Ask Matt: Homeland, The Middle, Raising Hope, Community
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Question: So thrilled that Homeland has been picked up for Season Two! I'm absolutely riveted week after week. I've seen some premature discussion here and there about whether or not Damian Lewis will still be on the show next season given his storyline, and I sincerely hope he is. Granted, I'm a big fan and would watch him in Reading the Phone Book: The Series, but I think Brody and his clan are integral to the show's success. If it became just about Carrie hunting a new threat each season, I'm not sure I would be as invested. Don't get me wrong, Claire Danes is doing excellent work and Carrie is a great character, but the Brody family's interactions have me on the edge of my seat just as much as the terrorism plot, if not more so. (How lovely to see Morena Baccarin shine with such a meaty role.) Obviously we'll see what happens as Season One continues, but just wanted to note my admiration for Homeland's deft mix of political/espionage intrigue and family drama. — Keira
Matt Roush: As great as Claire Danes is as the unstable Carrie — and I expect both she and Lewis will get some serious awards attention this season — I agree that Homeland won't be nearly as compelling if it merely morphs into The Adventures of Carrie the Bipolar CIA Analyst, constantly butting heads with authority ever time a new threat comes along that only she can see. (Unless, I suppose, we're meant to question her paranoia to the point that she becomes the true menace to society, which may not be that far-fetched.) Not having any real idea where Season One is heading, I'll save the speculation about Season Two until later. But wherever the Brody character ends up, Lewis and Baccarin have definitely raised the bar when it comes to our emotional investment.
Question: Just a quick comment on two shows that I have enjoyed until this year, The Middle and Raising Hope. Both have fallen into what I like to call "the scream syndrome." Seems like some shows that run out of good writing and good ideas have their actors resort to screaming their lines, as if that would make them funnier. I think both shows suffered from that in the first few episodes of the season, with The Middle seeming to be a little better in the Halloween episode. But Raising Hope, which started out as a story about a quirky lower-middle-class family adapting to a new baby, has now dumbed its characters down to where it is almost unwatchable. Martha Plimpton's character especially seems more dense than in the first season. This is the same thing that went wrong with My Name Is Earl. Being poor doesn't equate to being stupid! What is your opinion, am I off base altogether? — Terry
Matt Roush: These are very broad comedies, and I have no problem with that as long as they're funny, and for me, both shows are doing just fine in that regard. Especially The Middle this season, which I think has been a scream in the best sense of the word. Just a few isolated moments: Frankie freaking out when she realized Axl had clipped his toenails into the potato chip bag, or Sue frantically waiting by the phone for the cheerleading call and throwing herself across the room when it rang. These scenes are played at a hysterical pitch, but they're going for big laughs here, and what's the shame in that? While you're probably right that on Raising Hope some of Virginia's (Plimpton) malapropisms are a little too on the nose, the crudeness of the humor has always been part of the point, like it or not. I don't think it's become noticeably worse in the second season, but maybe I'm just more at peace with it. Both shows exult in the messiness of their home life, though Hope is much more cartoonishly stylized. (But are the Hecks' ancient aunts any less wacky than Maw Maw, really?) Of course I agree with your contention that poor doesn't equal stupid, but I don't feel these shows (even Hope) view its characters with such contempt. The exact opposite, actually.
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Question: OMG, I have just been indoctrinated into the awesomeness of Community! Having already been a Thursday-night NBC watcher, I somehow didn't really catch on to Community until this season, and now I'm completely blown away by it! How do people not know about this show? Okay, I know some people do, but apparently not enough, as it seems to be in trouble. It's even better — yes, I dare say it! — than The Office and 30 Rock. But now that I'm hooked, I'm also worried that it will be unfairly and shortsightedly dropped before I've had my fill. What can I do to let NBC know that Community is a show that must remain on the air? — Jean
Matt Roush: Well, I hope you participated in voting for Community in TV Guide Magazine's "choose the cover" Fan Favorites poll on Facebook. (The voting closes tonight at midnight, so there's still time.) Social media like Twitter and Facebook and official show fan sites may be among the most effective and immediate ways for everyday fans to intensify the buzz around low-rated shows like this gem. The old-fashioned methods of actually writing to the network and encouraging the show's advertisers may have more impact than you think. Reaching out to your friends in the media (thanks for writing!) and just spreading the word may not always help the bottom line, but doesn't it make you feel better? I feel it's a small miracle that Community is still getting to do its joyously peculiar thing for a third season, and I'll cheer it on for as long as NBC finds a way to justify keeping it on the air. The good news is that all of the networks are prioritizing comedy these days, and while this one should be doing better in the ratings (and the Emmys should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring it), it enjoys a fair amount of critical buzz, which never hurts.
