Both this week and last, the new pilots lambasted us with focus-grouped mediocrity or even-more-focus-grouped outright badness, fighting as hard as they can to grab the brass ring of cancellation as quickly as possible. Who will go first? Who will repeat the un-success of last year’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip by forging a labyrinthine contract that makes it more expensive and complicated to get canceled than to just burn off in a late-spring programming vacuum? We’ll find out in time. While I had the misfortune of watching some new shows, I’m more interested in…
Bones (Fox)—Bones crept on me. I hate most procedurals, especially in the general CSI vein of “confusing yet implausible technical wizardry and serious logic gaps will triumph over every villain who is not skilled in making miniatures” storytelling. I’m a big fan of character-driven stories, which is why The Rockford Files will reign supreme over any other standalone mystery show until the end of time. It’s the series that proves you can make a show that has compelling characters, complex mysteries, car chases, and shootouts—a lesson current procedural producers ought to learn. Or maybe they shouldn’t, since CSI still crushes the competition for some reason.
Bones had a rocky start as the writers tried to find its tone and (one assumes) appease their network, Hart Hanson has molded Bones into a show Stephen J. Cannell could be proud of. The characters have gradually revealed themselves to be much more interesting and layered than they seemed in the first few episodes, and by about halfway through last year’s season, the crimes generally took a backseat to the characters’ personal problems. The writers struck an appropriate balance between crime and character, one that continues with this premiere. I’m not sure if they’re trying for a season-long arc or if this “bank vault in the basement of the Jeffersonian” storyline will play out in an episode or two, but it’s an intriguing development that will allow each character to shine.
Heroes (NBC)—In terms of its quality as a season premiere, it worked pretty well—we saw some new characters but not too much of them, a few shocking moments (I hope Hiro’s dad isn’t really dead), and some nice character-based weirdness. Matt and Mohinder starring as Paul Reiser and Greg Evigan in an off-off-Broadway production of My Two Dads? Awesome. Still, it focused more than usual on setup, so the quality might seem a lot better in retrospect, once we’ve seen the payoff, but for now it’s just “pretty good.”
House (Fox)—Oh, the irony. House goes and creates one of the most interesting characters in some time (played with aplomb by Hugh Laurie) and yet, they’ve managed to do almost everything wrong—but it’s still compulsively watchable. I can’t figure out its secret; maybe Hugh Laurie really is that good. Good enough to make us forget the baffling and tedious “Tritter arc” from last season, ignore how whiny and useless his team is, stop wondering why the medical mysteries are so poorly constructed. None of it matters when House is being House.
This season’s premiere is no exception. The episode, overall, suffers from a “Poochie the Rockin’ Dog” syndrome. Clearly, Fox sent the writers a note saying, “Whenever House’s team does not appear onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s his team?'” With Chase getting fired and Cameron and Foreman quitting in support of him, we’releft with only House, Wilson, and Cuddy. That would automatically qualify this as the best episode ever—if not for the endless whining of “You need a team, House! You can’t do this alone!” So, um…what did he do three years ago when he didn’t have a team, yet was miraculously still a brilliant diagnostician? How do they intend to justify the team’s existence when they can’t come up with a better reason than “he likes to bounce ideas off of other people”? They’ve each solved, like, two cases apiece. Out of, what? Sixty-six? Why can’t he just keep bouncing ideas off Wilson while Wilson mocks him? There is nothing better on the show than that.
“The team” will return next week. Let’s hope their new jobs make them less irritating.
King of the Hill (Fox)—Yes, The Simpsons‘ underrated bastard stepchild has quietly begun another season after rumors of cancellation and rapid, confused resurrection. I’m not sure if Fox is burning off a football-preemption stockpile like they did with Futurama a few years back, or if they’re actually producing new episodes. All I know is: while it may not have the same respect and recognition as The Simpsons, King of the Hill stands out as one of the very few shows to make it past 10 seasons without having an obvious decline in quality. Sure, some episodes have stranger premises than others (Hank entering a dance contest with his dog? John Redcorn founding an illegal casino to promote his confused metal band?), but King of the Hill still has it where it counts—it’s still hilarious and, unlike The Simpsons, it still has heart.
The premiere focuses on Hank’s realization that Bobby is interested in football. To capitalize on this before Bobby’s short attention span moves on to something else, Hank and the boys decide to take Bobby to a college football game. When they unwittingly cause Texas’s loss, Hank tries to sneak everyone out of the game without Bobby realizing what has happened (fearing the impending violence will cause him to hate football). The storyline reaches some bizarre heights, but at its core—like many of the show’s better episodes—it’s about a father trying to connect with his son, and vice-versa. The only downside this week was an unnecessary subplot with Peggy as a crazed superfan and Luanne as her confused enabler; while it led to a hilarious closing line, it didn’t do much for me. Still, it’s good to have King of the Hill back.
