September 26, 2007
The Fall Season Approaches: Pimp Your New Favorites

Last Fall, I asked readers of my blog to "pimp their favorite television show," and we had a truly inspiring set of responses. Indeed, I discovered Supernatural through a groundswell of responses I received there, and it has emerged as one of my very favorite programs and belatedly, this summer, I finally have started to catch up with Battlestar Galactica (I'm now half way through Season 2), another series which was a favorite among readers of my blog.

Since this topic is of interest to the Convergence Culture Consortium as well, and since Sam Ford wrote about the Extratextuals recently, I thought I would cross-post this entry to the C3 blog as well.

This year, I want to start the process earlier. Many of us are checking out the new fall line-up which is starting in earnest this week. So I thought I'd invite you to share with other blog readers your impressions of the new series, over at my site or here.

There are a lot of fannish shows on this year, no doubt influenced by the success of Heroes, but most of them look very much like fannish shows we've seen before: the return of Highlander (New Amsterdam), Forever Night (Moonlight), Quantum Leap (Journeyman), and Alias (Bionic Woman). I've been hearing great things about Pushing Daisies but I haven't managed to get my hands on the pilot for it yet.

So far, I've seen about 20 of the series that will be introduced this season, including some which will not reach the air until mid-season. There are a number of series which I liked well enough to set up my TiVo to record and some that I will watch again if the word of mouth picks up. Of the new series, by far, the favorite in my household is Journeyman, a series which isn't getting much buzz yet. Of course my wife, son, and I are died in the wool Quantum Leap fans so it makes sense we'd want to give this series a close look but I've seen lots of other time travel series which lack the character focus that made Leap so successful in years past. Journeyman is probably my top bet on which new series will be a favorite with the fan community -- though I'm not making any bets on how it will fare with the general viewership. It falls right after Heroes which may help it but the tone is so different even if from a network executive's perspective it probably looks like it falls in the same genre. It has a nice balance between long-term serial developments and self-contained episodic narratives, more like Supernatural than Heroes in that regard. And the performances are good enough that I didn't think about who the actor was until later, even though I've really enjoyed watching Rome in the past. Give it a look!

To help set this discussion in motion and to give a shout out to some fellow Aca-Fen, I wanted to let you know about The Extratextuals, a new blog started by Ivan Askwith, Jonathan Gray, and Derek Johnson -- are teaming up to produce a new blog called The Extratextuals. All three of these guys have made guest appearances on my blog from time to time so they should be no stranger to my readers.

Here's how Askwith, a former CMS student now working for Big Spaceship in NYC, describes the blog's goals:

Our blog will focus primarily on the extratextuals that surround the media. By this, we mean everything but the show itself: previews, merchandising, industry buzz, branding, interviews, posters, spatial context, temporal context, related websites, ARGs, spinoffs, spoilers, schedules, bonus materials, transmedia extras, games, YouTube clips, etc. But we're interested in these things not to be arcane or eccentric; rather, we believe that the extratextuals often make the show what it is. Hence this blog is about the mediation of media.

Gray had a chance to see previews of the new fall series, screened at the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio) in New York City, and offers his views about them at the blog. Since I've had a chance to see the pilots of many of these same series, I figured this would give me a good chance to share some of my own responses as well. So, here are some of Gray's thoughts followed by my reactions.

First, here's what Gray has to say about Journeyman:

How it was probably pitched: The Littlest Hobo meets The Time-Traveler's Wife

Okay, so he's not a German Shepherd, as was Canadian TV's The Littlest Hobo (non-Canadians: imagine a roaming Lassie), but our hero's task, as he learns throughout the episode, is to go through time and ensure that the cosmic order works the way it would like to. Kind of Quantum Leapy, in that he often doesn't know what he's meant to do, and must simply follow instinct. Yet no entering of other people's bodies occurs; indeed, this pilot episode keeps him in a San Francisco in which his earlier self is living out his life, so if you're a Kevin McKidd fan (from Rome), you get two of him... It's gimmicky in premise, but smartly done, with nice dramatic elements, and a fine performance by McKidd (though his American accent needs a little work). The neat twist is that his former girlfriend, who he believes to have died in a plane crash, turns out to be a Journey(wo)man too. By the end of the pilot, he has no knowledge of why he is a Journeyman, who chose him, who directs his jumps, and so forth, so though a mystery-a-week program, the pilot builds in prospects for serial development and revelation. If it goes that way, I'll be interested. As it is, it's nothing super special, but still good television.... McKidd's character's confusion is effectively evoked, and in general the show was more demanding of its viewer's attention than I might've expected. Smart stuff.

