Ask Matt: The Middle, Big Bang Theory, Burn Notice, Fringe, and More
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Question: I appreciate how you are one of the few critics who recognizes how good a family sitcom The Middle is. I'm not American, but I can so relate to the Heck family, and they really hit it right out of the park with the family dynamics. Frankie and Mike's 20th anniversary was another terrific episode, and I want to give kudos to Atticus Shaffer's performance when Brick told Axl why books are so important. Strong words that captured a lot from the joys of reading to getting to know the struggles of a kid who's socially inept. I'm happy this show lasted this long and will reach 100 episodes by next season. Now that the show has enough episodes for syndication, do you think The Middle has a chance to grow even more in the ratings? The current ratings are fine and actually lives to up its title, as it's right smack in the middle of the ratings race, not a blockbuster but a self-starter that does solid numbers. But the show is just so good, so I really hope more people will discover it eventually. — Jecoup
Matt Roush: You make a very good point, that when a show makes it to syndication and cable reruns, the increased visibility often translates to a spike in popularity for the first-run episodes. It happened to The Office and to How I Met Your Mother, boosting ratings even for sub-par later seasons, and I would expect it to happen with this show as well. Maybe even more so. Right now, The Middle shows no signs of losing creative steam — in fact, for the first time I've put this on my year-end Top 10 list, at the exclusion of Modern Family. (Nothing against Modern Family; I still enjoy it, but this doesn't feel like a particularly significant season, Gloria's pregnancy aside.) The Middle just feels so much more relevant, especially in a year when the middle class became such a political football. I loved last week's episode as well; the Brick-Axl story about Axl spoiling the end of Brick's book, sending him into one of his deeper funks, brought back vivid memories of my childhood when I was feuding with my older brother, and he tore the last chapter out of the book I was reading and destroyed the pages! I still don't think I'm over that one. Bottom line: There's nothing middling about The Middle, and I look forward to more people discovering it, which is bound to happen.
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Question: What possessed the producers of The Big Bang Theory to upgrade Kevin Sussman to a series regular? Aside from ensuring his availability, I see no logical reason to have him bound to appear in at least seven to 13 episodes this season. When Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch were upgraded to regular status several seasons ago, it made sense on a creative level, given the importance of the Sheldon/Amy and Howard/Bernadette relationships, allowing the ensemble to grow, and enabling the writers to explore new dynamics. But Stuart? Why? We are 11 episodes into the season and he has yet to have an effect on any of the ongoing storylines. In this week's entertaining Dungeons & Dragons storyline for the guys, it seemed entirely awkward and non-essential to have Stuart there in the apartment. Even if Kevin Sussman had not been made a regular and was not available to appear this season, would fans really miss him? I think not. — Stephen
Matt Roush: That seems an awfully harsh reaction to such an unassuming schlub. (In fact, it almost sounds like Sheldon wrote it in one of his why-aren't-they-paying-more-attention-to-me snits.) Sussman's promotion from recurring to "recurring regular" status, not uncommon for shows that seek to expand the universe beyond the core cast, is a sign that the producers enjoy writing for him, and it's not entirely true that Stuart provides no function. As the rest of the guys pair off — Howard now married, Leonard back with Penny, and even Sheldon in a relationship of sorts with Amy — Stuart gives odd-man-out Raj someone to bond with, however awkwardly. And while I find some of the homoerotic humor tiresome as jokes fly about their friendship, Stuart is also useful as a depiction of someone who's even more pathetic than our original circle of needy nerds. I wouldn't say I miss him when he's not around, but I also don't feel he's being overused or shoehorned in illogically — the owner of a comic-book store would factor rather largely in these guys' lives, no?