Question: Why does Two and a Half Men have to be so dirty? The language is all about sex. I am really getting tired of it and may stop watching. If it has to be this bad, then they should put it on at 10 pm. — Mamie
Matt Roush: Did you just start watching this season? The show has always been all about sex. Those getting action (Charlie and now Walden), those who aren't (Alan) and those who can't stop thinking about it (Jake and everyone else). If anything, 2 Broke Girls which comes on just before Men is even filthier — or maybe it just seems that way when Kat Dennings delivers one of her gamy punch lines. None of this explanation is meant to be a defense of how low the show stoops for many of its jokes, which we have often criticized in the past. But when you see how powerful an anchor this has been for CBS' comedy lineup for years (and now in syndication), it's clear many people think it's funny.
On the same topic (the show, anyway), Rozmarie writes: "I really miss Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen). They really blew it with that silly character to take Charlie's place played by Ashton Kutcher. After watching three episodes, I will not watch it or even DVR it. Even Alan isn't the same anymore. I guess you can't replace perfection."
Perfection? Oh Rozmarie, how I would love to get you in a room with Mamie and see you battle it out.
Question: Why do people expect new shows to be spectacular right out of the gate? Is it the curse of Lost, The West Wing and Battlestar Galactica that viewers are more willing to dump shows that don't wow them within two episodes? I've added Pan Am, Ringer and Terra Nova to my viewing schedule this year. All started slow but are improving each week. Being new shows, I expect them to have growing pains. Have your opinions of these three changed, Matt? I'm pleased that Ringer has been extended for a full season. But I can't tell which way the wind is blowing for the other two. Any ideas? — Suzanne
Matt Roush: To answer your big-picture question, it is getting harder for shows to break through immediately because there are so many choices and so many options in terms of the way we even sample the shows anymore. The networks are, for the most part, exercising more patience toward shows they think will trend upward when all the various data are compiled (which is definitely the case for Terra Nova, competing for viewers on a very busy Monday schedule). But first impressions count for a lot in this business, and it's very hard to win people back if their first impressions of a flawed pilot keep them from returning. Of your three examples, Terra Nova is the show that has grown on me the most. It's very enjoyable (and pretty) to watch, and it's living up to its promise as an escapist adventure the whole family can enjoy — and those who think that isn't a compliment have my sympathy. Given Fox's investment in the show, I'll be surprised if it doesn't get renewed for a second, longer season. I liked the trashy pleasures of Ringer's pilot episode but felt the next new chapters were painfully dull. Things have picked up lately, but it does seem to be taking itself awfully seriously. Getting a full season to figure itself out is a good thing. Beyond that, who knows? And I was high on Pan Am from the start, again for purely escapist reasons. It's still a show that I find pleasurable to watch, but it evaporates from memory almost immediately. They really need to juice up the story on that one, raising the emotional stakes for what is turning out to be a rather bland group of characters. It has become a rather flavorless soufflé, and given that its ratings keep dropping, I'm worried it may not make it to the end of the season. It's a sure bet it won't stay on Sundays come midseason.