Another series which has started to generate interest amongst my friends and acquaintances is K-Ville. Check out what Grant McCracken wrote about K-Ville the other day.

And here's what Gray has to say:

K-Ville How it was probably pitched: NYPD Blue in New Orleans.

Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, it's a procedural, starring, as the FOX exec who introduced the shows offered, an "in your face" cop, and another who is "a guy looking for a new start, like the city itself." Sounds cliché, right? And it begins that way, as my notes to myself include the words "preachy" and "patronizing." But it softens up along the way. It also started to grab me a bit. This is a sad show at times; for instance, when Anderson's wife explains that she moved to Houston for their daughter's sake because the daughter still cries every time it rains, there's a degree of poignancy and power to the line....At a macro level, the show has a lot that it wants to achieve, some of that important and valuable. How it balances this with the day-to-day procedural is where it will live or die; the pilot concentrated its energies on the macro, thereby letting the procedural fall by the wayside, but whether the show continues to botch its procedural element once it's set the scene will be telling... The Wire it is not, and at the moment a good procedural it is not, but it has some small potential.

From my perspective, the pilot suffers from a split personality as if the producers and the networks are still at war over the series indentity. What I wanted to see, as Gray's last bit suggests, was The Wire set in Post-Katrina New Orleans or maybe Hill Street Blues. At times, the series comes close to achieving this -- filmed on location, deploying many location-specific details, showing us some of the devastation you experience if you drive outside the tourist areas in the city, and sharing some of the reality as it is being experienced on the ground. These images were particularly powerful to me because I had a chance to drive through some of the devastated areas when I was in New Orleans earlier this summer for Phoenix Rising. It was the closest thing to a suburban ghost town I ever expected to see. I haven't been able to put the experience into words which is why I haven't really written about it here. At places, this series brought me back to what I saw and felt when I visited some of these communities, including driving past the headquarters for the production, which really is in one of the gutted areas. Unfortunately, the series seems to also be pulled towards larger-than-life Buddy cop show cliches -- something closer to the recent remake of Miami Vice than to The Wire -- and I fear that's where the networks are going to force it to go. I will give it a second look but I haven't made up my mind about it yet.

Gray writes about Big Shots:

How it was probably pitched: Desperate Housewives for men

I'm not sure Big Shots' creators really thought through what they wanted the show to do. On one hand, it's about guys. Not just guys, but guys: the references to penises, checking out women, and the number of scenes involving golf announce the show's raw guyness. On the other hand, its generic format is that of the tawdry evening soap. Granted, I don't see the Nielsen data that ABC does, but I'd presume we have two different demos in tawdry evening soap watchers and penis-&-golf worshippers? Yet its lead-in is Grey's Anatomy, so someone's giving it the sweetheart treatment, and perhaps they think Grey's young female audience want more golf in their lives? I'm dubious. Anyways, all four guys play golf, talk about penises, watch women a lot, and talk about how hard life is being millionaire CEOs.

Again, Gray hits on some of my core concerns with this series. This is the season of social network series -- if we include Big Shots, The Cashmere Mafia, Gossip Girl, The Women's Murder Club, Carpoolers -- each of which deal with groups of friends whose lives are hopelessly intertwined and who connect to each other through a variety of different hardware interfaces, not to mention regular face-to-face communications. Of these, I liked The Cashmere Mafia the best (though my wife thinks I just have a thing for Lucy Liu). And The Women's Murder Club has possibilities -- good cast, not the most inspiring pilot. The men in my family -- my son and I -- squirmed through Big Shots, finding it uncomfortable to watch even though we'd liked many of the cast members in other things, where-as my wife found it amusing. Talking to the students taking our class on network television this term, the gender divide seems pretty consistent: even though it's a series about men, it seems to appeal much more to women. So, that may be the way it is resolving the contradictions that Jonathan identifies here.

Here's what Gray had to say about Big Bang Theory

How it was probably pitched: Beauty and the Geek, the sitcom

If Judd Apatow and a few others have ushered in an era of Geek Chic, nobody seems to have told the writers of this show. In a bizarre way, the show's pathologization of geeks is actually quite impressive, though, and to prove it, try this exercise: try to write a 22 minute script, filling it with as many stereotypes of geeks as possible. Get someone else to count the references. Then get them to watch the pilot of Big Bang Theory, and compare the counts. I bet you'll lose the competition. Important to this exercise, though, is that you should not watch the show yourself, and that you should probably dislike the person required to watch it... N Ultimately, I predict the writers' eagerness to spew stereotypes will get the best of them: surely the Trekker jokes, endless references to MIT (I counted 4 this time), and jokes about math will run out fast.

