There are signs of the times. Summer cedes its hot grip and kids go back to school. Baseball playoffs lose ratings to the NFL regular season. The sound of ping pong balls landing in half-filled cups of beer can be heard on campuses across the country. And in other parts of that country, outside of blistering SoCal, the leaves change color, the air takes on a new character, the horizon sports flashes of pink. As I sit and the forecast tells me it's 106 degrees outside, I might have palm tree leaves catching fire in the sunlight as opposed to the crunchy amber of leaves that find their way under my feet on the wind, but I've got something else to get me by: TV. I've got "pube shirts" and Steve Buscemi. I've got men's battles between fantasy football and the women of their fantasies. I've got explosions in Hawaii and Bill Shatner taking a shotgun to girl scouts. I've got old shows. New shows. Shows the size of your head. Actors you know, ones you will, drama, comedy, and tense courtroom scuttlebutt. I've got Superbowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson topless in the tropics on Wednesday and suited up drawing Xs and Os at halftime on Sunday. TV is back, people.
Full disclosure: I'm not the best TV critic in the world. Oh, I fell in love once. Good and hard. I had never seen anyone like her -- she was so deep, so mysterious, funny but stunning, enticing -- but alas, I never could truly understand the all of her. Her name was LOST... and she's gone now. But my love letters to her convinced somebody that I was attracted to TV and that I could love again. We'll see. It wasn't like I never saw other shows, but they were just for fun -- there was no real commitment. A half-hour with a sitcom is just a fling. An hour-long late-night talk show is a booty call. Now I embark on a quest for a new love and to see if I can be converted to a belief that started bubbling up around when The Sopranos hit the scene: TV is better. Better than movies. TV is the best medium right now, doing the most compelling, diverse stuff. What've I got to lose? And since Lost is never coming back, I think it'd want me to move on.
So, in something akin to a speed-dating format, here's an account of the TV that was last week, with my biases and explanations, and then a rose ceremony for how this might go moving forward...
The Sunday premiere schedule got scattered. A few shows started out a week ago, some just this weekend. I'll be pretending that never happened.
ABC: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Desperate Housewives, and Brothers and Sisters.
Easy. I don't watch any of these shows. Well, on the rarest of occasions, Makeover will make its way before my soon-to-be-welled-up-in-tears eyes, then I realize the emotions the show stirs are far too powerful for me and it'd probably be best to stay away. For what it's worth, Housewives came out with a 48% decrease in premiere ratings compared to two years ago. The Housewives may be growing more desperate. As for Brothers and Sisters -- like these other shows -- for whatever gossip I can't muster, I'm sure my mom would be thrilled to talk shop with you about them.
CBS: 60 Minutes, The Amazing Race, and Undercover Boss.
When I want to grease up the cogs and bolts of my brain and get 'em moving again, or when they interview my favorite celeb (Bieber, duh!), I'll drop 60 Minutes a watch. The Amazing Race has consistently been the best reality show on TV, if you follow the Emmys' advice for that sort of thing. Undercover Boss came out big after last year's Superbowl, but sounds too gimmicky to me. Anyway, this line up doesn't exactly champion that TV as the best narrative outlet thing.
FOX: The Simpsons, The Cleveland Show, Family Guy, American Dad.
The Animation Domination block is still strong and improbable when you really think about it. No other network has a prime-time cartoon sitcom, let alone four to stack on top of each other. Purists be warned, The Simpsons can still be bitingly funny and relevant. The Cleveland Show ain't bad but essentially is Family Guy with Kanye West guest-spots. Family Guy, with its compelling history, (canceled what, twice?) is in a pretty steady upswing after some particularly aimless and self-parodying seasons. Irreverent and has that "did they really just do that on TV?" quality. American Dad I skip, as apparently my tolerance for Family Guy or its fraternal twins ends at two. Premiere ratings were down from last year, but Simpsons is still strong and Family Guy still won the night for original programming.
NBC: Sunday Night Football.
This is where my eyes will be glued, along with the majority of TV-watching Americans, on Sundays. Football can be the most compelling drama of them all. Or at least it can't be relegated to the DVR.
HBO: Boardwalk Empire, Eastbound and Down, Bored to Death.
