The Middle

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Question: My current favorite show on TV is Modern Family. How could anyone not love that show? My other favorite show is Friday Night Lights. How it has never been a huge hit baffles me. Both are such refreshing, positive shows about everyday families. There are no other shows that portray families in such a realistic way. Instead of amoral teenagers who have little to no parental influence or just overly dramatic dysfunctional families, these shows celebrate the best of what families are: They fight with and for their each other, but it is because they love each other no matter what. I have cried more times than I would like to admit over these shows, just for the fierce love they portray. It is just nice not to worry that Eric and Tami Taylor or any of the couples on Modern Family will break up. I guess my questions are: Why do you think there are so few shows like this on TV? Do you think with the Emmy wins for Modern Family and the Emmy nominations for Friday Night Lights will bring about more shows that celebrate everyday families? — Amy

Matt Roush: While we're on the subject, let me put in a plug here as well for ABC's The Middle, one of the more underappreciated sitcoms out there. As much as I love Modern Family, the decidedly middle-class family in The Middle (as opposed to the upscale Modern clan) no doubt hits closer to home to much of the TV audience, as the Hecks scramble to make ends meet and deal regularly with crushing disappointments they somehow don't let get them down. Love them. But yes, why are these shows such a rare commodity? In the drama field especially, realistic and poignant family dramas of the Friday Night Lights vein are a very hard sell. People say they want to see this type of TV, but give them a choice and they'll go for a formula procedural every time. (Which aren't all bad, but generally aren't all that special.) TV trends tend to favor escapism, and tough-but-tender realism is rarely top of the list. With comedy, there's a sense in the industry and often in the media that comedies that focus on family are old-hat, not as "hip" as the post-Seinfeld comedies of absurd irony so favored by networks like NBC. Which is why I'm glad that ABC has had such success in finding fresh new twists on the family sitcom, as well as Fox giving the first full-season pick-up to Raising Hope, which despite its crude veneer is a pretty sweet family comedy at heart (as opposed to Running Wilde, which fairly drowns in its forced and over-the-top wackiness).

To answer your final question, while I'd obviously like to see more smart and touching family-based shows find their way into prime time, they're not that easy to pull off, and I'd fear getting a wave of inferior clones that may do more harm than good. Still, if an original voice is out there that can bring new energy to this endangered species, I'd like to think the network programmers would be more receptive to it now.

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Question:
I adore Community. I got hooked on it last season, and am really enjoying this season so far. But I am getting worried about the numbers. So far this season, Community's ratings haven't been great. However, they haven't really slipped from last season, which I would have thought was a good thing, considering they are now up against the ratings monster that is The Big Bang Theory. Additionally, from what I understand, the DVR numbers, as well as the numbers for those who watch online, mean many more people are watching Community than is reflected in the Nielsens. The first season DVD is selling really well, too. So, is the situation dire for Community? Should we fans be worried? — Kelly

Matt Roush: You kind of answered your own question. Community isn't likely ever to achieve blockbuster numbers like Big Bang gets, which pretty much goes for most of the rest of the NBC Thursday comedy lineup. But the projections were so much worse for Community this season given the challenge of facing Big Bang, and the fact that it held its own can be seen as a triumph. Plus, it helps that the media generally likes the show, and this week's episode is already getting lots of positive buzz. NBC notices such things, so as underdogs go, Community's prospects are fairly good for now. Moral: Don't skip class.

Question: Mad Men is my favorite show on TV right now. The plotlines, the characters, the acting — in my mind it's all perfect. However, I am not a professional TV critic. Since you are, I am wondering, what do you think are the flaws of this show? I don't know if this is asking you to step out of your comfort zone to critique a show that may not need critiquing, but I know there has to be some flaws that I don't see, and I am just curious as to what they are. At the end of the day, unless something drastic changes, I will still think it's perfect no matter what flaws other people see. But that doesn't mean I'm not curious. — Stephanie

Matt Roush: Not even the show's creator Matthew Weiner would say Mad Men is perfect. Few things are. But whatever its perceived flaws — and its critics tend to dwell on things like the show's deliberately measured pacing (especially in the first part of most seasons), its unsympathetic and some would say ungenerous portrayal of Betty Draper, its self-consciously mannered and stylized approach to period, its rather narrow prism on the world of the '60s outside advertising — the whole in this case (and certainly this season) is so much greater than the sum of its parts. (And for the record, I don't share the negative view on many of the above-mentioned traits. For me, Mad Men has always been a show that rewards patience.) The intensity of the storytelling in the last half of this season has been incredibly compelling and entertaining, and Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss have never been better. If you want to think of the show as perfect, you certainly have my blessing. Everything else is nit-picking.