Okay, I expected to hate Big Bang Theory. I have a very high level of sensitivity to fan stereotypes. But this struck me as much closer to Galaxy Quest than to Trekkies -- that is, the humor comes from the inside rather than the outside. They certainly got all of their science fiction references right and best I can tell from consulting with local experts here, they got their math and science references right too. I frankly laughed harder at this sitcom than any I've seen since Friends. Yes, the stereotypes are broad -- not unusual for a pilot -- and yes, there are plenty of cliches, but there's also a real affection for the characters and a real wit in the ways they deploy the stereotypes which leaves me with some hope for the series. Of course, last year, I thought that Studio 60 on Sunset Strip had a great pilot and then it fell apart almost immediately thereafter. For what it's worth, MIT students who have seen the pilot didn't find it as funny as I did.

Here's Gray on Gossip Girl

How it was probably pitched: (1) product placement for Sidekicks; (2) The OC in the Upper East

Move The OC to New York, put school uniforms on everyone, give everyone Sidekicks that they use every few seconds, add a highly annoying voiceover and you have Gossip Girl. Veronica Mars fans will know that their beloved Kristen Bell does the voiceovers, but I'm sorry to say that this is by far the worst part of the show, a juvenile, silly, forced, even moronic addition. If anything sinks this show, it'll be the voiceover. Otherwise, though, it shows all the signs of succeeding - emaciated actresses, a guy who the show wants us to believe is regarded as a loser at school, yet who is quite handsome, parents who have their own secrets and vices, a passable performance by Blake Lively at its center, buckets of salacious gossip seemingly imported fresh from The Hills, conspicuous consumption, lavish parties, broken hearts, feuding friends, dangerous rich boys, decadence aplenty, characters who are either Evil or Good, oodles of current singles playing in the background (and yes, I believe "oodles" is the correct plural for pop music), and so forth.

Hmmm. To me, this show was much closer to what Cruel Intentions would have been like if it were produced for the CW network -- a dark dark view of adolescent society as over-stated as any teenage drama queen's self perceptions, without a drop of human warmth or any real humor. I agree with Jonathon that the voice-over may be what really sinks it (even though I am a VM fan) but I don't agree with him that there's much to redeem it for me otherwise.

Some other series I saw and liked (at least as far as one can tell from the pilot):

The Sarah Connor Chronicles (due midseason) -- once you get over the shock of seeing familiar characters played by unfamiliar actors, the series takes over and finds its own footing. Great chemistry between some of the characters, surprisingly intense action scenes for prime time television.

Life is Wild -- OK, this one probably falls squarely in the guilty pleasure category, but I enjoyed it enough that I will probably watch more. It's a totally formulaic family drama set in Africa but I grew up on Daktari and Born Free, not to mention Johnny Quest and American Cowboy in Africa, and it was a kind of comfort food return to childhood favorites. I suspect my response here is idiosyncratic but if you are of the same generation as I am, you might want to give it a look.

Caveman -- I liked it better than I expected from what has been described as a half hour sitcom spun off from an advertising campaign for auto insurance. I don't think the idea has legs; I don't expect to be watching this series a year from now, but they managed to get some engaging social satire of our current attitudes towards class and race out of the caveman gimmick. So catch it while it lasts.

Samantha Who -- Smart enough that I will turn it on for another episode, not engaging enough that it's likely to find a permanent spot on my TiVo.

Bionic Woman -- this one has possibilities, but I feel like I've seen it before. It's not on the level of Alias or La Femme Nikita, even though it wants very hard to be. It's probably closer to Dark Angel, but the fact that we can position it so squarely within this genre tradition doesn't bode well for its originality. It could get stronger, though, as it goes along, so I am not giving up hope for this one just yet.

The Return of Jezebel Jones -- I am surprised how many of the sitcoms this season captured my interest. I haven't really been a sitcom viewer in recent years. But I liked the interplay here between the mismatched sisters, played by Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose. Nothing really remarkable, but some spark which makes me want to root for it.

Series I didn't like:
Carpoolers -- painfully bad!
Miss/Guided -- Truth in Advertising.
Viva Laughlin -- This is being pushed as being a quirky new series -- a musical in the spirit of The Singing Detective or Pennies From Heaven. It owes much more to the late and unlamented Cop Rock. It just didn't work for me.

Life -- A story about a cop who returns to the beat after a decade or more in jail for a crime he didn't commit. I wanted to like this one but found the central performance flat and uninteresting.

There's much more television out there to be watched. So let's try to pool our knowledge here. What shows are you most looking forward to seeing? Which shows sparked a twinkle of fannish enthusiasm from you?