Question: Over the past couple of years, ABC has struggled a bit as a network (although always overshadowed by NBC's woes), especially when it comes to finding new drama hits. I've thought about what their problem could be, and there's a thought I had. When I was a child, ABC was the main network my family watched, primarily because they had a good collection of family-oriented shows. At last May's upfronts, they seemed to place an emphasis on female-skewing shows, as demonstrated by new shows such as Revenge, Charlie's Angels (now canceled), Pan Am and the upcoming GCB. I know that there are many exceptions to this, but it does seem like ABC is trying to become a network targeted towards more female audiences. I think it would be a good idea for ABC to go back to its more family-oriented roots, centered around some already established successful shows like Modern Family and The Middle, and perhaps even its premiere success with Once Upon a Time (I know ABC can have lots of success in premieres but struggles at maintaining audiences, but it seems that it has positive buzz going into its second week). I even have to wonder if past attempts at family shows such as No Ordinary Family and V would have been more successful had they been surrounded by other similar shows. I would love to hear your thoughts. — Brandon
Matt Roush: First off, I don't really think of V as a family show (it wasn't especially good at sci-fi, either). But generally, I'm not a fan of trying to pigeonhole (or strait-jacket, as the case may be) any network by locking it into a specific demographic or genre — although CBS' successful reliance on the formula procedural makes it the easiest target in this game. ABC's emphasis on female-friendly (though not gender-exclusive) programming is hardly new, and became much more focused in that direction after the breakthroughs of Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy. But even when ABC dominated in family comedy with Roseanne, Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire and the "TGIF" lineup, it was testing dramatic boundaries with shows like China Beach, Twin Peaks and most successfully with NYPD Blue, so it's hard to generalize about such things. The success of Modern Family has spurred ABC and its competitors to ramp up comedy development of all sorts, but you're right that the appetite for family-oriented comedy is there, and Paul Lee may yet capitalize on that, and I also never lose hope that a family drama may again achieve traction (Parenthood is hanging in there on NBC, but would probably have been scrapped by now on any other network). I'm very curious to see if Once Upon a Time thrives and grows, because that kind of big high-concept swing for a big-tent audience is exactly what ABC and the other networks should be trying.
Question: I'm sure you get this question a lot, but I'm wondering with seemingly a zillion channels to choose from, why some of my favorite shows in syndication don't seem to be on TV anymore. Where's West Wing, Murphy Brown, Dynasty, Sports Night, Anything But Love, etc.? All of these shows at some point were in syndication but now are nowhere to be found. For a while SoapNet was playing old Falcon Crest episodes, but that was a long time ago, and they need to play 10 hours of One Tree Hill per day so there's no room. I get that networks want the "newer-ish" stuff, so if ever there's a moment of the day I can't find a Seinfeld, Friends, The Big Bang Theory and The Nanny (all of which I love!), I'd be shocked. I'm finding more and more random channels with The A Team, Starsky & Hutch, and other "old" TV. I don't get it. And I'll never understand how Murphy Brown isn't treated like the other iconic sitcoms. They used to show one episode at 3 a.m. and that's it, but even that's been gone for years now. What's up? — Liz
Matt Roush: As with nearly everything in TV, even syndication has its cyclical nature, and some shows simply run their course. After enough time has passed, some make comebacks on the nostalgia circuit, but soaps aren't as likely as vintage sitcoms and crime dramas to be revived. There are very few series (I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, The Andy Griffith Show) that seem to be timeless enough that they may never disappear entirely from some sort of off-network run — which brings me to Murphy Brown in particular. This is a show very much of its time — and I loved it for most of its run, reporting on it and reviewing it regularly — but its humor is often very topical, and while we may still be able to relate to its satire of the news business and the universality of its characters, it already seems more dated than something like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (I was reminded of this watching the first episode of PBS' Primetime in America series, which premiered Sunday; the look of the show, from the clips they screened, screamed late '80s — which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it helps explain why it may not be as ubiquitous as such peers as Roseanne, Seinfeld and Home Improvement.
