Critic's Notebook: CBS at TCA
The trend this season at most networks is that their fall lineups are being upstaged by the anticipation for more promising shows being held for midseason (NBC's Smash and Awake, ABC's Good Christian Belles and The River, to name a choice few). As I was quoted saying in a recent critics' poll: "It's going to be like Christmas for me at midseason, but right now it's kind of like I'm opening underwear."
It's a different situation at CBS, which has such a stable and successful prime-time schedule that there's little need for midseason replacements (only a few have been announced so far, and none has generated any real buzz). At the summer TCA press tour, we're definitely talking about what's up on CBS this fall — but once again, it has almost nothing to do with the new product. (Even in a more normal year, it would be hard to get worked up about shows like Unforgettable and How To Be a Gentleman.) Instead, when CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler took the TCA stage Wednesday morning, critics dwelled primarily on the high-profile changes taking place on the long-running hits that for years represented the network's top-rated comedy and drama: Two and a Half Men and CSI.
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A mere 48 hours before the Charlie Sheen-free Men tapes its season opener Friday night under a shroud of secrecy — though spoilers inevitably have already leaked out — Tassler had to explain to an unruly room why the cast and producers, including new series star Ashton Kutcher, were MIA from the press tour. Her defense, that the show was preparing the pivotal two-parter that introduces Kutcher as heartsick Internet billionaire Walden Schmidt, was met with groans, since many shows being presented at TCA are also currently working. (For instance, the much-touted new Person of Interest, shooting in New York, conducted its press session via satellite.) In defense of Men's absence, Tassler observed, "You've got a tremendous amount of weight and effort being put into this episode," while choosing not to confirm the rumored details of the premiere's storyline. More to the point, she stressed, "The mystery is a part of the marketing." And the marketing at this point didn't include a press conference while they're still busy polishing what's bound to be a ratings blockbuster come September.
CBS wasn't nearly as reticent about introducing the new blood joining the CSI crime squad: veteran TV star Ted Danson, who appeared on a panel alongside Marg Helgenberger (who insists this will be her last season, having declared the same a year ago), George Eads and the show's producers. Danson's character of D.B. Bennett, unveiled in an appealing clip that shows him disarming a reluctant child witness with a magic trick, is a far cry from his predecessors. Producers described him as more of a Sherlock than a "science nerd" (a la Gil Grissom), as well as a rarity in this world, a well-adjusted family man (unlike the broken, brooding wet blanket of Ray Langston). "Here's this character who has things really in balance: family, work, job, life. And I think that's sort of the key right now for us," said exec producer Don McGill. In other words, he'll lighten things up in hopes of jump-starting the aging show as it makes a critical move from Thursdays to Wednesday at 10/9.
For Tassler, landing Kutcher to replace the volatile Sheen and Danson to head up CSI are win-wins: "They are incredibly respected in the creative community. They bring a tremendous amount of goodwill." Stabilizing their shows' ratings wouldn't be such a bad thing, either.
But what of the new shows?
The brightest new comedy hope is 2 Broke Girls (Mondays, 8:30/7:30c), a tart buddy comedy about a hard-knocks waitress (the terrific Kat Dennings) who takes a ruined heiress (bubbly discovery Beth Behrs) under her wing. Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King co-created the show with stand-up "It Girl" Whitney Cummings (who stars in her own self-titled NBC sitcom this fall, which isn't nearly as fresh). King said he conducted a "Scarlett O'Hara" style talent search — not for his stars, but for his co-writer. Of Cummings, he gushed: "She's smart, she's incredibly ambitious, has great discipline and thinks like a writer and writes really hard jokes like a stand-up." Maybe too hard. Some critics took exception to the pilot's crass ethnic stereotyping, especially of the girls' Korean-immigrant boss, among some of the cruder gags.
"We will always reach for comedy," King asserted, aiming for a tone that boasts "the irreverent sort of spicy, outrageous, contemporary edge that girls who are 23 living in Williamsburg [Brooklyn] have. ... Will we go too far sometimes? Yes." Call it going for Broke.
CBS's other new sitcom, How To Be a Gentleman (Thursdays, 8:30/7:30c), occupies the post-Big Bang Theory slot formerly held by the regrettable Bleep My Dad Says. Aiming slightly higher up the evolutionary scale from execrable to merely mediocre, this show had the audacity to use the classic Odd Couple theme and voice-over in its TCA intro, setting up the trite premise of an anachronistic dandy (the wan David Hornsby) who learns to "man up" — one of the season's most unpromising and ubiquitous themes — with the help of boorishly macho gym bunny Kevin Dillon (Entourage). Felix and Oscar should sue.
In drama, the show making the most noise is Person of Interest, a dark thriller from J.J. Abrams by way of Memento/Dark Knight scribe Jonathan Nolan. It takes over CSI's Thursday night anchor position of 9/8c, a risky move considering that Person is hardly a conventional procedural. Lost's Michael Emerson and movie messiah Jim Caviezel star as offbeat vigilantes using a state-of-the-art surveillance contraption (engineered by enigmatic tech billionaire Emerson) to target potential crime victims — or are they criminals? — in an effort to stop crimes before they happen. "I've always been more drawn to characters who were sort of on the periphery or kind of an arm's-length relationship with law enforcement," said Nolan, evoking a "Batman" analogy regarding his off-the-grid crime busters. Emerson's prickly authority and Caviezel's whispery intensity lend gravitas to this intriguing high-tech, high-action mystery series. CBS says Person tested very highly, earning it one of the network's most coveted time periods. I can't say I understand the mechanism that leads our heroes to their persons of interest, but I'm undeniably interested to see more.
Joining CBS's Friday lineup, in the 8/7c slot formerly occupied by Medium and Ghost Whisperer and carrying on the otherworldly tradition, is the mystical/medical hybrid A Gifted Man — some have called it House Whisperer — featuring one of the season's most gifted casts: stage/screen leading man Patrick Wilson as a brilliant but aloof neurosurgeon; Jennifer Ehle (Tony-winning actress, beloved by fans of A&E's classic Pride & Prejudice miniseries) as his ex-wife, a clinic doctor who humanizes him when her ghost begins appearing to him; and Justified's extraordinary Emmy-nominated scene-stealer Margo Martindale as Wilson's assistant (a role they promise to beef up). Former ER and SVU exec producer Neal Baer, himself a doctor, joined the show after the pilot, intrigued by Gifted's mix of science, faith and character study. "I didn't want to do just a traditional medical series again," Baer said, and he got his wish. Wilson's struggle to reconcile the rational with the spiritual echoes the show's own battle not to cross the line into sanctimonious schmaltz. Baer likens Wilson's charisma to that of another TV doctor (rhymes with "moony") he saw break out into mega-stardom nearly 20 years ago. And who are we to argue with that?
The least memorable of CBS's new dramas is, ironically enough, titled Unforgettable, a gimmicky procedural airing Tuesdays at 10/9c, which may be just formulaic enough to hold on to the mass audience of its NCIS combo lead-in in a way The Good Wife couldn't. Starring Without a Trace's head-turner Poppy Montgomery as a detective with perfect total recall, the show has been using actress Marilu Henner (well-known for her own eidetic memory) as a consultant and may create a role for her in a future episode. Henner showed up at CBS's party Wednesday night and was a big hit — stirring conjecture that her own story might make a better series than this contrived whodunit.
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