Fall TV Roundup


October is always a rough month for academics, with the crush of midterm grading, recommendation letter writing, and administrative tasks for spring semester, plus the standard fall tasks for homeowners and parents. But it’s doubly tough for television scholars, as there’s all that new TV to watch! So I’ve been neglecting blogging, but not watching.

While I’m late to the game, I wanted to offer my take on the new and returning shows. The advantage of being late on this is that I’m able to look at more than the first couple of episodes of most shows, as often pilots misrepresent how a series will develop. Here are brief blurbs & grades in semi-random order:

Modern Family: I’m definitely following the crowd here, singing the praises of this comedy as the season’s best new show. And as of now, it might be the best show I’m watching at all.* It uses the mockumentary gimmick to great effect, getting the chance to see all the characters in unguarded moments compared to their familial behaviors. And the size of the ensemble allows for many intermixtures between characters that it should remain fresh for quite awhile. Ty Burrell’s Phil is the clear breakout here, but the whole ensemble is top notch and they feel like they’ve been working together for a long time. Plus Shelly Long’s guest spot suggests that there’s room to grow even more. A

(And one other aside: isn’t it striking that one of the season’s big hits features a gay couple adopting a baby – and nobody seems to care? Where’s the outcry from the culture warriors? Even PTC’s blurb doesn’t mention it! Crazy…)

Glee:  Speaking of crazy, the other big buzz series is far more erratic and teetering on the brink of falling apart, but I do find the sheer energy of the show compelling. There’s been some backlash lately – while I agree with most of the criticism (the characters are paper-thin stereotypes, many plotlines are beyond ridiculous, it has no consistent sense of narrative time, the vocal over-production is grating), I find myself surrending to its charms. I guess it’s just an acknowledgment of the power of originality on TV – there’s nothing else like Glee on television, so the simple sense that I’m seeing something different makes me happy. That, and Jane Lynch, of course.  B

Flash Forward:  Had I graded it after the pilot, I would have given it a B+ for its sense of danger and interesting concept, but the subsequent episodes have been much, much worse. The show has a great premise, and a strong visual style (two episodes from Battlestar‘s Michael Rymer helps), and it might right its ship after a few episodes. But while it clearly is trying to be the new Lost (promos actually hyped “from the network that brought you Lost” – why not “from the network that brought you According to Jim“?), it’s shaping up to be the new Heroes: slack plotting, on-the-nose dialog, erratic pacing, tonal shifts, and when in doubt, introduce a new character. The main problem is that the show does not respect the intelligence of its audience, reminding us over and over of every flash forward, every relationship, every plot point. I have to keep watching for the whole season (it’s research!), but I remain skeptical.  C

Community:  I’m enjoying this series quite a bit – I expected the show to be much more frenetic and snarky in tone, but it’s actually a fairly traditional single-camera show. The characters still need more development and there’s been a weak storyline most episodes, but there’s a lot to work with and the performers seem up to the task. B+

The Good Wife:  One series that I always liked was Judging Amy – it doesn’t fit my demo or general sensibility, but I like a good family/workplace hybrid that respects the intelligence of its audience and presents the struggles of balancing parenting and careers. The Good Wife is cut from a similar model, with a great cast, an original premise, and a successful balance between serial and episodic elements. It might wear thin after awhile, especially if the ongoing drama with the imprisoned husband gets drawn out too long, but I’m on board. B+

Bored to Death:  A very strange show that I’m not exactly sure what to make of. I’ve let it linger on my TiVo for a few weeks, which is never a good sign, but I think I like it – but I don’t know why. It’s got tonal issues, and the humor is more of the knowing-nod rather than outright-laugh variety, but something about it makes me want to watch. Eventually…  B-

Curb Your Enthusiasm:  I was an ardent fan of this show for the first three seasons, found the fourth season underwhelming, and then let HBO lapse without going back to the DVDs. So season 7 is a return for me, and so far, I’m loving it. There’s still nothing more cringe-worthy than Larry being Larry, and when it’s working, the joy of watching a perfectly structured episode is unmatched – the “Vehicular Fellatio” episode was spectacular. While last week’s episode was more shaggy than I like, I can’t wait to see how the Seinfeld anti-reunion plays out. A-

Parks & Recreation: I enjoyed the first mini-season of this show last spring, recognizing that it was a work in progress with some solid talent on board. This season it’s made the leap, tackling some political topics with a great attitude and confidence. The penguin marriage episode was a highlight, and Louis CK’s guest role has been utterly charming. I only hope that NBC keeps it on despite weak ratings (but isn’t that the norm for all NBC shows these days?).  A-

