Ask Matt: NCIS Without Gibbs? Plus Human Target, Shameless and midseason TV
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Question: In many of my favorite shows (NCIS, Grey's Anatomy, etc.), there have been contract issues and in some cases instances where lead actors and actresses decide to leave the show. I feel like if one main character left, then it would end the show in some sort of way. What do the cast members and directors do when a lead character leaves the show? An example: What if Mark Harmon or Ellen Pompeo left NCIS or Grey's? Grey's Anatomy is named after Meredith Grey, whom Ellen portrays, and NCIS would be nothing without Gibbs. And what if this was really to happen in the future? Would production of the TV show stop or would they try with what they have (other main characters and crew) and keep the show going as long as possible? — Carlee
Matt Roush: As usual, it really depends on the particular show and how desperately the network (and/or studio) needs to keep it around. The best example I can think of is the original CSI continuing without its team leader, Gil Grissom (William Petersen) — which may or may not have been a good idea, depending on how devoted one is to the show and to the remaining cast members. It's pretty clear the Grissom-less CSI is a diminished series (though it's still the best of the franchise), but the still has value to CBS on Thursdays, which is why it didn't fold tent after the star left. If either NCIS or Grey's lost its leads (and I don't think either scenario is very likely, especially where Harmon is concerned), it would be a serious blow, but it's possible the networks would try to keep them around for a bit longer. Grey's has Lexie to fall back on, but who would want to see her POV on a weekly basis? (It would reek of latter-year ER.) And NCIS could conceivably continue without Gibbs, building a new team, but I imagine it would lose steam, perhaps even quicker than CSI did. This is where spin-offs come into play. Both shows have spawned them, some more successful than others, and if these motherships were to go away, you might find one or more main characters from the original series try to find traction in shows of their own. Let's hope it doesn't come to this anytime soon.
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Question: When Human Target premiered last season, I thought that this would be a good thing, especially since 24 was ending and Target seemed to have a bit of an edge to it, even though it was episodic. This season, however, Target has a totally different feel to it with the new cast members, which I didn't think they needed, and new theme song. The show has even lightened up in its tone. It's starting to look more like Burn Notice. Is this the producers' attempt to gain more viewers? — Bill
Matt Roush: The simple answer is yes. Adding two female regulars was clearly a bid to broaden the show's appeal — and while I think Indira Varma was a fine add as the new boss figure, I'm not sure what the Ames character is really bringing to the party, though I don't mind her — but I'm not sure that likening it to a USA series is the insult you may intend it to be. For me, Human Target has from the start felt more like a caper series than a hard-edged action adventure, never intended to be taken as seriously as 24. Chance's back story clearly has a dark side, and Guerrero always means business and has edge (though he's as hilarious as he is lethal), but the show has always been much closer in tone to USA than FX, unless I've missed something. I'm not sure these tweaks will help the show find an audience, especially with the strategy of scheduling back-to-back episodes the next two weeks — too much of an OK thing, even for a fan. But I'm also not convinced they've done irreparable harm.
Question: Having seen several dozen ads for Showtime's new series Shameless over the past few months, I was only mildly intrigued. The cast looks phenomenal (William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum), but the concept didn't initially grab me. However, I caught the 20-minute preview after the Dexter finale (well played, Showtime) and it really piqued my interest. I was actually pretty surprised at how invested I became after only a few minutes. I'm not sure it'll make my top-10 list (too soon to tell), but I think it has a lot of potential. Have you seen the full pilot? What did you think? Also, are there any other new midseason shows worth watching? After a fall slate of new pilots that was almost universally underwhelming (with a few shining exceptions — I miss you already, Terriers), I'm really hoping that midseason brings some better options. Based on precedent, I'm guessing network TV probably isn't the desired destination, but are there any surprise winners I should look out for? Or will the big four simply fill in scheduling holes with second-string pilots that weren't good enough for fall? Again, I'd love to hear your thoughts. — Lacy
Matt Roush: I've seen three episodes so far and I am mostly on board, especially where Emmy Rossum is concerned. She's electrifying, and there's something compelling about watching her and her endearingly scruffy siblings scramble to survive (while ministering to their degenerate drunk dad) that put me in mind of Fagin's den of thieves in Oliver Twist. The show sometimes pushes too hard for shock value, especially where Macy and an agoraphobic lunatic played by Joan Cusack are concerned, but that kind of overindulgence comes with the pay-cable territory. Shameless is a distinctive show that will likely get a lot of critical attention — but I'm more fond of Showtime's other Sunday newbie: Episodes, the TV satire starring Matt LeBlanc and two sensational British actors, Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, as comedy writers whose vision is corrupted by Hollywood. Beyond that, though, and FX's darkly compelling drama Lights Out, there isn't much in this first wave of midseason programming (at least that I've sampled so far) that is wowing me. The network stuff in particular is as uninspired as most of the fall disappointments, and that is not a happy observation to make this early in the new year.