Boardwalk Empire had the biggest premiere for HBO ever, and sailed into a season two renewal before its second episode. It's uber-stylistic and full of those winking gems that populate period pieces or time travel stories. Doc Brown laughs off Marty when Marty says Ronald Reagan is President, "What, the actor?!" The audience chuckles knowingly as an unassuming, unestablished but ambitious Al Capone is introduced on Empire as just another goon. The Scorcese-directed premiere was thick and a tad lumbering; the second episode was quicker on its feet and showed a lot of promise for the series to come, as well as an intoxicating (no pun intended) atmosphere. Buscemi is a pretty compelling lead as the public face of Atlantic City and prohibition while the private honcho of boardwalk crime and bootlegging. His protege, Michael Pitt, works as a creepier-looking lite version of Leo DiCaprio (Pitt and Buscemi also worked together on the little-seen indie Delirious). The show's all about prohibition, power, and tommy guns. Look for it to become a permanent fixture in pop culture for years to come.
I wanted to jump off of my couch for how Eastbound and Down -- the dirty-as-spit-tobacco-in-a-hot-dugout sitcom -- came out swinging for season two. Danny McBride's disgraced but bullheaded steroid-loaded pitcher Kenny Powers is a study in the highest assery. But it's hilarious. After abandoning a small town where he'd won some respect at the end of season one, we find Kenny in Mexico posing as "Steve" and running a cockfighting ring. The cast surrounding him is straight up LOLZ, and the Powers character is somehow stirring and sympathetic as he narrates about being "depressed and sh*t," or when he's trying to inspire a minor league Mexican baseball team about how America will hear all of them, and dissing Mexico as much as possible along the way. He's the funny man's Travis Bickle.
Bored to Death is a comedy for people who like to end their days in a tall, comfortable chair that I imagine is burgundy, while smoking a cigar and taking in some jazz. It's quieter than Eastbound but not necessarily any less silly. And its cast of Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis is hard to beat.
ABC: Dancing With The Stars and Castle.
Again, sorry, you'll have to ask my Mom or maybe Sarah Palin about these ones. Though many in my segment of the population have love for Nathan Fillion, who is Castle but has also been in the web sensation Dr. Horrible and the sci-fi fav Firefly.
CBS: How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement, Two and a Half Men, Mike and Molly, Hawaii 5-0.
Confession: I never got into HIMYM. I have an instinctive aversion to CBS sitcoms that probably stems from stuff like Two and a Half Men, which is the ratings equivalent of soylent green. Millions of people eat it and love it, but its true contents are horrifying and grotesque. To me anyway. That's overkill, but I think I've developed a snobbishness or maybe just a customization to single-camera, laughtrack-less yuckers like NBC's brand of comedy. Anyway, I know plenty of people that swear by HIMYM, so I'm preparing to get into it. More to come, but from what I hear, the season premiere was solid and offered a new wrinkle to the HIMYM lore that suggested the show may be closer to its end than beginning. Makes sense, as Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segal are only getting bigger and bigger. As for the others, well, soylent green is people! Except for Mike and Molly. It has an endearing, throwback feel to it that I'll have to watch to verify.
Hawaii 5-0, on the other hand, is an all-out action show with impressive scope, and is worth returning to if only for its HD scenery but seems to lack weight. I'm sure, as the banter of the main characters (Scott Caan and Alex O'Laughlin) better materializes and some big bads are established, the show will pick up further from being an adult version of a Saturday morning cartoon. But as an adult version of a Saturday morning cartoon, it's fairly rad, very beautiful, and sufficiently blistering in its gun-play and fireballs. It's set to record again.
FOX: House and Lone Star.
House is another one I've missed but have really enjoyed when dropping in from time to time. The plot-line on the year of having House shacking up with the boss and it going public should be compelling viewing. Lonestar, on the other hand, had the unfortunate distinction of being the loudest "thud" heard on the fall schedule when it face-planted last week. A prime-time soap about a Texas con-man that... Oh, never-mind -- it just got canceled.
NBC: Chuck, The Event, Chase.