The Office: Last year was a return to form for the series, and thus far the show has been solid. The wedding episode was top-notch, but I’m afraid that the Jim/Michael co-manager arrangement will feel too contrived and forced. Sure, if you think rationally about the show, Michael would have been fired years ago, but if the door is open for Dunder Mifflin to demote Michael, it might call attention to how unlikely his career stability has been. A-

30 Rock:  Granted it’s only one episode, but I’m buying into Todd VanDerWerff’s argument that the show is in decline and its limitations are becoming too apparent. Compared to its other NBC Thursday-mates, it really lacks characterization and plotting, and tries to distract us with jokes. Many are funny, but they’re starting to wear thin. (And I’m sure they’ll crank out a brilliant episode soon to assuage my doubts…)  B-

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:  Speaking of hit-and-miss, this show has a consistent tone, but still manages to create episodes that can fall totally flat or completely click. I’m in the camp that feels that too much Frank is a bad thing, and he’s best used as a side counterpoint, as in this season’s best episode, “The Waitress Is Getting Married.” But for every gem like that, there are duds to wade through, although usually there are at least a few great lines from Charlie. B

Dollhouse: Sigh. I was jazzed about this show at the end of season 1, and then “Epitaph One” raised the stakes. But the first three episodes of season two have been underwhelming for the most part. The only real highlight was the Whiskey/Topher plot in the premiere, but that prompted Whiskey to disappear. Instead, we get weak escort-of-the-week plots for Echo, and lots of brooding from Ballard. I have faith that things will get better just in time for the series to be canceled, but ultimately this series will be the most flawed & spotty entry in the Joss canon. C+

Cougartown: To be fair, I only watched the pilot. But that was enough for me – way too much strained acting, Courtney Cox at her worst, and really squirmy premise. See Heather Havrilesky’s takedown for real criticism.  D

OK – that’s what I’m watching. What am I missing?

* Yes, I’m again acknowledging the Mad Men-shaped gap in my viewing repertoire. Someday… someday.


How I Met Your Mother: I’m a latecomer to HIMYM, having watched a couple episodes in season 1 with little interest and never tuned back. But the chattering class of online TV critics love it, so I thought I’d give it another go. It’s a show that seems be strongest in terms of its cast and sensibility – it strikes a clear tone, and every performer fits the ensemble perfectly. But the storylines and jokes are not that compelling to me, perhaps because I’m demographically far more in the Modern Family realm of parenting than the world of urban singles. Still, it’s a quality show, and pretty much the only multi-camera sitcom that I find enjoyable at all these days, and maybe given time with the characters it will grow on me even more. B

Lie to Me: As I’ve said, I tend to be pretty uninterested in procedurals these days, finding that there’s too many serials and comedies to watch and that the interchangeability of a procedural means that it never gets any play on my TiVo. I saw one episode of Lie to Me last season, and found it too conventional in following the House model: cast a great British actor in the lead and play everything else like a version of CSI with a strong hero. But I’ve tuned back in this year as Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield and Middlebury alum, has taken over the show.

It’s improved markedly, taking advantage of its premise that allows for a wider range of stories to be told than a conventional procedural – as an independent contractor, the Lightman Group can tackle more types of cases than most other institution-based series. And Roth’s performance is just getting better, with layers of fascinating inscrutability. This week’s episode with Garret Dillahunt was excellent, as Lightman’s faith in his ability to see people’s emotions allows him to take huge risks in situations of peril, with a wonderful underplayed emotional payoff in the last scene. Definitely worth sticking with to see how the show develops, and hopefully Fox will give it time to continue its growth. B+


11 Responses to “Fall TV Roundup”

  1. You’ve got a Motorcycle Club-sized gap where Sons of Anarchy should be, and I think the two youth-skewing CBS comedies deserve some love (albeit to different degrees), but otherwise I think you’ve just about got the interesting stuff covered right now.

  2. 2 Paul Ramaeker

    Reading Havrilesky now. My God that show sounds awful!

  3. Of the new shows I’m most excited by Glee and Modern Family. But Mad Men aside, Curb is my favorite show of the moment. I find it astonishingly funny. It’s really unbelievable how obnoxious and anti-social Larry can be while at the same time we love to watch him and even find him sympathetic.