QuestioN: I love Friday Night Lights and have been careful not to read anything about what has been going on because I am waiting for it to air on NBC like it did last year. When is this going to happen? Also, I read that Damages was saved by DirecTV as well and will air there. Will it also air on FX afterwards? Why does DirecTV do this? I am not about to switch to satellite just to watch the end of one show and probably the final season of another. — Meghan
Matt Roush: Most likely, NBC's broadcast of the final season of Friday Night Lights won't happen until the very end of the TV season in late spring/early summer. With Damages, there will be no second window on FX. It's exclusive to DirecTV. And why, you ask, does DirecTV do this? To increase its visibility and value to potential subscribers (although the execs have said they will no longer in the business of rescuing ratings failures). You may not be inclined to switch to satellite, but others might be. So from DirecTV's perspective, this is good business. And it sends a signal that DirecTV has an investment in quality programming, and at some point plans to generate new titles of its own. While it's disappointing for non-subscribers not to have access to these series as they initially air, the alternative is for them to disappear forever. Given that these seasons will eventually be available on DVD for rental, purchase or downloading, isn't this a preferable fate for these series?
Question: What do you think is the best way to eliminate someone on a reality competition: judges' choice, viewer choice or judges/viewer choice? It seems like all have resulted in bad choices. Project Runway, which is judges' choice, made Gretchen instead of Mondo the winner. American Idol, which is viewer choice, made Kris Allen the winner instead of Adam Lambert. Dancing with the Stars, which is judges/viewer choice, kept Bristol Palin on. Which way is your preference? — Lisa
Matt Roush: It almost doesn't matter what method is used, there will always be complaints about the results. When it comes to specialized skill-based reality competitions like Project Runway and Top Chef, I'm generally content to let experts do the judging. Disagreeing with the results is part of the so-called fun — although Runway crowning Gretchen over Mondo will go down as one of the most notoriously bad decisions that series ever made. What were they thinking? With live performance competitions, part of the genius of these shows is the audience participation. It's what helps makes them so popular. And the results often reveal the unavoidable truth about this mass medium: There's no accounting for taste.
Question: In the most recent Ask Matt column, you wrote, "It still seems a shame that well-told stories about everyday family life, where the characters aren't in heightened life-or-death occupations, can't find a home on TV." IMO the reason for this is that people have enough reality in their lives and watch TV to get away from it. I deal with everyday family life all day. I want to watch something else on TV. — Dennis
Matt Roush: I get that. And I have nothing against escapism. Where would TV be without it? I still think an argument can be made that there should be room on TV that makes an effort to be real and touch the heart as well as relax the mind. If an anthropologist from the future were to try to divine the reality of American life from current TV Guide listings, I fear they'd think we were a nation where nothing ever occurred but murder and medical mayhem. And it's kind of hard to take satisfaction in that.
Question: Maybe it was me, stuck inside for three days with streets I could barely walk through, much less drive in, but I thought this year's Kennedy Center Honors was one of the best such shows I've seen to date. The talent of the honorees and of the people honoring them was amazingly wonderful entertainment. Do you agree? Or was my reaction possibly due to snowbound conditions? And I also wondered as I was enjoying this plethora of goodness, how do the people honored get chosen? Who decides who'll get picked each year, and how does the decision process work? I'd really like to know. — Dorothy
Matt Roush: Couldn't agree more. Snowbound, waterlogged or whatever one's situation, CBS' Kennedy Center Honors telecast is always one of the classiest highlights of any TV year, and the eclectic nature of this year's show — ranging from Oprah to Paul McCartney to Broadway (Jerry Herman), country (Merle Haggard) and modern dance (Bill T. Jones) was thrilling. Here's how it works: The honorees are chosen by the Kennedy Center's board of trustees from recommendations made by previous honorees as well as Center's national artists committee, a very diverse group that ranges from Alan Alda and Barbara Cook to Hugh Jackman, Kid Rock and Meryl Streep (who certainly is due an Honor of her own one of these years).
