Ask Matt: Smash and the Ellis Problem, The Middle, Awake
Megan Hilty and Jaime Cepero
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Question: I'm not sure what NBC is thinking with their recently announced decision to leave Smash off the fall schedule. As one of their biggest performers, it would make sense to me to have it on the fall schedule in order to encourage its audience to keep watching the network while they roll out their new fall programming. Also, a midseason launch means the show will have the same problem it did this year: If certain elements aren't working, it will be too late to fix them since by the time they get to air, most of the episodes will be shot already. I suppose there's a benefit to airing the show with no repeats, but this isn't Lost or 24. I'm more worried about its momentum being stalled by a long hiatus than by the possibility of repeats. Thoughts? — Jake
Matt Roush: If this hiatus allows the new show-runner to improve Smash, making the actual show as enjoyable as the show-within-the-show, I'm all for giving it time. And actually, it is very similar to Lost and 24, in that a new season of Smash will greatly benefit by airing in an uninterrupted serial format. Any momentum the show may lose by not returning in the fall will be mitigated if NBC adequately promotes its return (which I imagine they will, given its track record) and if the show lives up to the promise of tonight's mostly sensational finale. Which is another way of saying that if things aren't working next season, I'm not sure they'd be able to fix it midstream even if it weren't all in the can by the time it airs. Turning around a TV show this ambitious is quite a bit more cumbersome than fixing a show on the road.
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You recently wrote that Ellis from Smash is the worst character on TV. Perhaps you said that in jest, perhaps not, but at least Ellis has a point on the show. I have another TV character to add to the worst list, someone that actually deserves the title: Tina from Glee. I watch a ton of TV, and I honestly can't ever remember such a wasted, pointless character. Tina has been a series regular for three seasons, yet she's nothing more than a glorified background extra. Heck, even the strange piano player has more personality! This is no slight against the actress, whatever her name is, because she does a fine job with the boring material she's given every week. What are your thoughts on Tina? Are there any other candidates for TV's worst character? — Marcus
Matt Roush: Oh, I wasn't kidding. There's no TV character who makes me cringe like Ellis. He's clearly designed to be one of those villains you're supposed to "love to hate," but he's so preposterously written and vapidly performed that the "love" part of the equation evaporates every time he's on screen. Whereas Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) isn't so much a "worst character" as a missed opportunity, one of several on that show who have been sorely underdeveloped in the back bleachers of the glee club. Which isn't the same thing as wanting to hurl your shoes at the screen the minute she appears on camera. I'd suggest most of the adult characters on Glee are much more deserving of the "worst" label, in only for their inconsistencies (Sue veering from nemesis to softie depending on the needs of the episode, for instance). A few other worsts: the hysteria-prone April Kepner on Grey's Anatomy, James Spader being a dreary drag on The Office this season, and from what I've seen, Catherine Tate's character is no improvement. (This really should have ended with Michael Scott's exit.) Not crazy about the new dragon-lady boss on Castle (though I loved her as the evil first lady on 24). And how about the supporting cast on 2 Broke Girls? I've never not enjoyed Jennifer Coolidge until I saw her vamping as Sophie. And the ethnic caricatures at the diner, yikes! Plus the unpleasant depiction of women on the misogynist Two and a Half Men, from Judith (always a shrew) to Lindsay and now Zoey. (On the balance sheet, Holland Taylor's Evelyn and Conchata Ferrell's Berta are often saving graces in most episodes.) The list goes on, and I welcome anyone to comment further about which characters drive them over the bend.