    Two shows I like that you didn’t mention are Accidentally on Purpose and Bones. AoP is pretty ordinary but I like the broad secondary characters and the dialogue is sharp, and I’m interested to see how a fairly traditional sitcom integrates a long arc (pregnancy, etc.) and a big change from the initial situation. We just started watching Bones regularly after having caught an episode now and then and I find the characters immensely appealing. The weekly mystery stuff is ok but the delayed-gratification relationship between the leads is great.

    And then there’s reality TV! Nothing there excites me much right now, actually.

  4. Myles – I forgot to mention HIMYM, so my post is now updated. Big Bang leaves me cold and annoyed. And Sons of Anarchy never caught my attention – do I need to go back to s1 to follow it?

    Mike – I didn’t bother with AoP, as the reviews were horrid. Really? As for Bones, it seems enjoyable enough, but I’m not sure that there’s room in my TiVo for another Thursday night offering. And reality TV has passed me by – what’s compelling for you on that front? Most critics say that the standard shows are off this year (Top Chef, Runway, Amazing Race, Survivor).

  5. Jason, re: Modern Family‘s baby, I’d love to believe that homophobia has disappeared in the US, but I’m sure you’d hear the uproar if the kid was a white American, not one who is posited as a needy Third World kid getting a better life just by virtue of being rescued from its “godless,” destitute country.

    Speaking of MF and kids, though, Ed O’Neill’s stepkid in it is fantastic, and a total highlight of the show for me (along with Ty Burrell, of course)

  6. 6 princesscowboy

    I agree with your high grade for this season of Parks & Recreation. Last season I was pretty bored but stuck with it because I love Amy Poehler. This season is much sharper, though, partly because Leslie Knope is less of a caricature and more like a real person. And that penguin marriage episode was AMAZING.

    And while I would have given Glee an “A” after episode 1, it is definitely in “B” territory right now. Beyond the stereotyping and the crazy fake baby storyline, I am very frustrated by the way the sound for the musical numbers is recorded. Obviously musical numbers in the cinema are recorded in the studilo too but the numbers in Glee sound so…fake. Like everyone has been autotuned. It’s starting to grate on my nerves a bit.

    I must take issue with your Bored to Death “B-” This is my favorite new TV show of the fall season. I think it takes a while to warm up the characters though. I am 4 episodes in and I’m loving the great dynamic between Ted Danson and Jason Schwartzman. If you are interested in my extended review of the show, you can read it here: http://judgmentalobserver.wordpress.com/2009/10/14/bored-to-death-why-its-my-favorite-new-show/

  7. Amanda – I’d read your review of BtD, and just can’t see what’s so compelling about it. Like I mentioned, I am left completely bewildered by the show’s tone, and in the end don’t know if I like it or not. I’ll try to give it more time.

    And I just added another show I forgot in my first round: Lie to Me.

  8. I’m so glad you’re not impressed with Flashforward — I’m really hoping the internet will let me pass on watching it.

    Glee, on the other hand, has me completely enthralled. Maybe the critics are misreading it stylistically? It’s really more of a serial musical than a dramedy (to me it seems most reminiscent of Ugly Betty, also a genre outsider). The characters are intentionally one-dimensional and over-the-top, I think, but what’s really working is the neatly gratifying structure of most episodes.

  9. 9 princesscowboy

    So I didn’t convince you then, Jason? Sigh.

    I really enjoy the male relationships in this show–between Ray and Jonathan and George. Their friendships are silly and codependent but also very genuine. I love that whenever Jonathan is doing something–whether it’s getting a colonic or going to Brighton Beach–George always acts disappointed that he’s being left out, like a little kid. Danson is just great.

    But looks like I don’t need to convince anyone to watch it–it’s already been renewed!

  10. 10 Noah

    I’ve found myself watching Bored to Death the past couple of weeks, and as the World’s Biggest Zach Galifianakis Fan I’ve really enjoyed it. Ted Danson is a surprise treat, but Schwatzmann doing his usual shtick just isn’t enough for a whole show. He under-acts so much that his character doesn’t seem low-key, just bored.

    Regarding Always Sunny, I’m in the opposite camp. The more Frank the better! “Frank Gets an Intervention” was phenomenal, although “The World Series Defense” threatened to overtake it. If Vermont sold grain alcohol I’d be drinking riot punch for the game tonight…

    My reaction (and a few of my friends’ as well) to “The Wedding” on The Office was interesting. I loved it, but I felt it was the ultimate shark-jumping moment. If the entire show ended with that episode, I think I would be just fine with it. I’ll see how they handle the rest of the season before giving up all hope though.

  1. 1 Because I know you procrastinate by watching Glee « MiddBlog

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