Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Old Hat: Observations On The Upcoming Fall Network TV Season

Amber Valletta and Don Johnson in Blood & Oil, premiering on ABC on September 27.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have looked forward to the network Fall TV Season, including getting my hands on a copy of TV Guide’s special issue celebrating the same, and, almost every time out, have amassed a full slate of new and returning shows that I deemed worthy of my time. Tastes change, of course but I have fond memories of past TV seasons, such as CBS’s Saturday night schedule, for a couple of years, of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show, a lineup that still stands out as, perhaps, the strongest night ever in Network television history. (I am dating myself here as it’s been a long time since prime time Saturday night was considered anything but a graveyard for reruns and cancelled shows running off their last few episodes.) This is why I have never dismissed network television, and feel that despite the glut of cable shows, good and bad, commercial TV still has much to offer.

Last year saw some new appealing network shows, joining the likes of my favourites such as CBS’s The Good Wife and Elementary, which are still strong entries on TV and supplanting in some ways two now disappointing comedies, The Big Bang Theory (CBS), which finally turned bad in its eighth season and the regrettably fast fading Modern Family (ABC). (The Mindy Project, though maddeningly uneven, was still worth watching and, after its cancellation by FOX, was fortunately rescued by Hulu and will continue to run on commercial TV in Canada.) Black-ish (ABC) was a funny, clever sitcom about an upper-middle class black family that addressed issues of racism and racial perceptions in a refreshingly non-politically correct manner and with more courage than The Cosby Show displayed. (The cartoonish The Jeffersons isn’t even worth considering in that light.) Gotham (FOX) managed to wring new gothic blood out of the superhero genre, depicting D.C.’s Batman when he is the young Bruce Wayne and has just seen his parents murdered in front of his eyes. He begins to grow into the caped crusader, under the tutelage of a cockney Alfred, more of a bodyguard than a butler and a former SAS officer to boot, and meets up with a young Selena Kyle (later to become Catwoman and portrayed by a young actress who is a dead ringer for Michelle Pfeiffer, who played Catwoman as an adult in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns), as well as other key figures in his future, such as Commissioner Gordon, who is still just a cop. The new season, subheaded "Rise of the Villains," promises to do even more with The Penguin, The Riddler and, possibly The Joker, who has yet to make his appearance in Gotham.

ABC’s 1940s and Manhattan-set Marvel’s Agent Carter also brought a fresh eye to the Marvel superhero universe with Hayley Atwell, stellar as the prim and proper but also sensual British agent, fighting sexism from her male fellows who think she is just good for getting them coffee. (It had a light appealing tone, in the vein of Raiders of the Last Ark, which made it far more watchable than its sister show, the leaden and heavy handed Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I’m bailing on after two seasons.) And ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder was a tough minded murder mystery, set on a college campus, which, to my mind, broke some taboos in its sexual frankness, straight and gay, as well as proffering a cinematic look which made it move swiftly and surely. Yet the upcoming 2015-16 TV season, which begins next week, doesn’t seem to bode as well for new worthwhile fare. I usually sample about a third of the 30 or so new series premiering each fall on the networks. Out of this year’s 19 debut shows, I am hard pressed to find one or two, at most, that entice me enough to consider giving them a shot.

Marcia Gay Harden and Luis Guzmán in Code Black, premiering on CBS on September 30.

Now I should mention here that I have not yet seen any of the new shows – I am not a regular TV critic who gets advance screeners – but from the trailers I’ve seen and, specifically CBS’s half hour look at its five new shows, which I checked out, I see very little to get excited about. CBS, currently the most successful of the four networks in the U.S., saw fit to offer two comedies, Life in Pieces, an extended family show that looks like a pale copy of Modern Family, and Angel From Hell, with Jane Lynch as a profane guardian angel. That’s not in itself a bad concept, but TNT's Saving Grace (2007-2010) and the movie One Magic Christmas (1985) have already tilled that creative ground. Then there’s Limitless, based on the undistinguished science fiction movie about a man able to access the full powers of his brain, and Supergirl, yet another bland D.C. heroine to join the dull likes of CW’s Arrow and The Flash. And if I check out Code Black, yet another medical show, it will be because it stars one of my favourite actors, Luis Guzm├ín, and not for any other reason. (Marcia Gay Harden also stars in that show which may attract other viewers; I'm not a big fan of hers.) What will it do that St. Elsewhere, E.R, and The Knick (Cinemax) have not already done?

