Critic's TCA Notebook: That's a Wrap
The X Factor panel
Some observations from the final weekend of the TCA summer press tour, which included presentations from a confident (for good reason) Fox, its ever-adventurous cable cousin FX, the once-again-rebuilding ABC, and the annual salute to the best-of-the-best known as the TCA Awards.
First (in the demos, anyway) came Fox, which spent Friday reveling in the fact that it's taking the biggest swings of any broadcast network this fall. "I feel like we're sitting on a hot hand this year," crowed entertainment president Kevin Reilly, boldly predicting "success in every genre" and the "potential for breakout success in these genres." He's talking reality (the hype machine known as The X Factor), comedy (critical darling The New Girl) and drama (the mega-budget time-travel dino-mite family adventure Terra Nova).
He's probably not wrong. The X Factor (Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8/7c) already feels like an unstoppable freight train, although the press session had elements of a train wreck as Simon Cowell — piped in via satellite from what looked like the cabin of a luxury liner or yacht — dominated the panel like the Giant Head of Oz. He cajoled and needled his fellow judges Paula Abdul (loopy as ever, declaring it was "nice to be back in a demented relationship") and Nicole Scherzinger, who seemed to have devoted all of her energy into selecting her wardrobe. No matter. The scale of this singing competition is apparently as enormous as our appetite for these things, which shows little signs of abating.
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A show like that is probably critic-proof, but if any new fall series is coasting on a tide of critical love, it's The New Girl (airing Tuesdays between Glee and Raising Hope), a beguiling comedy starring the effervescent Zooey Deschanel as a wack-a-doo "that girl" who moves in with three guys acting as life coaches to help her mend her broken heart. Deschanel (the sister of Bones' Emily) is such a genuine delight that a critic asked her, inspired by a glut of Twitter gush, "When did you first know you were adorable?" She became, to her credit, adorably flustered. The show is so sweet, funny and fresh it deserves to be as big a hit as Modern Family.
Like the sight-unseen X Factor, Fox's Terra Nova (Mondays at 8/7c) is asking for a leap of faith — in this case, that the characters will become as animated and engaging as the breathtaking CGI in what is unquestionably the season's most mammoth undertaking. Originally designed to be previewed on air last May (a la Glee), the post-production of the two-hour opener has gone on so long that critics have still only seen the first hour. And even that has been tweaked significantly (from a preview screening in early June) with more clunky backstory regarding a family from a future dystopia that embarks on an expedition through a time fracture back to prehistoric Earth to reboot civilization.
The scenery (from Queensland, Australia) is lush, the scale of production impressive, including both friendly and ferocious dinosaurs, but Terra Nova isn't going to reap any awards or raves for its pedestrian writing and acting. Which makes it hard not to wince when the producers tell us a show like this isn't about the spectacle: "If you don't tune in and love this family after the first hour, it doesn't matter how good the dinosaurs look." In which case Terra Nova is screwed — though don't count on it. The money is on the screen, and there's a sense of event about the show.
Even with all the talk of the new shows, Fox's Reilly spent much of his time downplaying the various brouhahas surrounding Glee this summer. A spinoff for the graduating characters? Still a possibility, but first, the focus is on refocusing Season 3 on the core characters with fewer stunts and distracting guest-casting, especially early on. Reilly also dismissed concerns that Ryan Murphy will be distracted from getting Glee back on track while he's busy launching his controversial new FX phantasmagoria American Horror Story (premiering Oct. 5). "This is the first year that Glee will have a [writing] staff around them, and they are in a great place on their material. Of all of my concerns, that team managing two shows at once is not one of them."
But what about Murphy's other show? For much of the last week, American Horror Story was the talk of the press tour. FX invited critics to a screening room on the Fox lot to preview a rough version of the 90-minute pilot — a rather bold gamble — and what we saw can only be described as a hot mess, a berserk and luridly overstuffed mash-up of hyper-sexualized and psychologically perverse haunted-house jolts bedeviling an estranged couple (Dylan McDermott and Friday Night Lights' Connie Britton) when they move into a manse with a sordid and bloody history dating back to the '20s in Los Angeles. Graphic in every way imaginable, it's a reckless, raunchy, raw piece of work that Murphy hopes will lure in the more adventurous viewer seeking "good emotional stories that are zeitgeist-based, and I hope that they come because there really will be some scary stuff in there." FX president John Landgraf considers the show a "breakthrough commercial piece of television." It's definitely polarizing: repulsive and ridiculous to some, riveting to others. It's absolutely going to make noise, which is FX's best reason for making it in the first place.
Added bonus: Jessica Lange in a sensational turn as a flamboyantly nosy neighbor, elegant and menacing and deliciously arch, like something out of such '60s camp classics as Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Horror Story was the buzz magnet of FX's half-day of Saturday presentations, but the highlight came in the final TCA appearance of Rescue Me's irreverent dynamic duo Denis Leary and Peter Tolan to celebrate the end of their groundbreaking firefighter drama after seven seasons (on Sept. 7), the finale coinciding with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Always good for a profane laugh, they didn't disappoint, going on an unprintable rant, punctuated by Tolan dropping his trousers to reveal colorful briefs, in keeping with the show's penchant for low comedy amid high tragedy. The show will be missed, for sure, but the TCA will really miss these guys' antics.
