Critic's Notebook: Fox at TCA
No news wasn't good news for the press gathered at Fox's TCA day on Monday, with everyone hoping in vain for some definitive word on who'll be judging (or not) on American Idol next season. No deals, so no deal, said the side-stepping Fox execs.
Who needs judges? Let us be the judge—of Fox's new fall programming, which is the main reason summer TCA exists, after all. The good news: Fox is launching only three new shows, and one is my favorite new drama of the season and one my favorite new comedy. The third is a work in progress, but the fact they're fessing up to its flaws gives me hope.
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Best New Drama: Lone Star (Mondays, 9/8c). "I have no idea if this was a good idea for a network show, but I feel like [Fox is] willing to find out with the boldest, craziest version of it," says first-time show creator Kyle Killen, who pitched this show to the network as "Dallas without the cheese." He goes on to say, "If it's a failure, I think it's going to be a spectacular failure, and I like that idea."
So do I. The problem with so much of this season on most of the broadcast networks is that it lacks guts. Just about everything is playing it safe, and it all looks so familiar. Where's the surprise? Where's the exhilarating risk of jumping into the unknown?
Welcome to Lone Star, which takes a time-honored format (the prime-time soap) and gives it a fresh new spin. The show asks us to identify with, and even root for, a Texas con man living a two-timing double life, with a high-society wife in oil-rich Dallas and a down-home girlfriend back in Midland, where he's grifting the locals. Hey, it's the new Sawyer!
It might all seem appalling if it weren't for the effortlessly appealing leading-man performance of James Wolk, a newcomer whose bedroom-eyes charisma is inspiring comparisons to Kyle Chandler and George Clooney. The women in his life, Friday Night Lights' Adrianne Palicki (now a brunette) and winsome newcomer Eloise Mumford, provide emotional eye candy. With veteran pros Jon Voight and David Keith as the polar-opposite father figures in the anti-hero's world, there's plenty of dramatic meat to be served on this Texas platter.
"We want to err on the side of being aggressive with plot and having things change and feel dynamic, as opposed to feeling like we are treading water episode after episode," says Killen. The fact that I can't predict what episode 2 or 7 or 13 will be like is yet another reason to recommend Lone Star.
Favorite New Comedy: Raising Hope (Tuesdays, 9/8c), a raucous and proudly white-trashy family comedy from My Name Is Earl's Greg Garcia, dipping from the tainted well of Coen Brothers/Raising Arizona-style anarchic zaniness. This is the story of a young slacker (oddly likable Lucas Neff) who finds himself raising a baby when the one-night-stand birth mother meets an untimely end—on Death Row. He turns to his wacky family for help, including an unsentimental mother (the terrific Martha Plimpton), a clueless dad (Garret Dillahunt) and a half-mad great-grandma (Cloris Leachman, playing to garish type).
Full of unapologetic sight gags and a sense that what doesn't kill you makes you funnier, Hope is a hoot. And so was the out-of-control TCA session, hijacked by an unfiltered and possibly unhinged Cloris Leachman, who interrupted her co-stars, demanded chairs be rearranged, ordered a reporter to stand up when he questioned her, and skewered a sacred cow when asked to comment on the resurgent popularity of Betty White: "I'm so sick of Betty White. Never liked her." (Just kidding, but still, it may be a while before she does a guest shot.)
Some uptight critics apparently don't see the humor in this one. Their loss.
Hope's companion piece on Tuesdays is the twisted romantic comedy Running Wilde, from the producers of cult classic Arrested Development. Will Arnett, who's also co-writer and executive producer, stars as a spoiled blue-blood playboy trying to woo back his childhood sweetheart, an unamused do-gooder played by Keri Russell. The original pilot was all smarm and precious little charm, weird for weird's sake and a likely candidate for first show canceled if things didn't improve quickly.
Enter Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who "has been unbelievably helpful in helping us ground this," says exec producer Mitch Hurwitz. "We're going to go off and reshoot about half the pilot because of some very insightful comments that he's made and some recasting and things like that." Some characters have been reconceived as well as recast, and Russell's character has been fleshed out, all an attempt to "make the pilot easier to connect with," says Hurwitz.
The producers kept talking about being taken out of their "comfort zone" as the tinkering continues, and I'm thinking that can only be a good thing. If there's not a little terror in the act of creation, the result too often is the sort of self-indulgent and/or formula TV that makes so much of the broadcast landscape so forgettable.
On Fox this fall, different is good. Whether it will be successful, as a risky breakthrough like Glee was a year ago, remains to be seen.
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