Question: Am I the only one that has noticed that The Middle is basically Roseanne? Every time I watch all I can think of is: Lazy, inattentive and ineffective parents — check; smart-mouth teenager — check; "different" youngest child — check. Sue is the only one that doesn't have a parallel character. Too bad, because The Middle has a talented cast and should be much more fun to watch than it is. — Becca
Matt Roush: Where we part company is that I don't see this comparison as a bad thing. It's no surprise (if you read me regularly) that I find The Middle great fun to watch, so much so that it's very high on my list of favorite current comedies. In an upcoming magazine review column singing the show's praises, I suggest there hasn't been a family comedy this authentically lived-in since Roseanne, which isn't meant to imply this is a clone or knockoff. (Besides, shouldn't every generation have a comedy that shows how most families actually live — no knock on Modern Family, but I daresay the hectic mess of the Heck household hits closer to home for many of us.) The Middle has a distinct voice of its own, at times wry and sardonic like Roseanne's but less combative. I would argue that Frankie and Mike aren't lazy and inattentive as much as so overwhelmed to the point that they just give up trying to make things perfect — or often even clean. I also don't see the kids as carbon copies. The entitled jock/popular kid (Axl) and bookish anti-social nerd (Brick) play into archetypes, but do it in new and fresh ways. And then there's Sue. Poor Sue. Wonderful Sue. I've never seen a gawky teen brought to such brilliantly comic, unquenchable life as what Eden Sher does with this character. (If the Emmys weren't so skewed against young performers, she'd have a nomination by now.) So yes, I agree that The Middle owes a debt to Roseanne, but carries on the tradition proudly, hilariously and in its own way.
Question: Both Jay Leno and David Letterman gained national attention by substituting as hosts for Johnny Carson. Yet neither of them uses substitutes. These programs are supposed to comment on current events, yet we are exposed — in mid-April — to jokes about the Super Bowl (Leno) or asking guest Jon Hamm about the new Mad Men production (Letterman). Why do they choose to air repeat programs instead of having guest hosts? — Hanna
Matt Roush: I saved this question until now, to shed more light on tonight's excellent American Masters special on PBS, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. He really was the king, making it look so easy for so many years, dominating a much less cluttered landscape with wit and polish and generosity to fellow comedians. The short answer to this question is that no one is as secure and confident in their throne as Carson was when he opened his show to a multitude of guest celebrities (the way you see people now auditioning for Regis Philbin's seat on Live! With Kelly — but even before he left, substitutes became a fun part of the formula). But when Carson designated a full-time substitute in Joan Rivers, that ended badly (a story told in the special). Maybe today's hosts are too insecure to give anyone else the spotlight, but there's also the economics and logistics of producing an entertainment/comedy show 52 weeks a year — which is what these shows are now; the draw is rarely scintillating talk. The very topical Saturday Night Live takes breaks during its season, and the late-night shows build them in as well, if only to recharge the creative batteries. Plus in some of these cases — Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and of course The Daily Show (which when it's in repeats is even more jarring) — their shows are so tailored to their hosts' talents and personalities, with recurring bits and special material, that it would be difficult for someone to step in. Of course, Letterman's show brought in guest hosts when he went on an extended medical leave, but that's the exception.
Question: This is my first time writing in, but I read your column every week. You've turned me on to some amazing shows! Notably, Fringe. But I wanted to ask you about Bones and Castle. I've watched Bones since the beginning, and I couldn't peg my recent discontent with it, but after watching the Castle finale, I did. Booth and Bones getting together (AFTER 8 EXCRUCIATING SEASONS!!!) felt like going from appetizers straight to dessert, and skipping the main course. I just felt so "meh" about the relationship after having waited so long, only to get so little payoff. I mean, I find it so hard to believe that one night of off-screen shenanigans would lead them to being a couple when literally nothing else has! I know, I complained about how long it took to get there, but now it feels rushed and really inorganic. If there is any Moonlighting curse, it's in forcing your main couple together inorganically. I still watch, but it's not Must See TV for me like it used to be.