My Name Is Earl (NBC)—I’m afraid last year’s satisfying season finale has backed the writers into a corner. Sure, they got a lot of mileage out of “Earl in prison” gags, but how long can they keep this up? One of the small joys of the show has been gradually learning the bizarre nature of Camden County; limiting the setting to prison won’t do them any favors, even if they start a running gag where everyone Earl has wronged has somehow ended up in prison as a result. He needs to get out, in some way or another, within a few weeks. The hour-long premiere episode actually felt like an hour (unlike last year’s “super-sized” trip to Catalina’s unnamed home country, by far the funniest episode they’ve ever done), an average episode with a few laugh-out-loud moments. Free Earl!
The Office (NBC)—Last year’s “super-sized” “The Negotiation” had an energy and pacing that made it the best episode the show has ever done. Unfortunately for the writers, that episode will be my baseline for comparison until they top it. They can and will, but they didn’t do it with “Fun Run.” Don’t get me wrong—funny episode, great re-introduction to the characters after the summer break, but it didn’t match the energy of “The Negotiation.” The Meredith hit-and-run story spiraling into a charity fun run, while a funny premise, couldn’t quite sustain an hour-long episode. Some of the gags, such as Andy’s fear of nipple chafing, fell flat—a rarity for The Office. I looked forward to the longer episodes when I heard the announcement in May. Now, I’m cautiously optimistic.
Numb3rs (CBS)—I don’t know what to make of the premiere. I barely knew what to make of the finale, in which Colby (Dylan Bruno) gets a bit of character development for the very first time—only to be revealed as a spy for the Chinese. What an interesting twist, and the writers blew it in the premiere. Turns out: he wasn’t a double agent, he was a triple agent, a CIA operative undercover with the Chinese, who planted him with the FBI to gain secrets, which he faked. The episode had impressive twists and turns, and a creepy but ultimately pointless cameo by Val Kilmer (I could have sworn I read he’d be recurring, and then he got his head blown off), but I’m not sold on the triple-agent “oh gee, he was a good guy all along—sorry to leave you hanging all summer.” Despite his alarming resemblance to Vanilla Ice, I like Dylan Bruno and am glad to see him back. Still, morphing into some kind of arch-villain role could have been fun, too.
Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—Atlantis, why have you forsaken me? I started watching Atlantis when it debuted because I’m a sci-fi nerd but I missed the boat on SG-1—I didn’t like the movie, didn’t like MacGyver, and didn’t get Showtime. By the time my nerdy friends had me interested enough to check it out—it was, like, season seven. I’d never be able to just jump in and understand all the mythology, but I thought maybe this spinoff would be all right. I’d get introductions to new characters, a new mythology—right?!
I had enough familiarity with SG-1 to understand the occasional crossovers, but now? They’re replacing Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson) with Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) from SG-1, a character who apparently needs no introduction. Also, some random guy has joined her. To begin with, I wasn’t huge on the replacement of Higginson. I was no fan of her use of random eye bulging to express emotions, but once she toned that down the character and actress grew on me. It seems unfair to take the established character from this show and replace her with someone a character from a different show because, what? She has a bigger following? She’s under contract but they can’t afford to pay for two actresses?
The content of the episode itself was more of the same, in both strengths and weaknesses. I like this show when they hatch schemes based on their already existing knowledge of the city, its technology, and the people inhabiting it. I liked the plan to have inexperienced pilots fly puddle jumpers through the asteroid belt because they had no choice. I’m less fond of the regular deus ex machina of “Well, gee, the city can do this mysterious thing we never knew about before, so let’s harness that and save the day!” I’m just glad it didn’t work this time. Next week’s apparent heist on the replicator city sounds interesting, but I don’t look forward to the inevitable “resurrect Weir to kill her tragically” storyline.
Despite my occasional whining, I’m glad all my old favorites are back. I’m also glad most of the new shows kinda suck, because that means I can stick with these old favorites instead of trying to spend my entire weekend watching television instead of doing something productive, like watching movies.
Back to You and K-Ville (both on Fox)—So Arrested Development “fails” and Fox decides the best solution is to abandon any attempt at “edgy” programming in favor of turning into CBS? While I like the procedurals House and Bones (but shun most of Fox’s other programming), Back to You and K-Ville continue the trend of Fox’s new, toothless programming plan, with mixed results.
Back to You‘s main drawback is its lack of laughs. In a sitcom, that’s a huge drawback. It has a great main and supporting cast, but every joke felt strained. It’s surprising, considering the pedigree behind the camera (Steve Levitan, creator of the underrated-until-it-got-really-bad Just Shoot Me, and Frasier executive producer Christopher Lloyd), but here’s the main problem: Fox wants to be CBS, but they also want to be Fox. Rather than the clever double entendres often employed on their previous shows, Back to You has mastered the single entendre. Think pronouncing “Latina” to rhyme with “vagina” is comedy gold? This is the show for you. But not for me. It’s too bad, because I love Kelsey Grammer and Fred Willard.
K-Ville gets an A for effort, but a C for execution. I like Anthony Anderson, and I like him in this role, but the show, overall? Not very good. Somebody forgot to tell Fox that you need more than New Orleans location shooting to make a good cop show. Then again, somebody forgot to tell CBS you need more than sunglasses and hands-on-hips to make a good cop show. I really wanted this to be good, but FX’s short-lived Thief (starring Andre Braugher) did a much better job of capturing the post-Katrina zeitgeist in New Orleans than K-Ville does. Aside from the setting and Anderon’s performance, it’s a dud.