While FOX’s sitcom The Grinder, with Fred 'The Wonder Years' Savage and Rob Lowe, as two brothers working together, one a real lawyer and another an actor who played one on TV, does sound promising, I can't say the same for FOX's horror spoof Scream Queens, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, in what looks to be the Scary Movie franchise transplanted to TV nor NBC's semi-sequel to Heroes, Heroes Reborn. (Catchy title, that one!) Another new (old) medical drama is titled Chicago Med (NBC), the latest from Dick Wolf (Law & Order), which joins his Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire, also on NBC. There’s also a new Muppet Show, The Muppets (ABC), which I admit I will watch, and a TV version of Minority Report (FOX). Blood & Oil (ABC) is a North Dakota-set drama, starring Don Johnson (Miami Vice) which sounds like a retread of Dallas; Rosewood (FOX) stars Morris Chestnut as a pathologist in what seems to be another kick at the Quincy, M.E. can. And Blindspot (NBC), about an amnesiac woman with possibly special powers, echoes La Femme Nikita (film) and Nikita (TV). What there doesn’t seem to be much this fall of is any originality. It's not that any of those shows might not turn out to be fine – The Muppets will almost certainly be – but I would be surprised if any of them broke barriers or upset taboos. And that's what puzzles me.

Maggie Lawson and Jane Lynch in Angel From Hell, premiering on CBS on November 5.

Considering that almost any cable shows you can mention, whatever their quality and that varies widely, are usually trying to do something new (The Americans), emphasizing an aspect of life not essayed on TV before (Transparent) or simply pushing the envelope of traditional TV tropes (the first season of True Detective), it’s startling that even one network show, not to mention most of them, would seem to be so risk averse with their schedules. After all, recent TV shows that have skewed from the norm Picket Fences, The Good Wife, Elementary, Black-ish – have generally been hits. (I may have been lucky here but it’s rare that I’ve invested time in quality TV that has been prematurely cancelled and some of those shows, such as NBC’s inventive cop show Southland and its Friday Night Lights, have found new homes on cable or been bolstered by cable investing in them to keep them on air. Firefly, alas, was not one of those.) And the networks have also taken some lessons from how cable presents its innovative wares, including shortened TV seasons (How to Get Away with Murder’s first season only ran 17 episodes, closer to the traditional cable batch of 13 episodes) and shows that premiere outside the "this is how we have always done this" fall and midseason debut situations (CBS’s Extant, Under the Dome and Zoo are strictly summer series that run for 13 episodes). So why not stir the pot further and ensure that new proposed TV series actually be new, either in subject matter or in approach to old material or both? Are the networks so wedded, overall, to the old ways of doing things, including commercials which are either non-existent elsewhere (on HBO) or reduced (FX), that they can’t break out of their creative straitjackets? Do they prefer to pander to conservative American viewers who don’t subscribe to cable or might be offended by cable’s much more explicit sexual content and free use of ‘foul’ language? (I should note that since the 80s, when Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, among other adult TV series, ensured that network TV grew up, censorship restrictions on sex, violence and language have loosened considerably, enough so that prim and proper types would be offended anyway by what’s popping up on their small screens.) Why on earth would the networks give us yet another tired doctor or lawyer show, particularly when even by their standards (E.R., The Practice), they’ve already topped themselves in terms of quality? I suspect the answer is some combination of the above, as well as a general lassitude in changing to meet with the times. However, since network ratings continue to decline – the days of a Who Shot J.R.? episode (Dallas) or a major series finale (M*A*S*H) riveting the entire TV viewing nation are long gone – and viewers, especially the younger ones, are watching their TV – and that’s not often network fare anyway – on other viewing platforms than on a television set at a specific time, CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, as well as CW, are not doing themselves any favours by being so hidebound in how and what they put on the air. The iceberg is looming above them and, obliviously, they continue to play the same old tune.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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