Hey, network TV, turns out we kind of missed you over the long, reality-clogged summer. You showed back up, so we did, too. Some bleary-eyed musing to follow.
Starting with the Shocker of the Week, by which I mean the solid but hardly spectacular early numbers for Fox's mega-hyped The X Factor, opening to about half the business American Idol typically commands. I consider this a punishment for Simon Cowell's ghastly America's Got Talent, which this year rewarded yet another soon-to-be-forgotten singer. Blech. To be fair, by any other standards, X is an instant success, and puts Fox into a competitive position on two historically tough nights. But no matter Fox's spin, expectations were much higher, and it turns out that even the promise of a Simon-and-Paula reunion can't convince the masses to spend two whole hours a night glued to an overproduced singing spectacle. At least not with the lure of so many great returning favorites to watch (like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, among the network tentpoles reminding us of the sustained power of classic TV comedy).
That said, The X Factor is very slick entertainment, shamelessly (and often effectively) manipulative, especially in those moments when a true talent emerges and their world is rocked by the deafening ovation from the arena audience. But given the very public nature of these auditions, the intrusion of the occasional wack job (including a goon who dropped trou and a bitchy idiot who sparred endlessly with Simon) seems even more contrived, unnecessary and annoying than it does on Idol. Judging the judges: The opinionated, impassioned L.A. Reid is a find, challenging Cowell for the sharpest critiques on the panel. Paula and Nicole? Wish they'd given the quirky Cheryl Cole more of a chance. The real test of whether this show has its own "X Factor" will be when the field is narrowed and the actual competition kicks in. (Performance shows start Nov. 2, and incredibly, the finale is currently scheduled for Dec. 22, three days before Christmas. I don't know about you, but I've got other things on my mind around then. Such hubris.)
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THE LAST LAUGH: Goes to network TV comedy, which had a very good week, starting with the staggering numbers for the revamped Two and a Half Men (see my review here) and very solid returns for new comedies 2 Broke Girls, my personal fave Fox's New Girl (lifting Raising Hope), ABC's Wednesday comedies, and Big Bang Theory among others. For my night-by-night previews of the week's new series and fall lineups, go here).
And now, cuing the highlights:
"It's my first and best pageant ever!" — Melissa McCarthy, with tiara and roses accompanying her surprise Emmy win, capping my absolute favorite moment from the Emmys, when all the best comedy actress nominees took the stage, holding hands in a Miss America sendup (engineered by Amy Poehler). In my Emmy review, I note that it was the winners who made the night memorable, not the clumsily produced show. I stand by that opinion. Still glowing over the wins for Friday Night Lights, Kyle Chandler, Margo Martindale, Peter Dinklage, Ty Burrell, Downton Abbey among others.
"Kill the baby." — Lily speaks! The Modern Family infant has graduated to toddler (with Aubrey Anderson-Emmons now assuming the role), and she's a mouthy handful, in hilarious lockstep with the rest of her dysfunctional brood. Her rather alarming response to the thought of Cam and Mitchell adding to their household is further accentuated by Lily shoving anyone away who gets too close to "My daddy!" Is Cam's coddling to blame for her behavior, or Mitchell's chronic inability to share?
"Awwwwww ..." That was us reacting to the very sweet moment at the end of Parks and Recreation's season opener, as Leslie opens Ben's gift box to find her very own Leslie Knope campaign button. Who said breaking up was hard to do? (Though it is.)
Talking Junk: Turns out Parks and Rec's eternal fall guy Jerry has something in common with Two and a Half Men's Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher). Both are apparently incredibly well endowed. On Parks and Rec, as photos of men's sexual organs begin circulating on cell phones, Chris (Rob Lowe) has this to say: "The testicles are like the ears of the genital system. They serve a very important function, but they're not that great to look at." Meanwhile, over on The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon is compelled to announce: "For the record, I do have genitals." (Leonard had expressed some doubt in that regard.) "They're functional and aesthetically pleasing." But in the next episode, when Amy prompts Sheldon to "kiss me where I've never been kissed before," he responds, "You mean like Salt Lake City?" He might as well be a eunuch.
"Does this look like a group of losers? Seriously?" — Well, yes, Andy, it does. The Office announces its new manager, Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), in the most anticlimactic way possible, but you feel for him as he tries to boost the spirits of the Dunder Mifflin also-rans (including himself) who weren't invited to lunch by inscrutable new CEO Robert California (James Spader). The big boss's passive-aggressive mind games, sending an already hormonal Pam ("now I'm just a fat mom") into a crying jag, aren't what you'd call a laugh riot. But like Parks, the episode builds to a touching reveal, as Pam discovers Jim's own list, with her and Cece and the new baby (who will not be named "Michael Scott") in one column, and "everything else" in the other. Why again didn't they let Jim have the big office?