Question: I've been following the TV-show-locations discussion on "Ask Matt" with interest. As someone who lives and works in the greater Washington, D.C. area, I have a love-hate relationship with shows set in the D.C. area because none shoot here. I realize that it's just a TV show and every show requires a healthy dose of suspended disbelief. But even my limits are tested when it looks like a library shot of the National Mall was actually flipped in broadcast (as it seemed in the season finale of Burn Notice, unless Michael was actually being welcomed back into the Library of Congress). It makes me wonder if the writers and show-runners have ever even visited DC! It's frustrating.
But maybe because of this, I have to give special kudos to Covert Affairs. The show is obviously shot in Toronto, but it's clear the show-runners and cinematographers have made an extra effort to shoot in and around D.C. and Langley. It's obvious in both story (e.g., the fact that Annie and Danielle are both military brats) and film (during one early car chase scene, Annie drives under an overpass that looked so much like the entrance to Whitehurst Parkway I did a double-take). The show's attention to detail is truly commendable. The details they get wrong are few and often wouldn't even be obvious to people who live in the area but don't work downtown. I enjoy the stories on Covert Affairs, but it's this level of attention to detail that has elevated the show to must-watch status for me.
Why is it that more shows don't make this level of effort? I fully realize that sending a camera crew to cities all over the country can be prohibitively expensive, but what about sending the writers for a week-long retreat? Or is it that every show doesn't place setting/location as important a character as others? — Famin
Matt Roush: Having lived there through most of the '80s and '90s myself, I especially notice the fakery in D.C.-based series when they use the subway. The D.C. metro looks like no other, and it's not easily replicated. A lot of shows think that just by slapping a process shot of the Capitol or other monuments behind the characters, that conveys D.C. It's such a cliché. But TV is often about economy and cutting corners and hoping we won't mind too much. It's really a matter of priority, and getting the location right clearly isn't always top of the list.
Question: The reader who wrote to ask what city we're looking at when watching certain shows struck a chord with me. I have lived in the metro Atlanta area for over 20 years and have seen movie and TV productions come and go. Lately, there has been a large influx of productions due to some hefty tax incentives. Drop Dead Diva, The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead and all of Tyler Perry's TV comedies are filmed around here. Diva is set in L.A., so it is odd to see the peach logo at the end of the credits. The best use of Atlanta locations that I have seen since Driving Miss Daisy was in the recent Lifetime TV-movie, Marry Me. It was set in Atlanta and featured a number of places that I love. It didn't hurt to have Lucy Liu and Steven Pasquale at their most charming strolling, driving and jogging around the city and environs. When the story shifts to a French castle, they're actually in neighboring North Carolina at the Biltmore estate. The only false note was Annie Potts carrying a Macy's bag through a mall that doesn't have a Macy's store, but that was a minor quibble and was perhaps a product placement. I just wonder if I'll get as jaded as the L.A. or Vancouver folks must be seeing my city used as a backdrop for stories that may or may not be set here. Marry Me was a real treat in any case. — Frank
Matt Roush: Thanks for that observation. It's especially refreshing when a project filmed on location actually allows itself to be set there. (Why, when you think of it, couldn't a show like Diva be set in Atlanta?)
Question: I don't think I've read your take on the sixth season of Weeds yet. Have you caught up on the show? I've never been the biggest Weeds fan, but season 6 made me love the show in ways I have never loved the show before. By focusing solely on the Botwin family, the show felt much tighter than before, and having them on the run together led the characters to look back on their past and to reflect on their relationships with each other, which I think was fascinating to watch. The finale with Nancy sacrificing herself for her family nearly felt like a series finale and redeemed Nancy as a character. I know that many fans and critics don't like the changes that Weeds went through, but I've always admired the show for having the guts to change the show and mix things up, even though it might alienate viewers and critics. Weeds is one of the few shows that actually succeed at surprising the audience, they always lead you to unexpected places, which I appreciate since so many TV shows have become predictable over the years.