Chuck has a built-in audience but not a growing one. Still, with NBC's fairly anemic schedule and problems of the past few years, it's stayed alive, which is probably good because it seems like a fine show. The Event is where all the hype is at, as it's supposed to be the mystery-based serialized drama that takes the place of the now buried Lost and 24. My first instinct about the pilot was that it was intriguing but was trying a bit too hard. The thing with these mystery shows is they have to make you care, as Lost most definitely did but as others have failed to do. Otherwise, the answers to the mysteries become something to google, if you feel like bothering -- not to watch. That said, I'll give it another episode or two to see how my hunches are. Chase is sufficient but hardly spectacular. Premise: what if we made a show about Tommy Lee Jones from The Fugitive except he was young, hot, and blond? The accent can stay the same. So yeah, not bad, but...50/50 on survival. Kelli Giddish, the hot blond lead, should have a future, though, regardless. She has the requisite toughness on top of the attractiveness.
ABC: No Ordinary Family, Dancing With The Stars, Detroit 1-8-7.
No Ordinary Family looks a little kitchy and gimmicky. It wants to be Heroes for the whole family but unfortunately looks like it, yes, will actually be like Heroes, which started nicely but flamed out fast, as if that were its own superpower. However, Family doesn't premiere until Tuesday, so we'll see. Dancing With The Stars -- didn't we already talk about you? Detroit 1-8-7 -- a gritty, nearly documentary-style crime show about the city that's becoming, more and more often, the zinger in jokes about it being a third world country. The reviews were so-so and the ratings weren't particularly encouraging. But there's some solid people involved and it gets props from me for including The Temptations in its promo stuff. Unfortunately (maybe), No Ordinary Family is more likely to last.
CBS: NCIS, NCIS:LA, The Good Wife.
The Good Wife is an interesting follow-up after the fully loaded NCIS and NCIS:LA, but I suppose it's like a good cuddle after all the action. And apparently it's a great show. By now we know the formula that makes NCIS and NCIS:LA, but NCIS:LA is probably winning the "friendly" rivalry now, with ratings to boast about, a record for fastest sale into syndication ever (I believe after only two or three episodes into last year's first season), and it's got more verve with LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell as its leads. Since these are more or less stand-alone procedurals, there ain't much more to say.
FOX: Glee, Raising Hope, Running Wilde.
Glee is a juggernaut. So much so that if I mustered something to bad to say about it. it'd probably sing-kick my ass. Or crush me in some kind of dance-off. Or Sue Sylvester would reveal all my insecurities in a crowded room of people I would want to impress. If nothing else. there is nothing else like Glee on television. It is also something I'll have to consider committing myself to. I've only seen a few episodes, and they're funny, but of a type which isn't necessarily for everyone.
Raising Hope and Running Wilde probably don't have much hope to run long, but time will tell. My hope was highest for Running, actually, as it had a strong contingent of Arrested Development alumn -- maybe the best sitcom ever, or at least of recent times. But it was kind of a mess. A few LOLs, but not the natural oomph of ArDev, and the plot -- concerning a rich guy and an environmentalist that used to be teenage flames living together in his excess -- might run out of steam. Raising Hope I didn't see, but it's about a dude raising a baby. Awareness seems low on this, but it did get a solid boost with Glee as a lead-in.
NBC: Biggest Loser, Parenthood.
Biggest Loser -- another win for the moms. Parenthood -- a winter/spring replacement show from last year that survived and has strong critical buzz; the ratings are starting to follow.
ABC: The Middle, Better With You, Modern Family, Cougar Town, The Whole Truth.
ABC pretty much rules the roost on Wednesday with their comedy block. Better With You, the new addition is the old school one, a true "situational comedy" with multiple cameras, a studio audience, and a laugh track. But ya know what? It ain't bad. Fairly amusing, likable, and comfy. It's about three couples in a family at various phases of their relationships, and so on and so forth. The rest is same old as last year, which is particularly good for Modern Family, which won the Best Comedy Emmy in its first season. Its season two premiere was really strong, managing their massive cast with the plate-spinning precision they did last year. Watching the Duffys lose their old station wagon to an LA gorge was particularly good stuff. Oh, and as for the The Whole Truth? You nor anyone else can handle it. It's been a hard year for Jerry Bruckheimer who spent the whole summer striking out at the box office. His courtroom drama came to the airwaves like a turkey to Thanksgiving dinner. Ratings were gobbled, it beat Tosh.0, a cable show with a very particular audience, by one-tenth of one ratings point. Better luck next year of with the next CSI.