Now Castle on the other hand, I just kept saying "OMG. YES! FINALLY! YES! YES! YES!" after watching the finale. I felt it was executed perfectly. We've only had to wait four seasons, and we actually see growth on Beckett's part, which enabled her to finally accept Castle's love, baggage and all. I guess, in sum, I feel like there was no growth with Bones. It feels like they were forced together due to her pregnancy, without her recognizing that she is capable of being in a loving relationship. She is still the same person she's always been, just now a mother. Thoughts? — Alexis
Matt Roush: I prefer to stay out of the Bones-vs-Castle fan battle as best I can, while noting that I'm not the least surprised that Castle's finale, with the passionate Beckett-Castle clinch, was more satisfying for fans than the way so many Bones fans reacted to the similar situation a year ago, and how those consequences continue to play out on that show. (Now if Beckett becomes instantly pregnant, all bets are off.) These shows operate within the same genre — light mystery with romantic subtext — but the characters are so different. Bones is such a bizarre creation, almost as divorced from human connection as The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper, while Beckett may be damaged by her past but is much more part of the real world around her. I don't expect Bones, even after motherhood, to change any more than I've expected Dr. House or Sheldon to have sudden character-altering epiphanies, whereas Beckett's emotional journey is much more relatable. If they were both telling the same story the same way, I'd probably be fielding charges of plagiarism. There's no pleasing all constituencies here, but I don't think these game-changers will harm either show in the long run. For what it's worth, I thought Castle's finale was a model example of how to do it right.
Question: I've been a Castle fan since Day 1. I get that this show is essentially a love story wrapped around a TV crime procedural premise; however, I think most people are missing the nuances that the show-runners have infused into their storytelling. Although the pace of the romance has been unrealistically slowed down for TV, I believe the Castle/Beckett dynamic — with apologies to Booth/Brennan, Tony/Ziva, and House/Cuddy — is the most adult depiction of the will-they-or-won't-they couple I've seen since Remington Steele. Because of that, I've been able to suspend my disbelief that people who want to be together would behave this way for four years, because I'm invested in all of the characters and having fun watching them get to where we know they're headed. This is my way of complimenting the superb acting by Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic, particularly this season. They consistently display deft, natural subtlety in their non-verbal expressions, and I'm stunned that the Emmy voters haven't yet noticed. OK, so Fillion received a People's Choice award, as did the show. That's fine. Being popular with fans is one thing; being recognized for your craft by peers is another. What's your take on this? — Brian
Matt Roush: They're both very appealing, but this is not the sort of show (rightly or wrongly) that's likely ever to factor into the Emmy race — not when there are so many powerful dramas out there, especially on cable, which are taken so much more seriously. Dramedies like these tend to suffer when it comes to awards recognition. They'll just have to settle for popular success.
Question: Great Castle season finale, but will this ruin the series? Why don't they have Kate quit the force, become Mrs. Castle and together they can be this generation's Nick and Nora/Hart to Hart? They will have to get an Asta or Freeway. (Maybe you can put a bug in someone's ear — we certainly have enough cop shows!) — Joanne
Matt Roush: For the real skinny on where Castle is heading after the game-changing finale, check out Adam Bryant's interview with the show's creator. But I like your idea a lot. Especially the dog part.
Question: Like most people, we time-shift a good amount of the programming we watch, especially during the incredibly busy May sweeps period. So when we caught up to Hawaii Five-0, we saw, annoyingly, that they continued the storyline's conclusion into NCIS: LA, which aired the following night. Since we watched on delay, we obviously didn't know to record that episode. I kind of doubt we would have anyway, though. NCIS:LA isn't a show we watch, we don't want to pick up anything new, and this "crossover event" is such a manipulative waste of viewers' time that we wouldn't do anything to encourage the practice. Honestly, even though the episode is available online, we're not going to watch it on principle — they don't need our page or ad views. It was obviously a stunt, but this isn't going to be a commonplace tactic the networks pick up, is it? Don't people who time-shift programming get annoyed enough at stuff like this for it to backfire on the network, or are we a rare case? — Toni
Matt Roush: I've never known anyone to complain about crossovers like this, because generally viewers tend to like this kind of mash-up, with characters from different shows inhabiting the same world for a change. It's meant to be fun. These stunts aren't common, though, because logistically they're very difficult to pull off — and CBS promoted the heck out of this one (including a TV Guide Magazine cover), so even in a world of time-shifting, I imagine most fans of either or both shows weren't taken by total surprise. To be honest, considering the respective size of their fan bases, I'm betting there were more NCIS: LA fans who were surprised to tune in to Part 2 of a story they missed the night before.
