Playing Along with Fall TV

21Sep07

The Fall television season has launched, and oddly enough it’s got me a little stressed out. One of the perks of my job that provokes jealousy in many is that I can honestly say that watching TV is research. However, the downside is that the television schedule keeps going, and if I fall behind it feels like I’m slacking on my job! So my TiVo is stacked up with neglected summer shows – I’ve only watched the pilots of Mad Men and Damages, with 8 more episodes of each mocking me – and even some lingering spring items, like the final few Studio 60 episodes. Throw in the first season of Friday Night Lights that I know I have to watch, and I truly feel burdened by my televisual obligations.

So as Fall series launch, I’m trying to be selective and have a quick hook. I watched my first pair of series this week, trying to judge a scheduling competition in the Wednesday 8 pm slot: Back to You vs. Kid Nation. I expected to find Back to You competent but conventional, a throwback to quality studio sitcoms of the 1990s… which it is. But I actually found that I, much like Mike Newman, liked it much more than I expected, as the comfortable feeling of watching charismatic performers playing to their strengths was really appealing. I attribute much of the show’s charms to director James Burrows, who has been the undisputed master of sitcom direction for three decades, overseeing everything from Taxi to Cheers to Will & Grace – TV directors rarely get much credit for their efforts, as writing rules on television, but Burrows has perfect comic timing, uses actor blocking and camera angles in engaging ways, and manages to make subtle choices that nearly always pay off. I don’t know how much Burrows will be involved post-pilot (although he is on board as an Executive Producer), but the show should mark a return to the 3-camera sitcom and its many comforting charms.

I expected to like Kid Nation more than I did, as the premise seemed perfect to create hyperbolic reality TV drama. But the show was so clearly a carbon copy of Survivor in its production style and structure that it had no sense of its own style or tone. Add to that too many kids (40!), too many shots of kids crying, and awkwardly designed rules & rewards, and I just didn’t care about it. Only one kid was particularly engaging (Sophia), so I’m happy to give it the hook & give Back to You the prize for my TiVo’s season pass.

Even though I haven’t been dedicated to watching many new shows, I’ve thinking about them a lot for ulterior motives. One point I often make in teaching is that viewer engagement with television goes beyond the act of watching programs – television is a major part of everyday life as a topic of conversation and activity away from the screen. So even though I may not be watching all the new shows, I am invested in them via a Fantasy Television League I’ve started with my friends, The Extratextuals. I’ll detail the rules and my picks below the fold, and then hit the cross-over button by launching the Crisis on Infinite Blogs.

The basic rules of the Fantasy Television League are that each player drafts 6 shows from the roster of new series. Every series accumulates points for endurance: 1 for airing during November sweeps, 2 for Februrary, 3 for May, and 4 for getting picked up for season 2 – thus a successful series running throughout the year & beyond can earn up to 10 points. Additionally, we each labeled one of our shows a Designated Stinker – whichever of these series ends up airing the fewest number of episodes before cancellation earns its owner 5 bonus points. Here are my picks and rationale:

Back to You: I picked my team before watching the show, but I’m still confident in my #1 pick. With big stars, a strong creative team, and a decent timeslot, I thought prospects looked good. On its first night, the show beat Kid Nation in the ratings, both for total audience and the all-important 18-49 year-old demographic. It looks promising for a strong showing, at least until it goes up against…

Pushing Daisies: This is the show I’m most excited about, as it combines an interesting premise with a whimsical tone & adventurous visual style – and I’m all about the whimsy. Add creators with strong track records in Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Wonderfalls) and Barry Sonnenfeld (beyond his film record, his TV resume includes The Tick and Karen Sisco), and I’m excited. But realistically, I’m skeptical about its potential ratings success – whimsy is a hard sell, and I could see this become a Brilliant but Canceled entry pretty easily, joining most of Fuller and Sonnenfeld’s past efforts for television. Plus it’s not produced by ABC, and Warner Bros. has reportedly been angering the network with its production budget overruns and subsequent attempts to cut costs. But it was the best option in the draft at the time, so I went with the heart instead of the head.