Question: My husband and I recently caught up on a few CBS shows on our DVR and noticed a trend. In the first couple of weeks of the new fall season, we saw three of the more "non-essential" characters on CBS shows be written out. A.J. Cook (JJ) from Criminal Minds, Liz Vassey (Wendy) from CSI, and then Peter Cambor (Nate) from NCIS: LA. We had heard over the summer about A.J. Cook's dismissal, but to see so many characters go, all of them leaving for new jobs, was a little jarring. We liked all three, especially Wendy on CSI, and wondered what was going on. We joked that CBS must be having money troubles and thought they could release a few characters here and there if they weren't a big part of the main narrative of the show. Maybe this isn't a joke and CBS is downsizing? What do you think? — Amy

Matt Roush: While the circumstances may vary by the role, the actor and by the show — seems to me Nate was marginalized on NCIS: LA when the show decided to make Deeks a regular — a lot of these changes tend to be budget-driven, especially on the longer-running procedurals, which become more expensive as they negotiate contracts over the very long haul. The producers in some cases will also argue these changes are made for creative reasons, to shake up the ensemble and keep things fresh. But you're rarely wrong to assume money is involved in some way.

Question: This question is a follow-up of sorts to when you were recently talking about Friday night ratings, and you mentioned that CBS has kind of a built-in "loyal audience." When did this become the case? Wasn't it a few years ago (maybe the 90s) that CBS' ratings were in the dumper, and nothing they put on would get any traction (Central Park West, American Gothic, etc)? What changed? What is it with this network that causes people to gravitate to its programming? Do they have more coverage or something? Is it a case of the people are so old they have TVs that won't change from CBS (LOL)? It seems like they could put on an infomercial and it would get 15 million total viewers, actually maybe they should do that instead of the evening news! By the way I'm just talking about total viewers. I realize the 18-49 viewers are a bit more elusive. — Stephen

Matt Roush: Actually, this season CBS is doing pretty well even with the 18-49 audience, though the network has long maintained it's most interested in "big tent" programming that attracts young and old. To address your question, look no further than to CBS's long-time tentpoles, the shows that took the network back up to the top. Survivor (which opened the door for top-rated reality franchises on nearly every network), CSI and JAG spinoff NCIS. Building blocks that the network then capitalized on by playing (perhaps a bit too single-mindedly) to its audience. Plus CBS was able to launch Two and a Half Men while Everybody Loves Raymond was still hot, and that kept the Monday comedy lineup thriving. There really are very few chinks in CBS' armor at this point.

Question: In response to Adam's recent question about Glee and a portion of your response ("I understand the frustration when the show fails to live up to the very high expectations of its hype, but ... would you really prefer the TV landscape not to have a Glee in it?"), I also found season one to be — to use an overused but accurate description — creatively uneven. It's a show that I adore because of its uniqueness in the overall TV landscape, but I've felt forced to recommend it with "qualifiers" throughout its run. To my sister, I said that it's one of my favorite shows, but last season I "absolutely loved 30% of the episodes, liked 50 to 55% of the episodes, and disliked 15%." For reference, that's not anywhere near the "love percentage" per season for one of my other favorites, Friday Night Lights. I don't think that the casual viewer who might have jumped in mid-season last year or just a couple of weeks ago would necessarily have anticipated the tone of the show, which I would describe as a cross between High School Musical and the Reese Witherspoon film Election. Some of the scenes Adam described in his question were a heck of a lot closer to Election than HSM, and I'm pretty sure that most people wouldn't infer from the promos that the show is a little dark. Regardless, like you I feel fortunate that Glee has found a place in today's often-ficle TV climate and am thankful that its cast is strong enough to carry us through the occasional painful departures from worthy plotlines. — Katherine

Matt Roush: I like the Election comparison. Glee lives and dies in the extremes, which can be both exhilarating and aggravating, not to mention unsettling at times. But it's never, ever boring, and there's something to be said for that, which you did rather well.