CBS: Survivor, Criminal Minds, The Defenders.
Survivor is entering its millionth season. But opened well on a new night, tying for second. It also has Jimmy Johnson, former Cowboys head coach, this year, so that's bound to draw some eyeballs, like my own for the first time since season two. Criminal Minds keeps on trucking and is another course on CBS's buffet of crime and murder. The Defenders, the Wednesday newbie with Jerry O'Connell and Jim Belushi as Vegas lawyers, looked like it could be lively but was kind of mum in its premiere. CBS will be keeping their single eye on it.
FOX: Hell's Kitchen.
British man screams about food! British man screams about food!
NBC: Undercovers, Law and Order: SVU, Law and Order: Los Angeles.
Law and Order the parent did not outlive its children. SVU, one of the second generation which has gotten license to tick for at least one more season, is now over-seeing LOLA, which takes all the filth and miscreants into the sunshine. Starts this week.
Unlike Law and Order, Undercovers might not be long for this world, which is one of the most shocking stories of premiere week. The big new show from JJ Abrams, who's making a run at being the new Spielberg, came out as if it was top secret. Its premiere was worse than Mercy's last year. Remember Mercy? Yes. And neither does anyone else. Undercovers still has a chance, as it's a flagship project for NBC, but the pilot was relatively rote and will have to offer a little bit more to make it a successful Abrams venture like Lost, Felicity, Fringe, or its next of kin, Alias. These were all shows that seemed conceptually simple, or even shallow -- then offered more.
ABC: My Generation, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice.
It's a wash. Grey's is still a ratings-winner but is in decline. Kind of like how Michael Jordan could probably still beat you at basketball but, you know, come on. My Generation, aka "Too Soon," is about a group of twenty-somethings that graduated high school at the turn of the millennium. Seeing as to how we haven't figured out a thing that started then, it's not exactly the time for hindsight. The ratings agreed. Generation tied Vampire Diaries, the audience of which is probably too young to remember Y2K, Al Gore, or what an Enron is. Private Practice showed some decline too.
CBS: The Big Bang Theory, $#*! My Dad Says, CSI, The Mentalist.
A bullish CBS goes head-to-head with NBC's comedy block in the first hour of the night with Big Bang, which still banged things up. But the audiences are different. One likes comedy. Hey-oh! Anyway, $#*! My Dad Says, the first thing ever based on a Twitter feed, really wasn't that bad. It's hard to resist Shatner, and while you could predict the show's rhythms, some of the dialogue seemed more suited for NBC shows than CBS fare. But then again, look at the title. This one could last and started well, coming in just behind The Office's numbers. CSI, once dominant, came in the middle of the pack and is probably entering the glass-half-empty phase of its run. Even a Justin Bieber cameo couldn't save the day. The Mentalist won its time slot, but...okay seriously, how much murder can people watch? I guess the answer is something like 11 or 12 hours a week, and that's CBS alone. Yeesh!
FOX: Bones, Fringe.
Bones is more murder, but, lighter, more fun murder. But it beat everyone else except CBS's sitcoms to come in second place in its slot. Fringe, which has gained a fairly solid following, is in a pretty bad position here on Thursday night and had a little-watched premiere. With some moving and shaking, Fringe will hang on either way but can start to thrive again. I have some catching up to do before I know what went down so...no spoilers!
NBC: Community, 30 Rock, The Office, Outsourced, The Apprentice.
Now we're talking! NBC's Thursday night, though not necessarily a ratings powerhouse, is maybe the best two hours on TV in the week. Community was brilliant in its return and, like Glee, is the only show of its kind kicking it on the air. Betty White drank her own urine, two members of the cast almost got married, then everyone hated each other, then Ken Jeong went all Smiegel. The comedy talent on this show is so stacked that Chevy Chase doesn't even get top billing. And while the vibe may take a little adjusting to, the variety and quality of yucks leaves something for everyone, especially the media and tech savvy. It's a show in on the joke, but in an endearing and often surprising and consistently creative way. Everything from racism to prop gags goes. 30 Rock was pretty strong too. I'm not sure this show has another 5 years in its tank, but the premiere was funny and touching, summing up true love in the phrase "pube shirt." Google it. On second thought, don't. The Office, which had a few bright moments last year but seemed to be winding down itself, came out really, and thankfully, strong. The show is still just as funny but lacks an emotional underpinning once provided by Jim and Pam's courtship. But come on, a lip dub and Michael spanking an employee? That's Office bread and butter.