Question: I have to ask if you knew what happened to all the great Sheldon and Penny scenes from The Big Bang Theory we used to get from earlier seasons? Anything coming up for Shenny fans in the second half of the sixth season? I need some Shenny scenes so I can watch the show again. — Steve
Matt Roush: I had much the same thought when Sheldon recently tended to a sick Amy, bringing back very fond flashbacks of the great episode where Penny took care of a sick Sheldon. (Cue a verse of "Soft Kitty.") Or the classic when Sheldon had to take an injured Penny to the hospital. Or when he tried to teach her physics. Those were the days. There are still moments of inspired Penny-Sheldon interaction — sorry, I'm not going to call them "Shenny" under any circumstance — but I figure that we may be seeing fewer episodes built around them exclusively because the world around them has expanded with so many more delicious characters. I love the scenes where Penny plays off of Bernadette and Amy, for instance, their colliding versions of girl talk delivering some great character comedy. I don't do spoilers here, so can't say for sure if or when a major Sheldon-Penny episode is coming, but while I'd be happy to see one, the lack of one really isn't affecting my enjoyment of the show.
Question: What happened to Burn Notice on USA Network? It seems to have taken a disturbing, dark turn since the killing of Michael Westen's brother Nate. I thought having him shoot his CIA mentor in the head (nasty as he might have been) was way over the top. It got his friends in trouble, not to mention his mom. I don't need this kind of stress from a show that was much more fun in the beginning. I look to USA shows for the kind of entertainment that the film To Catch a Thief delivered. Burn Notice has gone too dark and it will soon lose me as a viewer. I am wondering what you and others think about it. — Lois
Matt Roush: Don't know about others, but I've actually found myself more drawn to the USA shows like this (and Covert Affairs, Suits and White Collar, to name my other favorites) as they're acquired a bit more bite and suspenseful edge, beefing up big story arcs, adding a sense of actual danger — not such a bad thing for a show about a burned master spy — and moving away from the caper-of-the-week plotting that I would often impatiently sit through to get to the two to three minutes any given week that would advance the main story. There's no question the death of Nate, and Michael's execution of his mentor-turned-nemesis Tom Card (John C. McGinley), changed the tone of the show, but these were moments that felt earned, especially killing Card — who, after all, sent an F-16 to blow up the team in Panama. Stakes and consequences need to be high on shows like these, or they risk becoming forgettable. At the same time, I suppose there's a risk in alienating those who are looking for lighter escapism, but if it makes the shows better — which in these cases I think it has — I'm all for it.
Question: Now that it is nearing its final few weeks on the air, what is your opinion of what Fringe's legacy might be for science-fiction television? And where does it fit in with other great or significant sci-fi shows of the past (not all of which had great ratings either)? — Ellen
Matt Roush: I love this question, but I find myself struggling with the answer. I'm so proud of the show for making it to the end of a five-season run, and of Fox for letting it happen, against all the odds, even if much of that time was spent on the fringes of Friday night TV during a period that wasn't particularly hospitable to this type of imaginative programming. Fringe had something of the opposite trajectory of The X-Files, the show to which it was most often compared (especially in the early seasons). The X-Files was a true pop-art phenom, exploding when it moved to Sundays from Fridays, and even if it did eventually outstay its welcome, it became part of the cultural conversation in a way that Fringe never really did.
Fringe deserves to be celebrated as an uncompromising, risk-taking and often mind-blowing original, daring to reinvent itself from season to season, and the characters of Peter, Olivia, Astrid and most especially Walter Bishop (movingly played by John Noble, who deserved so much more industry attention and acclaim) will live on in our memories. When we look back on the genre in years to come, as publications like ours often do, I'm sure Fringe will rank very high — perhaps a step below Star Trek, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Battlestar Galactica reboot — and while it's hard to gauge its legacy in terms of influence, since it struggled for so much of its time on the air and it's not like people are rushing to pitch the next Fringe (the way they did with Lost), the fact that it stuck to its guns and was so fascinating and freaky and gripping to the end speaks well for its long-term reputation.
Question: I tuned in to see the Syfy 20th Anniversary Special the other evening and I was very pleasantly surprised to see you as one of the commentators. It is always good to see you on TV instead of just behind the scenes. It was a very good special, especially showing Farscape again. It sounds like the creative powers and the actors all would be happy to revisit this wonderful show again. I have wondered why we don't see the repeats of Farscape on the Syfy channel or some other network because I think once they would be shown, there would be a real resurgence of the fan base to see this show back in some way. I realize it is on DVD, but the existing episodes would get a broader audience if it were shown on a network. Anyway, again it was great to see you. — JG
Matt Roush: Thanks. It was great to be seen — and in case you missed the special, including its replays this Sunday, there's at least one more showing (1:30 am/12:30c on Wednesday). The Farscape and Battlestar Galactica segments were by far my favorite, reminding me how much I missed the humor of Crichton, Aeryn Sun and the others — although I admit that when I went to see the movie Argo recently, I couldn't help wanting to attach a "D'" to the title. That said, repeats of the show have never proven to be much of a ratings draw, which is why you don't see it currently in circulation — which isn't to say it will be kept on the shelf forever. And before anyone else asks, I've heard nothing about the long-proposed Farscape "webisodes," which appear to be stuck in some eternal development-hell limbo.