In opposite to Weeds, Dexter's fifth season felt disappointingly safe. While starting out promising and interesting, it ultimately remained stuck in its own formula. I'm disappointed by how predictable the show has become. There are no real stakes anymore, since the writers turned Dexter into a superhuman, who gets away with everything, without real consequences. Of course you could say that Rita's death was a consequence, but it wasn't felt as such throughout the season. Instead it felt more like getting rid of dead weight the writers had no use for anymore. The copouts with Dexter nearly getting caught have become tiresome and repetitive. We are at the point where the writers have used this plot device a few times too often, so that they should either go through with it or pass. I also feel like they have turned Dexter too much into a hero, and they rarely get back to Dexter's own creepy dark self. When the season started out, I thought they were going to explore Dexter's darkness again, since he killed a random stranger in the premiere, but they never followed up on that. By the end of the season he even killed Liddy, even though it was never said that Liddy would fit into Dexter's code. Dexter didn't struggle with killing him (which he did when Doakes found out in season 2), so it seems like Dexter has moved on to self-preservation now.
Both Dexter and Weeds have been Showtime's flagships for many years, but it's obvious to everyone who is following them that both shows are at a point where they should set an end date. Weeds is very likely to end next year, since the contracts run out and since creator Jenji Kohan has already said that next year might be the end. With Dexter, an ending doesn't seem in sight, since it's still Showtime's most successful and most buzz-worthy show. For how many seasons do you think Showtime will keep these two shows as a safety net, and don't you think that Showtime has enough interesting shows to be able to survive without them? — Donnie
Matt Roush: Let me take the last point first. I do think it's time for Weeds to hang it up. Showtime has been especially successful in creating a new wave of strong half-hours built around equally fascinating female leads (Nurse Jackie in particular), so the network can get by without it. And here I'll admit I tried on at least two occasions to get into Weeds this season, eventually making it to around the halfway point, but had to bail. I just found this season on the lam to be too aimless and pointless. I just don't care about any of them anymore. (Although you have now made me curious to check out the finale, which I will do before the next season starts.) With Dexter, I'm not sure how long they can keep spinning the wheels without him being exposed — and I think this season they had the perfect opportunity for him to be revealed to Deb, so agree they pulled their punches on that front — but I think this show's run is far from over. Some seasons are going to play better than others, and I imagine this will rank alongside the Jimmy Smits season as one of the weakest, but there were moments throughout that had me riveted. The danger in a show like this is when it toys with your expectations (and then deflates them) so often that you just get fed up, and that appears to be where you're at. But the show's premise is still so enticing that (just like off seasons of 24) I can't imagine not greeting the next season with great anticipation. I would give Dexter about another two seasons before the countdown to the end begins. I remember having similar feelings about The Shield — how long could Mackey keep up the deceit before it became ludicrous? — and seven seasons turned out to be just about perfect for that one.
Question: I seem to recall that in the first season or two of Dexter, we'd see Dexter take more time tormenting his victims before he'd deliver the killing blow. He'd actually start dismembering them while they were still alive. Now he slices their cheek, puts the drop of blood on a slide, and then stabs them through the heart. I'm curious about what led to this change? Was it character driven? (A sign of Dexter's increasing awareness of his humanity.) Or audience driven? (Because it's a lot harder to root for a protagonist who shows such overt signs of sadism.) What do you think is the reason? — Richard
Matt Roush: This far into the show, my memory is a little fuzzy — did he really ever dismember a victim before the kill? (Sounds horrible.) But there's no question Dexter lingers less these days on the mechanics of the kill and the dissection than the show used to — unless the victim is so key to the season that the death scene needs to be played out more fully. At this point, we've been there and witnessed that, and it would probably just seem gratuitous and exploitative. There's always an argument to be made for leaving some things to our imagination, and no one wants to see Dexter devolve into torture porn. At least I hope not.
That's all for now. Keep sending in those questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter
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