Question: I absolutely love Awake! I know its fate is sealed (NBC canceled it last week), but do you know if the finale will at least somewhat satisfy die-hard viewers like myself? — Mike
Matt Roush: I haven't seen the final hour (which airs May 24), but I have seen this week's episode, and like last week's knockout, it is very satisfying — this one providing answers to some of the mysteries of the conspiracy, while also delivering some powerful twists. Even if what is now going to be (sigh) the series finale doesn't address the mechanics of why and how Michael was experiencing these dual realities, I'm still glad I got to go on this ride. I'm not surprised Awake was canceled, given its out-of-the-box (should have been on cable) nature and its distressing ratings, but this is one of the very few cancellations this season that makes me sad that more people weren't willing to give it a chance.
Question: In regards to your previous mention of CBS' Elementary requiring a small miracle to be able to be as well-executed as its BBC predecessor Sherlock, I'm sure I'm not the only one who can already guess that, frankly, it won't, and I would attribute it to one specific thing: time. Sherlock is known for a sharp emphasis of quality over quantity, making only three 90-minute episodes at a time, which are treated as films by all involved. If Elementary is picked up, it will likely be made into a series and will go for the method of a 22-episode season of "decent" instead of a 3-episode season of "excellent." I'll leave my frustration of adapting foreign shows for another day (although I'd hoped that CBS had learned from the previous mistake of Steven Moffat's other U.K.-to-U.S. import in Coupling,) and go straight to my question: Why is the U.S. network television system so rigid? Barring a few exceptions like some shows getting an 8- or 10-episode "test run," almost every show is tied into 22-episode seasons and 13-episode half seasons. Is there any reason that this is so strongly enforced, and has there been any pushback from audiences or creators who get frustrated with having to tolerate at least a few episodes of filler to round out these numbers? Do you think that the success of cable shows (which give the creator a little more freedom in regard to episode count) might lead to a change in the system? —Brandon
Matt Roush: Not anytime soon. I'm sure you won't be shocked to hear money is the driving factor behind the U.S. system of more-is-better, especially where network shows are concerned. If a series is a hit, the impetus is to make as many episodes as possible to hit the eventual jackpot of syndication, which is where the true profits lie. Plus, especially where procedurals and sitcoms are concerned, which tend to repeat better than heavily serialized high-concept shows, the networks prefer to keep them on the schedule season-round, even with the inevitable roadblock of winter and spring repeats. Almost any series creator/show-runner would readily admit the assembly-line method of cranking out 22 episodes of any show is beyond grueling — there's almost no way to hit a home run every time, no matter how good the show is — but that's the current reality. We are seeing a few more series getting short orders, usually the more marginal ones, and we may see more sharing of time periods to reduce the frequency of repeats, but as imperfect as this system is, it's not likely to change drastically and any more quickly than it has to.
Question: As always, I love your honest opinions. There are so many shows on USA Network which are my favorites, and although Fairly Legal is not one of them, I do watch it. I have not, though, been able to watch a whole episode through to the end since they added the character of Ben. To me he is a carbon copy of Boston Legal's James Spader and that character was beyond annoying. I am not sure if I am the only one who feels this way, but for the life of me I cannot understand what this character does or is supposed to add to the show itself. I was wondering what you thought about it? — Laurie
Matt Roush: My first impression was as negative as yours, and while I haven't kept up with the second season beyond the first few episodes they sent out, I have yet to hear anyone (professionally or otherwise) think he was a good or necessary addition to one of USA's more marginal shows.