Private Practice: I’m pretty doubtful that this spinoff will be a huge hit, as the buzz is underwhelming, even among Grey’s Anatomy fans. But it’s going to get every chance ABC can give it, as angering the producer of your #1 show is never advisable. Plus the show is produced within the Disney company umbrella, giving an extra incentive to keep it going for as long as they can to make money on DVDs, downloads, syndication, etc. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t score 10 points for me.

Women’s Murder Club: Maybe I’m putting too many eggs in ABC’s basket, but I see this as a potential sleeper hit. Friday night doesn’t need big ratings, and paired with Men in Trees, I see the show as likely to perform well enough with an older female niche to keep it around for awhile.

Big Bang Theory: Yes, this will be a painful show to watch. But it’s hammocked between two solidly performing comedies on CBS’s Monday line-up, and I think the network will stick with it for awhile even if the ratings are underwhelming. And as CBS keeps reminding us, it’s from the producer of television’s #1 comedy, Two and a Half Men – while nobody I’ve met will admit to watching that show, CBS seems able to keep its Monday comedy machine going despite a lot of critical scorn and apathy.

Viva Laughlin: This is my designated stinker. It looks like a transcendently crappy show with no target audience that it doesn’t simultaneously alienate. Bad for crime drama fans, horrid for musical fans, doesn’t pay off Vegas voyeurism, and a bastardization of a British cult show. Who actually wants to see this thing? Plus it goes up against football, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and Fox’s animation block. My over/under is that it lasts 2 episodes. Unless of course it’s a cult hit, and then I’ll take the points happily…

So that’s my team, the Just TV All-Stars. I now hand-off to The Extratextuals to introduce Jonathan, Derek, and Ivan’s teams.



6 Responses to “Playing Along with Fall TV”

  1. 1 Elana Levine

    I’m with you on the new-season stress. My years-long habit of seeing every show at least once doesn’t help. So far it’s manageable, but I fear the onslaught of next week. Still, this is the kind of stress I can deal with. I’m with you and Mike on Back to You. I quite liked it and have set the season pass. Happy viewing!

  2. Good team, but you’re going down🙂

  3. You can follow the ratings of the new season at our website, TVbytheNumbers.com.

    http://tvbythenumbers.com/category/broadcast/top-broadcast-ratings/

    will take you right to the latest Top 20 broadcast shows.

  4. 4 Caryn L

    Hey Professor Mittell,

    Greetings from the TV world! I read in your post that you’ve been playing in a Fantasy Television league, so I thought you might like to know that there is a Fantasy Television website, called TV Big Shot (http://www.tvbigshot.com/), run by Television Without Pity.

    Here is the description I pulled from the site:
    “It’s like Fantasy Football, only instead of choosing players from various teams, you’re choosing TV shows from the big five networks. Basically, what you do is choose the TV shows you think are going to do best this season, earn points if you’re correct, and monitor how YOUR shows are doing in comparison to other shows. If a show is cancelled and you’ve chosen it, well, you’re out of luck. But say you’ve chosen a show that doesn’t look like it’ll do well at all, and it becomes the break-out smash hit of the year (it happened with ‘Ugly Betty’ last year) — well, bully for you, you chose wisely!”

    Anyway, keep enjoying fall TV and I hope to see you when I’m up for Homecoming!
    -Caryn

    P.S. Don’t forget about us cable networks!🙂

  5. I’ve been trying out new TV series and appreciate the recommendations. I found Cane to be okay, but I wasn’t thrilled with Bionic Woman to say the least. Looking forward to Pushing Daisies and Aliens in America…But I have to say that, of all the shows I’ve seen in a long time, I was excited by Friday Night Lights. Its charm, its ability to depict smalltown life with a decently minimal amount of hyperbole, and its tackling of everyday issues that I don’t see covered in a lot of other shows made it perhaps my favorite primetime drama on the air today. Look forward to your thoughts once you watch the first season.

  6. re: Friday Night Lights
    first, Sam, I love the pun of it “tackling everyday issues.” Snare drum please🙂
    second, I must say that of the 3 years now I’ve gone to the Paley Center to see tv pilots, Friday Night Lights still rates alongside My Name is Earl as the biggest surprise. It’s filmed very well too, and though some of the plot and dialogue is still cringeworthy, the fact that I ended up caring who’d win the games and about the characters, when football is so not my thing usually, was a nice sign


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