Question: I was watching The Amazing Race finale and got to thinking. Abbie and Ryan and Josh and Brent decided to work together and had grown closer as teams. When Abbie and Ryan were forced to do the U-Turn, Josh and Brent carried on with the leg. What would have happened if they had waited for Abbie and Ryan and the four of them stepped on the mat at the same time? At one point in the episode, Josh or Brent stated, "Someone has to step on the mat first." I am just curious what the producers would do on an elimination leg if two teams check in at the same time. Do both teams get eliminated (I doubt it), do they have some quick challenge the teams could do, or do they check previous check-ins and see who averaged better legs? There seems to be many things they could do to eliminate a team. — Matt G
Matt Roush: I'm not an expert on the mechanics of these shows, but your instinct is right that if these teams had contrived to hit the mat simultaneously, there would have been some sort of calculus to determine who would have been sent packing. In a recent tvguide.com interview, host Phil Keoghan said, "No matter what efforts the teams make to jump on the mat at the same time, we have the technology in place to determine exact placements." Thinking back on this season, watching Abbie and Ryan stick around to watch the Beekmans try to pull off that swimming challenge was one of the strangest Amazing Race spectacles ever. Not that I mind alliances on shows like this — although after Abbie and Ryan were eliminated, the way the remaining teams banded together to exclude the Beekmans made their surprise victory that much sweeter (if not entirely satisfying; I was rooting for the Chippendales).
Question: For the most part I agreed with your take on the Glee narrative situation (burn that high school down!), but I have to quibble with the notion that certain graduated characters "should have moved on for good by now." While I agree they should get to move on, and that it's ridiculous to keep yanking them back to high school, I don't agree that the door should be closed on their stories. I find the idea of exploring the futures of Santana, Puck, and Mercedes just as (if not more) interesting than what's happening with Rachel and Kurt, and I think they deserve to have those stories told rather than being used to prop up the 2.0 versions of themselves back in Lima. They only seem pointless because they're being used in a pointless manner. Kurt and Rachel are desperately lacking secondary characters and foils to play off of (guest stars and Bland Brody don't count). Why the producers haven't seen the obvious way to fix two problems and re-create the ensemble (Glee's real strength) by sending the rest of the graduates to New York is beyond me. If some of the actors like Amber and Dianna are too busy with other projects, at least Santana and Puck should make their way there. The show needs their edge and snark. — Michelle
Matt Roush: A fair point, although to some degree I admire Glee for trying not to fall into the 90210-style trap of keeping the entire gang together after graduation, when in reality, people do tend to scatter. The gimmick of having them keep returning to McKinley to help out with (or even perform in) a show or a contest or whatever has clearly reached its limit, though, so however they choose to show us what these characters are up to, it needs to be done outside the frame of high school.