Question: I have read your column for years, and you have introduced me to some amazing shows that I never would have watched otherwise. There are way too many to name them all, but one of them is The Big Bang Theory. I LOVED that show, until I recently stumbled upon several short YouTube clips of it with the laugh track removed. It is the only show I watch that has audience laughter, and now I see why. It is painful to watch with no laugh track! My question is, are we being tricked into thinking shows are funnier than they are because of canned audience laughter? My favorites of the genre, Scrubs and Modern Family, don't have laugh tracks and (in my opinion) don't need them at all. I laugh out loud by my own choosing many times during those shows. I don't like feeling like BBT is manipulating me into watching by using a live studio audience, so I'd love to hear the opinion of a fellow fan! — Ryan

Matt Roush: There is a live audience laughing at Big Bang every week, and that's not a lie. How is that manipulation if you're laughing along with them? Which, if you've been watching Big Bang this season — loved the Shel-bot! — I assume you're still getting your laugh-out-loud jollies. I know I am. I don't and have never agreed with the notion that single-camera filmed sitcoms are somehow inherently preferable to sitcoms filmed in front of a live audience — the TV equivalent of live theater. Funny is funny, and has been since I Love Lucy. Can you imagine a classic like Cheers, Frasier or Raymond being done without an audience roaring their love for these characters? I can't. I agree if a comedy is filmed without an audience, there shouldn't be piped-in laughs. And while it's pretty clear some laugh tracks are often noticeably sweetened and heightened, the YouTube clips do a disservice by airing those scenes in a vacuum. These scenes are written, performed and directed with an audible audience reaction in mind. When it's absent, it's deadly. Of course, all of this is a matter of taste. Thankfully, I like all kinds of comedy — as long as it amuses me.

Question: Except for Lone Star, nothing new so far this fall has been really thrilling, but I wanted to write on behalf of Life Unexpected, which has really improved this season after taking a while in the latter half of last season to find its way. While Lux's blaming Cate and Baze for bad parenting causing her grades to suffer fell a little flat, they've done a pretty good job this season of finding conflict for these characters which does not involve her being so annoyed with either parent that she bounces back and forth. I'm really impressed that they seem to be moving people in new directions, such as getting Baze out of the bar and actually discussing Lux's academic performance, which a lot of these CW soaps selectively ignore (hello, Gossip Girl!) The Cate and Ryan marriage is, so far, a great example of how couples can work in TV without resorting to the will-they-or-won't-they-stay-together cycle. And while the crush on teacher storyline has been done before, I'm still intrigued how they're going to play it out because it doesn't seem as though they are going to go the illicit affair route. It's still not a perfect show, but I'm really excited to see the show finding new ways to challenge itself, and it is starting to remind me of Everwood again, at least in spirit, which is always a good thing. Your thoughts? — Jake

Matt Roush: I wish I felt as positively as you do about this one, but the goodwill I felt toward Life Unexpected's potential when I first saw the pilot was squandered quickly by too much trite, incessant squabbling. Even if they somehow manage to resolve a situation fairly quickly these days, the impulse still is to scream and blame first, possibly forgive later. The introduction of Ryan's horrifying sister Paige and the baby-faced teacher crushing on Lux are just more annoying wrinkles on a show that has yet to create a very inviting world. A far cry from the WB peaks of Everwood, which earned its tear-jerking moments, and Gilmore Girls, with its bounty of adorable characters. That said, I want to like Ryan and Cate and Baze, and the performers are very appealing — I've given up on the self-righteous Lux — so the door isn't entirely closed yet.