The tone was generally more respectful at Saturday night's TCA Awards — especially when Friday Night Lights' producers and stars took the stage to accept the Program of the Year award in honor of its final season. Executive producer Jason Katims recounted how fans have told him they were putting off watching the final episode so as not to have to say goodbye to Dillon. As we watched Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton behind him, everyone caught up in the emotion of this last hurrah (until the Emmys, anyway), there was a shared sense of poignant closure as well as accomplishment that such a critically championed underdog had somehow made it to the finish line. FNL earned a standing ovation, an honor shared by Carl Reiner and Rose Marie, on hand to accept a Heritage award for the classic Dick Van Dyke Show, marking its 50th anniversary this year.
It was back to reality on Sunday, as ABC took the stage to announce the end of its longtime Sunday tentpole Desperate Housewives next season after eight years, for what entertainment president Paul Lee called "a victory lap." The show's creator, Marc Cherry, appeared to admit one of the incontestable truths about TV — "The only thing harder than creating a hit show is knowing when to end it" — saying he was afraid the show would "drift away into nothing" if allowed to continue indefinitely. "I wanted to go out while the network still saw us as a viable show, while we were still doing well in the ratings, and we were still a force to be contended with. I wanted to go out in the classiest way possible." It's the right decision. Housewives is still a draw, though far from its creative prime — I finally broke up with it last season, for the first time unable to make it to the season finale — and setting an end date before the decline deepens is both wise and charitable for all involved.
This does present a dilemma for ABC, however, if the network is unable to generate a genuine new hit from this year's crop to anchor the Sunday lineup. The network's most promising new fall show, the high-flying, high-style '60s drama Pan Am, follows Housewives on Sundays and could be a contender. Equally likely is the garishly satirical Good Christian Belles (aka GCB), which inexplicably is being held back until midseason, along with some of ABC's other best new product (including the very scary and cinematic The River, expected to get a major promotional boost during the Oscars).
Lee explained his scheduling strategy as a "long race... What we don't want to do is have all of our shows [premiere] all together. We want to stagger them all out over the year." Which makes sense, except one also expects a network to put its best foot forward in fall to make maximum impact and noise
In that respect, ABC's fall lineup feels curiously muted. The main exception being the Jet Age Pan Am, set in the '60s thus sharing Mad Men's swank look, but with "a wish fulfillment that [we hope] will attract a huge audience," said exec producer Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing). Christina Ricci stars as one of a team of glamorous globetrotting stewardesses, and spoke of the "sense of excitement and freedom" experienced by the pioneering flight attendants of the time, despite their constricting girdles. The sense of romantic adventure conveyed in the pilot is appealing, in a guilty-pleasure way.
Whereas the insipid Charlie's Angels reboot (scheduled for the Thursday-at-8/7c death slot) is a noisy, tiresome misfire in the vein of the equally unnecessary Knight Rider and Bionic Woman remakes of recent years, lacking the jaunty cheesy innocence of the original '70s series by framing the new story as a "show about redemption", giving the Angels criminal pasts. Described at one point as "if Jack Bauer and Carrie Bradshaw had a love child," causing an epidemic of eye-rolling in the TCA ballroom, this misbegotten and miserably acted mess is less about "empowerment" (one of this press tour's more unfortunate buzzwords; see NBC's lamentable The Playboy Club) than about the power of a pre-sold title to make it on the air, however undeserving.
Much more ambitious, though seriously muddled, is Once Upon a Time (Sundays at 8/7c), a lavish fairy-tale fantasia from former Lost producers in which an evil queen (Swingtown's Lana Parrilla) casts a curse on a slew of legendary storybook characters, trapping them in a contemporary town where time has stopped and they have no memory of their literary alter egos. The show wants to be as enchanting as Pushing Daisies, and it has its champions, but it felt as precious and unconvincing to me as the ill-fated Eastwick. When the producers say, "The show isn't about breaking the curse ... it's about these characters," it feels as disingenuous as when Terra Nova's producers say their show is about the family, not the dinosaurs.
At least Once Upon a Time's fanciful merits are worth debating. Revenge (Wednesdays at 10/9c) is merely negligible, a soapy melodrama starring Emily VanCamp as a Hamptons gate crasher plotting the doom of the high-society blue-bloods who destroyed her father years ago. The Count of Monte Cristo was cited as source material, but it feels more like a wan Dynasty or an overextended Lifetime movie.
In comedy, the good news is Suburgatory, a wry Juno-like satire about a snarky city girl (discovery Jane Levy) transplanted to the suburbs with her single dad (Jeremy Sisto). It will be hammocked between The Middle and Modern Family on Wednesdays, and feels like the best bridge yet between these two great family sitcoms.
The bad news is a pair of mediocrities in the 8/7c Tuesday hour that embodies one of the season's most regrettable trends: depicting men as an endangered, emasculated species. At least the innocuous Last Man Standing has Tim Allen for star appeal, as the only guy in a household of women (a reverse Home Improvement, if you will). Man Up manages to insult both genders in its depiction of three metrosexualized, pampered buds forever questioning their masculinity when not playing video games. As star/executive producer Christopher Moynihan describes these wusses, "The opportunities to actually be a real man are few and far between." (He'll no doubt get his chance when the official reviews come out.)
Co-star Dan Fogler quipped, "If the electricity went out right now [in the ballroom], we'd all be screwed." Actually, it might have been a blessing.
Man up, ABC, and get Cougar Town back on the air pronto.
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