Question: I know that hit shows like The Big Bang Theory get bigger over time and that there are semi-hits that end up being able to last or even gain viewers, but do you know if there are examples of freshman TV shows in modern times that do poorly yet are moved to a new night and suddenly gain enough viewers to allow for renewal and even long-term success? A typical response to the cancellation of new shows mentions how the shows should be moved to another night. If a show needs a set rating to be considered for renewal yet is way below it, wouldn't gaining millions of viewers on a new night be near impossible? Wouldn't the same viewers from the original night have to follow it to the new night and specifically watch it, regardless of what they used to watch, just so ratings break even? Then, wouldn't millions of new viewers have to also drop what they usually watched to watch a show that they previously lacked interest in? I don't see how else a show could go from near cancellation to suddenly being a hit, yet it seems like people think that it would be the best solution for shows like Last Resort. I ask because to me it seems like it is an unrealistic expectation that fans have, yet you have a better perspective than I do. — Ira
Matt Roush: One of the best relatively recent examples of a show that moved out of a death slot to become a major hit is CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond, which barely survived its first months on Fridays before moving to Mondays, where it became the top-rated anchor show for years. This strategy of moving a show to save it is more likely to succeed with self-contained, easy-to-digest shows like comedies and procedurals than with densely plotted shows with complex mythologies like Last Resort. It's a very uphill battle to relocate and remarket a show that has failed to catch on, which is why ABC ultimately pulled the plug, a decision I have decried in this column although I understand why it happened. As many have complained to me, Last Resort should never have aired in that too-early Thursday time period. But that sub, alas, has sailed. There is another argument, given these changing times in how we watch TV, that binge viewing online might help a show like Last Resort the way it has boosted ratings between seasons of cable series like Breaking Bad. But Last Resort was never intended to be a niche show and couldn't survive with those kinds of cable numbers. So while Ira's reality check may not be the most welcome take on the situation for fans, it does help explain why ABC is cutting its losses on this one.
Question: Before this season began, I was really looking forward to The New Normal (based on the first episode that was available online; I thought that was a great episode) but only mildly curious about Go On. As the season has progressed, I've found that my opinions on those two shows have flipped. While I generally enjoy The New Normal, I do get tired of the preachy speeches (it's like watching reruns of Maude), though they seem to have pulled back from those lately. (And I do have to give them credit for also trying to present both sides at times). Go On, however, has become the new show I look most forward to. I think it manages to strike a good balance between humor and seriousness, and I still chuckle over the Rachel Maddow jokes from the lesbian wedding episode. So my question is, while I know it's common for a show to disappoint after a promising pilot since it's harder to maintain quality week after week, are there shows you've been pleasantly surprised with this season — ones you didn't expect much from but ended up really enjoying? — Scott
Matt Roush: When I shared your Maude remark to an NBC exec at a recent party, we both agreed that such an analogy would make Ryan Murphy's day. He really does see The New Normal as being in the Norman Lear tradition. I'm still not quite sold on Go On myself, but will give it another try in the back half of the season, as it's clearly going to be around for a while. In general, this has been such a disappointing TV fall for new series that I haven't had the sort of epiphanies such as you describe. I loved the Nashville pilot, but only recently has it begun to live up to its promise (although the music is always good). Elementary has mostly lived up to expectations, but I'm not sure it exceeds them. The show that has probably surprised me the most is The New Normal. I have become very attached to its blend of frankness and sweetness — and who doesn't adore little Shania? — and while it can be preachy, the show does at least acknowledge the issues of the world in which we all now live and feels like a product of 2012. And at times it even moves me. That has been in very rare supply among the season's new shows.
Question: I'm one of the people who really enjoys the recently canceled 666 Park Avenue. As the season is progressing, each episode is better than the previous. If the ratings improve to a more acceptable number as the season progresses, is it possible that ABC would consider un-canceling the show? Has that ever been done before? I wish they had more faith in this show. — Rachel
Matt Roush: Having seen early pilots of the shows that are replacing 666 and Last Resort, I'm thinking ABC may regret its decision not to give these shows a little more time. But while it's not unheard of for a show to be un-canceled — most recent example: AMC's The Killing — it's hard to imagine ABC reversing its decision this time. The midseason replacements have already been scheduled, so in an attempt to end this year's TV discussion on an upbeat note, just be glad that the network has decided to air all 13 episodes that were made.
With that, it's time to thank all of my readers and contributors for making the last year such a memorable one as they challenged, provoked and entertained me with questions and comments to this column. Because of the nature of these holiday weeks, there won't be a new Ask Matt column until Monday, Jan. 7, by which time the first wave of the midseason will already be underway. (There's hardly any downtime in TV anymore, not that I'm complaining.) I wish you all the happiest of holidays and the most promising of new year's — which reminds me that in last week's discussion of Dick Clark, I should have noted that on New Year's Eve in prime time, ABC will air a two-hour retrospective of Clark's career. Can't think of a more appropriate way to ring out 2012.
Until next time, keep sending your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow me on Twitter
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