Question: I realize that by the time you may see this question, The Whole Truth may have been canceled due to low ratings, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts to the future of the show (if that future has not already been decided). I find that I am enjoying the show mainly due to being able to see Maura Tierney on screen again. I also like that the show is trying to take the very overused concept of the courtroom and show it from a little different angle, especially at the end, letting the audience know if the verdict was really the correct one. I know this is not the most critically acclaimed law show on the air, but I think it might stand a chance on another night, but then I'm not sure where that would be. Just wondered what you may know about it. — JG

Matt Roush: For the moment, or at least for this week, ABC is still sticking with The Whole Truth. But I'd be telling you something less than the real (if unpleasant) truth if I painted a very rosy picture. While I'm a big fan of Maura Tierney as well, and she does what she can within the gruff contours of her underdeveloped character here, the show's split focus and rushed pace make for one of TV's more simplistic legal shows, and the gimmicky reveal at the end can only take it so far. The real problem here is that it's the one-too-many in a time period where it faces two other legal/courtroom dramas more suited to their networks' brands: CBS's The Defenders and NBC's Law & Order: Los Angeles. If the numbers don't pick up, I doubt ABC will move it around. More likely the network will cut its losses and eventually put another show there, possibly Dana Delany's medical-examiner procedural Body of Proof (which may also face an uphill battle there).

Question: I really enjoyed the show My Generation. I am upset that it was canceled after only two episodes. I know it wasn't the best show, but I feel it had potential. I wonder did ABC want the show to fail. Personally, if it wasn't for the fact that I started watching GH again I would not even have heard of the show. I think that it was given a horrible time slot. Thursday at 8/7c is a hard time. On CW it's Vampire Diaries, on CBS you have Big Bang Theory, and on NBC you have Community and 30 Rock. Almost all the other new shows that got released this fall had an older show that was a lead-in to help the show. My Generation seems to be left out to dry. Why not put it on Wednesday night after Cougar Town. Or on Tuesday before Dancing with the Stars or Monday nights after Dancing with the Stars. Or why not push Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice back an hour then put My Generation on. All the shows on Thursday have established fan bases who are loyal to their shows and will watch and may not have time to watch a new show. For me, nothing of interest comes on Thursday night so I was looking forward to finally having something to watch on Thursdays. What will happen to the rest of the episodes? Will they be released so that fans of the show can be able to see it? Personally I think the third episode would have been better then the other two because it gave more back stories to some more of the main characters. — Dawn

Matt Roush: Anyone who's read me for any length of time knows my answer to this one. Networks do not want their shows to fail. They do not try to kill their shows, regardless of how it looks. There's always some show that's going to get the short straw and be thrown into an impossible time period, and there are reasons to think My Generation could have worked on Thursdays. With its youthful cast and au courant Facebook-ish vibe, it was geared and marketed to a young audience and developed, as far as I can tell, for the 8/7c time period. Airing in one of the 10/9c slots wasn't really an option — especially on Mondays, where Castle is actually successful — since the network was heavily developing procedural shows for those time periods. (And with Detroit 1-8-7, may have found a sleeper.) ABC was under no illusion that it would be easy to crack this Thursday time period, but hoped Generation would be compatible enough to the serial-drama appeal of Grey's Anatomy to get some of that audience spillover. Of course, it might have helped if it had been a better show.

Question: You said that My Generation was canceled because it was a terrible show that had been rejected by the critical media. Yet Private Practice is also a terrible show that was rejected by the critics, and also got low ratings when it first came out. And yet ABC has stuck with it for four agonizing seasons. Why did ABC think that was more worth saving than far more deserving shows like Pushing Daisies or Better Off Ted?Shamus

Matt Roush: Ha! Thanks for the reminder that sometimes TV, like life, just isn't fair. Private Practice survives for the most cynical of reasons. Because it's a safe bet, a woefully inferior spin-off that is directly and comfortably yoked to the still-thriving mothership of Grey's Anatomy. (And while you may be right about its early numbers, seems to me that Practice tends to hold enough of Grey's audience for ABC to justify its existence, regardless of what critics might think. It's not a bona fide hit, but far from an ABC trouble spot, of which there are many.) Keeping Practice on the air also keeps Shonda Rhimes happy, and that's rather significant, given the importance of Grey's to ABC's overall performance. Whereas short-lived gems like Pushing Daisies and Better Off Ted exist on a completely different plane. They were fabulous risks, the opposite of safe. What happened to them has nothing to do with what's happening on Thursday nights.

That's all for now. Keep sending in those questions to askmatt@tvguidemagazine.com, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter!

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