Outsourced, I'm sorry to say, needs to go. Parks and Recreation was one of the funniest, warmest shows on TV last year, and completed a perfect block on NBC's Thursday like a good brick of cheese. Outsourced is like, "wait, is this mold supposed to be in the cheese? I mean, I guess cheese is kind of mold, but..." Basically, the show's premise -- an American manages an Indian call center -- seems too one-note to last, and I'm not sure an American audience wants to watch a show about, on the surface anyway, where their jobs went and who took 'em. Setting the show in India limits what it can do too, as obviously the show will spend most all its time in interiors. What, you think NBC is actually shilling out to film in India? That's the whole point of the show -- there's no money! The show was decently funny but doesn't hold up to Parks or the rest of Thursday night. Here's hoping (forgive the slight xenophobia and isolationism) the good ol' American Parks and Rec keeps its job.
Oh, The Apprentice came out last week. We'll see what happens to the Donald.
FX: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League.
These shows have no shame. They can sometimes trip in their constant pushing of the envelope. but like the other bests here, you won't find something else like them on the telly. Sunny is entering its sixth year and its ratings are growing. The League is benefiting from that. Both are about the funniest things going for the frat set. And The League might as well be a Discovery Channel special on the interactions of adult males.
The Friday wasteland has some solid offerings on it that are likely to bleed out on national television, unfortunately. Fox's Human Target could be the best, most fun action show on TV. Its follow-up, The Good Guys, is supposed to be a good time. CBS serves more murder (c'mon! Now it's just getting ridiculous! What are you guys doing, trying to fill the Grand Theft Auto demand for people who are confused by video game controllers?) with Medium and CSI:NY. There's also the Tom Selleck cop drama, Blue Bloods, about a family of cops that showed promise, like an alterna-Godfather, and would be served better in a more suitable slot. ABC rocks repeats, and NBC does Dateline with a dash of "Outlaw." The Jimmy Smitts legal drama has the precarious position of being a show produced by Conan O'Brien's production shingle airing on his old network. But perhaps NBC is getting their revenge by airing it in the twilight zone of television. Is there room at TBS? But reviews are mixed.
College football on ABC and CBS. 'Nuff said. Reruns elsewhere. The only real thing to note is, of course, Saturday Night Live. Still going strong and, in this new decade, there are four new featured players in the hunt to become stars. In fact, I realized how happy I was to have TV back and how welcome a medium it is with this sketch about the ground zero mosque. Yes, we need TV, I suppose. For satire, for reflection, for relief, and for murder, I guess. But seriously, SNL came in like a lion. New York Governor David Patterson even came out to riff on his own blindness!
Other big stories of the week had ABC picking up a pilot based on the Governator's '94 flick True Lies (assuming, I guess, that Undercovers isn't gonna make it). JJ Abrams got a show off the ground bringing Lost's Ben Linus and John Locke back together as retired special ops dudes in a show called Odd Jobs. Jeff Zucker, the crazy bastard that sent NBC to fourth place and drove Conan to basic cable, was fired; Goodfellas is going to be serialized; and the new American Idol judges were announced. But, like a good rumor in high school, who didn't know about J.Lo and Steven Tyler? We'll see how much power American Idol really has this winter.
So... I guess that's it. It's a lot to sift through, and there are only so many hours in the night and free space on the DVR. I suspect I'll have a lot more to say about Boardwalk Empire, NBC Thursday nights, and some other choice shows. There's also plenty of buzz in TV land otherwise, so expect to see shorter news bits and not unspooling novels in the future. Some unmentioned, like Showtime's line-up, including the anxiously awaited (another murder alert!) Dexter, could find their way on my radar too. You tell me, reader, what do you want to read more about that you're watching? firstname.lastname@example.org. Check it. I'm at your disposal. Well, except there's a girl that wants me to watch How I Met Your Mother first. Hey, what's a critic to do?
Catch you after the commercial break.