The Bionic Woman (NBC)—Remember how it took 30 seconds to summarize the original Bionic Woman? Why did it take a whole hour to say the exact same thing? Oh, wait, there was some new information: we have an irritating sister/expert “computer hacker” and an even more irritating second (technically the first) Bionic Woman played by Katee Sackhoff, and some kind of goofy romantic stuff or something. NBC wanted the new Bionic Woman to go dark, but it feels like they want it both ways: the evil Bionic Woman tells me they were too afraid to have a morally gray Bionic Woman, and the sister issues make me think they want some kind of family angst to make the half-man, half-machine character more relatable. Although this pilot did nothing but establish a bunch of characters and storylines I’m not interested in, I’ll be nice and give it another week to show nonstop ass-kicking, or else I’m out. Why would I tune in to The Bionic Woman to see sister drama and a hero-villain relationship with alarming sexual undertones?
Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—I watched this show solely for the people involved. Nothing about its premise or “controversial” subject matter (i.e., tranny hooker!) appealed to me, but with a great cast and a skilled behind-the-scenes team, I had to at least give it a chance. I’m glad I did, although I don’t know if I quite have a feel for what the show wants to be about. It feels like a dramedy version of Arrested Development; I hope they don’t take this route, because they’ll never match that show’s genius. If it deviates from the “guy forced to hold a goofy, wealthy family together” setup and shows a little more of who these people are, it could turn into a very worthwhile show.
Journeyman (NBC)—I don’t know what to make of this one, either. On the surface, it’s good—interesting premise, great acting, writing that lets us know they know how ridiculous the time-travel setup is—but just underneath I see things waiting to go wrong. Right now, though, its main problems fall into two categories: too much soap opera, not enough…whatever the hell it is he’s doing in time. The soap opera elements crop up in both present and past, as we learn Dan (Kevin McKidd) married Katie (Gretchen Egolf) after his fiancée Livia (Moon Bloodgood, the only weak link acting-wise, though she’s much better than she was on last season’s unjustly canceled Daybreak) died in a plane crash. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? Well, Katie planned on marrying Dan’s cop brother, Jack (Reed Diamond). Jack’s not exactly thrilled with the current circumstances, while in the past the brothers were best friends.
Dan manages to convince his wife, at least, of his time-traveling abilities, meaning the domestic angst will get dialed down for a little while. Still, I can’t help feeling the characters’ drama will dominate future storylines. I wouldn’t call this bad except the main narrative thrust of the show—Dan travels through time, seemingly at random, to nudge ordinary people into the right direction—gets the short end of the stick. In this episode, we get almost a throwaway explanation for why he kept interacting with this mysterious man who looked startlingly like a grown-up version of Jamie’s best friend, Reggie, on Small Wonder.
I can’t talk about this show without comparing it to Quantum Leap, because it’s one of my all-time favorite shows and it has a few things in common with Journeyman. In Quantum Leap, Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is a multitalented scientist (it’s hard to pigeonhole him as a physicist since he has seven doctorates) who entered the quantum leap accelerator…and vanished! He leaps into the bodies of various ordinary people at pivotal points in their lives, effecting change for the better. He doesn’t know who’s sending him to these people or why—all Sam knows is he’s making a difference.
Journeyman operates on a similar principle: Dan has no idea why he’s traveling through time, but there’s definitely an external force sending him to certain places at certain times for very specific reasons (unknown to us). Unlike Quantum Leap, where all the information about future events was provided by friend/hologram Al (Dean Stockwell) and a goofy pre-PDA handheld named Ziggy, Dan has the luxury of returning to the present and using a generic, faux-Google search engine to track down information about the people he encounters in the past.
In some ways, Dan’s ability to research his own information in the present and interact with more than one person (though admittedly, the Sam-Al relationship is what made Quantum Leap so great) improves on and modernizes the formula, but as creator Kevin Falls has implemented them, they also hinder the show’s success. Dan has so much going on with his family and love life, in both the past and present, that the actual purpose for his time-traveling this week—saving a father and son—took a backseat. Maybe part of this has to do Dan’s seeming lack of concern with saving these people. He’s far more interested in getting back with Livia. I’d like to think it’s just pilot-episode jitters that will iron themselves out as the show progresses.
Reaper (The CW)—Hands down, the best new show of the season. I say this without having seen a great many new shows. Does that make my assertion unrealistic? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I only know that I haven’t seen a show since Angel left the air that managed to combine humor and pathos, action and goofiness, and real humanity (in this case, the vague tragedy of our main characters’ until-now wasted lives). I laughed out loud more during this hour than I do during most legitimate comedies. Kevin Smith, who has never been a director with much visual style, somehow pulls off the action deftly. His usual forte, scenes of people standing around talking, hold solid. I’m looking forward to next week’s episode more than any other show, including old favorites.
That’s it for this week. We still have some shows, old and new, on the horizon, but we’ll have to wait. Until next time…