Critic's Notebook: The CW Takes Aim for Fall
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Why is it that whenever I see a new CW series that piques my interest, I can't help thinking it looks like something from the classic WB playbook. Such is the power of even a defunct brand whose legacy carries on into the better parts of The CW, an amorphous youth-oriented mini-network that changes identity night by night, from tired soaps (90210, Gossip Girl in its last lap) to cutesy soaps (the saccharine Southern saccharine Hart of Dixie) to high-concept horror/superhero action series that pack a cult punch.
The good old much missed WB leapt immediately to mind as scenes from the new Arrow began to play at Thursday's CW upfront, a brief but noisy affair — Flo Rida was the opening act at New York's City Center — that revealed some programming spunk and nerve with a few bold moves that left only one returning show (The Vampire Diaries) in its regular time period. (See the full lineup here.)
Arrow is clearly The CW's top priority this fall, and considering for how long Smallville was a signature show for first The WB and then The CW, it's not hard to understand why. The clip "sizzle" reel actually did sizzle with cinematic boldness, setting up the origin story of its Bruce Wayne-like hero Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), a young billionaire thought dead for five years during which time something life-altering happened to him on a Pacific island. As he returns to the family manse — the great Susanna Thompson (Once and Again) is his regal mother — the moody, psychically and physically scarred Oliver takes on a vigilante superhero alter ego. There's violence, romance (with Katie Cassidy as Laurel Lance), family intrigue, all in all a promising escapist package.
Adding to the WB vibe is The CW's smart decision to shoot Arrow right into the center of the prime-time lineup: on Wednesday at 8/7c, not consigned to the cult cellar of Fridays. The long-running Supernatural (the last remaining remnant of The WB) joins it at 9/8c, a sign of faith in a show whose end of days now appears to be nowhere in sight.
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Joining The Vampire Diaries on Thursdays, replacing the ineffectual clone The Secret Circle, is a new version of Beauty and the Beast (9/8c) that isn't likely to do much to erase fond cult memories of the late-'80s CBS romantic thriller starring Linda Hamilton and a shaggy Ron Perlman. Now it's Smallville's Kristen Kreuk playing detective (looking more like Detective Barbie), unaware that she's being shadowed by a protector (Jay Ryan) — a beast who's actually more like the Hulk, in that this Vincent is actually rather pretty-handsome (if you can look past the big scar on his face) until something triggers his mutant side, at which point he develops glowing demon eyes and goes all animal on the bad guys. The clips suggest Vincent was a military guinea pig, genetically altered into a super soldier, and is now in hiding. Except when he reveals himself to the "beauty." This one looks like a stretch — although who can predict where this underperforming network sets the bar for success.
In a much lighter vein, Emily Owens, M.D. features Mamie Gummer (offspring of Meryl Streep, and a canny recurring scene-stealer in The Good Wife) in the title role of a perky med-school grad whose first-year internship at a hospital sours when she realizes that the sorts of cliques that made her high-school years so painful are still in evidence, only in scrubs. This comes off like a lighter shade of Grey's, emphasizing all of the precious, mugging cutesy aspects. It will never be as obnoxiously twee as Hart of Dixie, with which Emily shares space on Tuesdays (airing in the late Ringer's time period, 9/8c), but I might need some special meds to go on rounds with her.
Another of The CW's surprising announcements was that its fall lineup won't premiere until October — setting it apart from the September deluge and also allowing them to air their shows with fewer breaks for repeats. Both solid notions. When The CW launches its schedule, it will be the countdown to the end for Gossip Girl (and not a moment too soon) — and in January, it will be replaced (on Mondays at 9/8c, preceded by 90210) with The Carrie Diaries, the much-anticipated prequel to Sex and the City, depicting Carrie Bradshaw (the delightful AnnaSophia Robb) as a 16-year-old in 1984. It's a candy-colored John Hughes-like romance in which Carrie, grieving her late mother and chafing at life in the Connecticut burbs, gets a taste of Manhattan style and culture, and things will never be the same. This is about as brand-appropriate as it gets.
The same may apply to Cult, a very meta midseason thriller starring The Vampire Diaries' Matt Davis as a journalist seeking his missing brother, who was obsessed with a grisly TV show called Cult that blurs the line between TV fiction and reality. Prison Break's Robert Knepper plays the make-believe — or is he? — cult leader in a show-within-a-show whose mantra is "Do Not Watch This." Which the faint of heart may just decide to obey. Creepy and freaky, Cult may test the limits of The CW's audience to embrace a truly cult show.
That's a wrap for the networks' upfront week. I've also weighed in on the presentations by NBC and Fox, ABC and CBS. Have a happy summer, because it's going to be a busy fall.
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