

Bianco: The one downside to the Fox schedule is The Cleveland Show. Here you have one of
the only two African-American comedies, both on Fox, and this one is not just
produced by a white man but the main black character is voiced by a white man.
If the community finds it funny, fine. But if they find it offensive-and I must
admit, I thought the premiere was incredibly offensive-Fox could be facing the
kind of backlash that some of us remember from The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, where the African-American
viewers and particularly [black] radio got very angry and crushed that show.

Guthrie: It's rather tone-deaf.

Ryan: It's extremely ignorant, and I think it's really
shocking that once again we're here talking about black diversity in network

Gray: It's also that they think they can get away with it. Lorne
Michaels apparently is not even bothering as far as I can see to find anybody
of color who can play Barack Obama or Michelle Obama. He seems to be getting
away with that.

Bianculli: In the early '50s you had Amos 'n' Andy with an all-black cast written by white guys, and it
got pulled off the air because of NAACP complaints. And more than a half-century
later, you have a white guy writing and giving the voice to one of the only
black shows on TV. And they're cartoons. Not a lot of progress there.

Guthrie: What about Brothers?
Does anyone expect that to go beyond a few episodes?

Roush: That Friday night is just so weird. You have Brothers and 'Til Death, which is well named as it has been all its life. And
that's [why they call it the] Friday ghetto. They're making it as marginalized
as possible and still have it be on the air.

NBC: DesperatelySeeking a Hit

Guthrie: Obviously the big move is The Jay Leno Show. NBC has a few dramas: Trauma as well as Parenthood,
which now will not bow until midseason because of Maura Tierney's health
problems. But NBC executives are very high on Community.

Ryan: I think it's great. It was a fun pilot; I'd like to see
a second or third episode.

Gray: I thought it was uneven. I think a lot of comedies
need time to jell. 30 Rock and The Office did. I think it had its good
points, but I need to see if they can sustain and/or grow that whole

Roush: Well, the misfit comedy kind of fits the NBC model.
You've got an appealing lead character and you're right, it might take some
time to jell. But it was promising, certainly more promising than the six
episodes of Parks and Recreation.
You've got a great lead performer [Amy Poehler], but bringing that back for a
second season is just pure hubris.

Bianco: There's the problem. I'll watch TheVampire Diaries
before I sit through a Community/Parks
and Recreation

Ryan: My new slogan for NBC is "We Import Our Crap." It's
like they can't even come up with their own original ideas. They're importing
these half-baked shows from elsewhere, or they're doing these co-productions of
schlocky fantasy-whatever fare. I just find it appalling. They're really out of
ideas. Parks and Recreation [writers]
Mike Schur and Greg Daniels have a great
track record, but that show was so clearly not a great vehicle for Amy Poehler.
Why would you do a show and be determined to get it on your schedule, when it's
just going to make everybody involved look bad?

Roush: I do think that they've fixed the problems on The Office. I think Greg [Daniels] is a
really smart guy. But all they wanted was an Amy Poehler show done in the style
of The Office. I think that was a
mistake to begin with. Amy Poehler was making people fall on the floor laughing
on Saturday Night Live while she was
nine months pregnant. Why not put her in a show done in the old-fashioned
format where she could actually do belly-laugh comedy? Here it's droll at best,
and it's not very good droll. I think it is a waste of the talent. NBC is just
so convinced that's the only kind of comedy that matters anymore because they
get awards for it and some people fall for it time and time again.
Unfortunately, NBC has turned their backs on the kind of comedy that put them
on top for 20-some years.

Bianculli: My slogan for NBC, by the way, is, "I Used to Be
a Network...Get Me Out of Here."

Gray: Don't you think it's just that they're looking at
everything and saying, how cheap can we make it? It's almost as if it's a
burden for them to have to program an entire schedule, which is why The Jay Leno Show helps so much.

Ryan: It is sort of like, we've got to keep the lights on
somehow. Jay works really hard, no one doubts that. But in a conference call
right before he left The Tonight Show,
he made an analogy that has stuck with me: The Jay Leno experience is like
going to one of those restaurants where the portions are really huge and it may
not be the best food you've ever had, but there's a lot of it.

Bianco: What used to happen is a network falls into third or
fourth place, and it begins to become less risk averse and take more chances. And
instead we get Trauma and Mercy;Mercy looks like every other hospital show. Community, whether you like it or not, is just another version of
the same comedy format that NBC has beaten into the ground. It just is such a
cheap, risk-averse approach to getting out of [fourth] place. I don't know how
that possibly moves you forward. 

Gray: It doesn't feel like they're trying very hard.

Roush: No, they're more interested in USA Network right now.
To me, USA Network is their profit center.

Ryan: Why doesn't [USA president] Bonnie Hammer have
Ben Silverman's job? With USA,
they have targeted that network perfectly; they've achieved success time after
time. I don't necessarily love all their shows, but you've got to admit that
what they do, they nail.

Gray: See, I don't think I'd want her programming NBC.

Ryan: I'm not the world's biggest fan of Royal Pains, but I would take that over
almost anything on NBC's schedule.

Guthrie: What do you think of Parenthood? I actually liked that show.

Bianco: I thought that it was too slight, too obvious. And
aside from Maura Tierney, indifferently cast. I would not be surprised if NBC
doesn't use [Tierney's illness] to take another look at that show.

Roush: There were some really good actors in that, but I
found the tone really wobbly. Sometimes it was overbearing and sometimes, as
you said, it was pretty obvious. It seemed awfully calculated at times, but
well produced. It would be really risky at 8 o'clock, but then again they've shoehorned themselves
into the Fox dilemma of having to put every show on at 8 or 9. They have to
make room for Law & Order: Special
Victims Unit
, which will air at 9, 8 in the Midwest,
with those sordid sex crimes. They've created a bit of a problem with Jay Leno
taking up five hours of real estate.

Bianco: Let's throw NBC a bone/lifeline. Let's say
Leno works well enough that it makes a profit. If [NBC] then takes that profit
and pours it into better programs in midseason or next season, if they then
start to take risks in other time slots and do more interesting programming,
maybe this is a chance for them to retrench and rebuild.