Question: I am a huge fan and long-time follower of your column. I really enjoy your day-to-day guides on TV. They were especially helpful when trying to prioritize which fall shows to sample and give a second look. Anyway, after sampling the fall's new TV shows, I have to say I am disappointed with this year's network TV options. I am completely addicted to BBC America's "Dramaville" and the various Masterpiece series. I don't understand why British procedural shows are so much more compelling than their American counterparts. I know that there is plenty of high-quality drama on cable and premium channels, but it really seems like network TV has dropped the ball a bit. When it comes to genre and high-concept shows, a la Fringe, there are plenty of juicy stories and characters to enjoy. What really baffles me, though, is how Law & Order: UK can be so much more compelling than Law & Order: SVU. Yes, SVU has higher shock value and is handicapped this year by the loss of Christopher Meloni, but UK uses simple stories and just feels fresher, even with recycled scripts from the original series. I'll admit that there is something sexier about a British accent, but it doesn't explain the sheer number of truly amazing British series: Inspector Lewis, Luther, The Hour, Case Histories, etc. What's your take on the situation? It is my understanding that the BBC is the British equivalent to ABC, NBC, CBS or FOX, so why does the BBC seem to produce a steadier stream of higher caliber product? I would assume that American networks tied to huge media conglomerates with in-house movie studios have a larger pool of actors and writers to pull from and much larger budgets to throw at their shows. I am hoping that your expertise can correct my analysis or possibly provide some insight into my perceived discrepancy in quality. — Pallas
Matt Roush: One thing to keep in mind in making these comparisons is that we tend to see only the best of the British TV marketplace, so the more fair comparison might be to the cream of the crop of our cable programmers: FX, AMC, USA (for more broad-based hits) and the premium channels. I would put Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Justified, etc., up against many of these British shows, which can afford to be darker, edgier and more niche that what the American broadcast networks tend to do, being more risk-averse because their fortunes are still more directly and solely tied to ratings and advertising. (Regarding Law & Order: UK, that's just another reminder of NBC's short-sightedness in canceling the mothership, which was always the best of the franchise, especially whenever the cast clicked the way it was doing toward the end.)
Question: I have a question regarding on-demand viewing. I am one of the few (so it seems) to not have a DVR, but do take advantage of On Demand to see shows that I cannot watch when they air. How do the networks decide what goes On Demand and does on-demand watching count towards the ratings of a show? Specifically, I watched most of the first season of Harry's Law on demand, but Season Two is not available, so I haven't seen one episode (along with everyone else by looking at the ratings). Also, what I find that happens a lot is they put the whole season on-demand of a show, except the final episode (season finale). This is infuriating because you invest time into a show all season, but then are unable to watch the season finale. Why do they do this? By the time the show comes back, sometimes as long as 8-10 months later, we as viewers have lost interest (but that is a different topic). — Shane
Matt Roush: This question of shows being available (or not) online or On Demand comes up a lot, and it's just a fact that not every show on every network is being offered on these platforms. It's all about what deals are made for each show, and the decision is generally made by the studio, most often in cases where the show is produced by an entity other than the network's corporate parent. Harry's Law is distributed by Warner Bros., not NBC/Universal, and the reason some shows like this are held back seems to be a belief that giving it away for free lessens its value. (Your assumption about Harry's ratings are a bit off. It's actually one of NBC's most-watched shows, which isn't saying much, but where it really falls short is in the younger demos.) As for your complaint about final episodes not being put On Demand, I wasn't aware that was a problem. Just last week, in anticipation for Tuesday's return of Covert Affairs, I went online to watch the summer finale, which I'd missed. (It was on USA Network's site and On Demand.) I'm sure there are exceptions and glitches, but I can't imagine why a show that's otherwise available this way wouldn't post their finale for all to see.
Question: I was wondering why NBC was so quick to give Whitney a full-season pick-up. It's not like the show's initial ratings were through the roof. Plus the show isn't very funny and is getting killed by just about everyone. If the ratings were really good, but it was getting killed by critics, I could understand the pick-up. Or if the ratings were bad, but it was well-liked (like Community), I could understand that, too. But I'm scratching my head over how a show that's unpopular (ratings-wise and critically) would get picked up after a pair of airings. Also, in your career as a TV critic, have you come across many shows that had as big an imbalance of great talent and poor material as CBS' How to Be a Gentleman? — Joe
Matt Roush: I'm no fan of Whitney, but NBC is trying to send a message to the industry that it's serious about standing behind all kinds of comedy during this period of rebuilding, from the cult-ish single camera sitcom (which includes fellow freshman Up All Night) to something this broad and loud, which seems more like something you'd see on CBS (although usually done better). It may seem like a premature and poorly thought out renewal, but NBC can't kill everything. Regarding your question about Gentleman, which is an already forgotten footnote to the season, it's simply a reminder that TV history is littered with so many corpses of shows involving high-profile talent trapped in quick-fading mediocrity, I wouldn't even know where to start. (Rule of thumb: TV has a lot better track record at creating new stars than repackaging old favorites. Think Mr. Sunshine: Matthew Perry, Allison Janney, Andrea Anders. 'Nuff said.)
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