"That's the great thing about British TV. They give you closure." — Oh, Britta, you really are "human tennis elbow" (Troy's words). In Community, as Abed freaks out over Cougar Town being shelved till midseason (a sentiment I share), his pals turn him on to Cougarton Abbey, a sendup of Emmy champ Downton Abbey — which differs only in that the entire cast dies of self-inflicted hemlock after only six episodes. Thankfully, Inspector Spacetime (a spoof of Doctor Who) is there to lift Abed out of his catatonia. This comedy truly is the best show too few are watching. Everything about the episode was inspired lunacy, from its opening dream production number ("We're gonna finally be fine") to the guest shots by John Goodman as the dean's new nemesis and Michael K. Williams justifiably cheered as the ex-con biology prof.
"Even in the woods, we're the poorest people." — Axl Heck. As the family goes camping on an hourlong opener of The Middle (too long but mostly funny), Axl ends up wearing cereal boxes for shoes, and Poor Sue gets her first period just in time for a bear to pick up the family's scent. This show almost always hits home at some point for this lapsed Hoosier, and this week the "aha" moment came as Frankie pulls out a board game comprised of bits and pieces and mashed-up rules from every game imaginable ("I just sunk your Yahtzee!"). This would be my mom's worst nightmare, so of course I laughed.
"You're not taking me before Betty White!" — Cloris Leachman's Maw-Maw, fighting off a crow on Raising Hope as the rest of the family considers using Gilligan's Island tactics to knock musical talent back into one-time prodigy Jimmy. Day-care doofus Shelley's impromptu theme song for Hope is a giddy homage to the late Sherwood Schwartz (of Gilligan's and Brady Bunch fame), who's represented by a hat on a chair as Shelley remembers how "he used to start each day with a song that perfectly recapped what was going on." TV could use more theme songs (which is another reason to love New Girl's Jess, who always has one playing in her dizzy brain).
"Salud!" — So begins the Cliffhanger of the Week, on Breaking Bad, as Gus toasts the cartel kingpin Don Eladio with poisoned liquor, taking out the entire Mexican crew in one fell swoop as Jesse watches in horror. (Gus, always a stickler for details, swallowed a pill earlier to lessen the poison's effects.) Business is business — the don's words coming back to bite him — as Gus clutches his stomach and announces to any survivors, "You have no one left to fight for. Fight me and die!" In the getaway, Mike takes a bullet and Gus is left writhing in pain. Once again, we see Jesse shooting to kill, and the shock-cut editing drives home how terrifying this is for him, as he gets behind the wheel and high-tails it to the next episode. Which I guarantee is every bit as intense as this one. What a season.
"Red John is still alive." — Not exactly a big surprise. Where would The Mentalist be without this omnipresent MacGuffin? The man Patrick Jane killed in last season's finale (Bradley Whitford) is a bad guy for sure — he and his creepy wife were keeping a missing girl prisoner in their hidden basement boudoir — but this whole incident turns out to be a ruse by the master villain to frame Jane for murder. Doesn't work, of course, because manipulating a jury into thinking he'd killed the genuine article is child's play for Jane, who argues on his own defense: "I have the right to kill the man who killed my family." Someday that might actually happen.
You Can't Stop the Beat — Loved Glee using this Hairspray show-stopper as the season premiere's climactic song choice, a shout-out to Matthew Morrison's pre-Glee career as the original Broadway Linc. But could the rest of the episode's music have been more random — "It's Not Unusual" to introduce Blaine to his new school? — or the numbers less germane to the story? Maybe once they start focusing on the school musical West Side Story ("Is that the one with the cats?" Brittany wonders), things will settle down. Next week already sounds more promising, with a "boot camp" and the return of Idina Menzel.
"You'd cut off my leg for me, wouldn't you?" — Oh Owen, you romantic, you! With emergency amputation as a Grey's Anatomy metaphor, Dr. Hunt has an epiphany about his wife's struggle with her unwanted pregnancy, bolstered by Meredith's speech about having been "raised by a Cristina." So he stands by his woman, making her cry (and Sandra Oh can make us cry), and he's with her as she goes through the procedure. Meredith and Derek also lose their baby Zola, though only temporarily — the social worker could tell there was trouble in paradise — but at least Meredith has her job back, thanks to the Chief falling on his sword and covering for her, since she did what she did for his wife. Meanwhile, how is April still chief resident after almost sending the wrong patient to a splenectomy?
And finally, who's next to go on Dancing With the Stars? Nancy Grace may not be "the youngest or the prettiest or the skinniest" (her words), but my money's on the robotic Italian interloper Elisabetta Canalis, who's only a star (or celebrity) by association. Which barely explains the charisma-free Rob Kardashian's presence, come to think of it. The clock is ticking.
Stay tuned, because the fall rollout continues next week, with Fox's Terra Nova, ABC's Suburgatory and the return of BBC America's riveting (and Emmy-nominated) thriller Luther. We're just getting started.