Noel Murray and Keith Phipps engage in the first of a series of casual conversations about some of the new fall shows.
Noel: New shows are still trickling out, but by this point, we've had a chance to see most everything the networks have to offer, so let's jump right into it with one show we really like, and one we don't.
The new series I've been most surprised and delighted by has been CBS' Smith (CBS, Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET). Yet another team-of-high-tech-crooks extravaganza, it didn't sound all that promising, especially coming on the heels of NBC's lame Heist and FX's not-as-good-as-it-could've-been Thief. And I wasn't persuaded by the creative team of John Wells and Christopher Chulack, who generally make good TV, but not great TV. But two episodes into what I fear will be a brief run, Smith is turning out to be pretty great TV. The heist ringleader, Ray Liotta, is as commanding as always, and Virginia Madsen is fantastic as his perpetually worried wife. But the surprise all-star—out of a supporting cast that also includes Simon Baker, Jonny Lee Miller, and Shohreh Aghdashloo—has been Amy Smart, playing the vixen of the team, on her way to masterminding her own counter-plot.
Still, what I really like about Smith isn't the story, which is admittedly kind of old hat, but the style. Wells and Chulack downplay the chatter and emphasize the visual, often delivering key pieces of information without a word uttered or a soundtrack cue bleating. They also play around with light and depth of field, obscuring faces with extreme foreground objects and bleeding pools of background sun. Smith's look underscores its moral haze, and makes it more than just another serialized crime drama.
Speaking of which, the only fall show I've actively disliked has been Fox's Vanished (Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m. ET). It's not that bad, really, but the kidnapping plot and every-week-a-new-secret-revealed structure just seems so contrived to me now. Most of these serialized shows—even Smith, to be honest—would work best as a six-part miniseries, or an extended feature film. After getting fed up with the "gotta fill 20 episodes" wheel-spinning of Prison Break last season, I'm only hanging with serialized shows that promise me something more than shocking revelations and weekly cliffhangers.
Keith: Noel, I'm not sure our TiVos are in sync. The two shows you're writing about are two I have yet to check out. But you've got me intrigued about Smith, and I think I'll skip Vanished for the reasons you cite. It sounds like one of those shows that would benefit from the HBO/BBC model of short, limited-run "seasons." There often isn't enough mystery to last 22 episodes. I'm even growing fatigued with Lost, much as I hate to say it.
So what have I been watching? I've tuned into Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m. ET) faithfully so far. The pilot's probably the best I've seen since Veronica Mars, but the second episode has me worried. Let's talk about the good stuff: It's been a few years since I watched The West Wing, so all that Aaron Sorkin-trademarked patter-heavy, long-take filmmaking really worked for me. I like the leads, too. Bradley Whitford is able as always, and he's allowed to show more depth than he was on the Wing. Matthew Perry always struck me as the most talented actor on Friends, and this cinches that impression. And while others are complaining about Amanda Peet, I like what she's doing here. She gets to play the kind of aloof, mysterious, always-in-control character that usually doesn't go to women, and she's done a fine job of it so far. And we know nothing about her or her methods, which makes her all the more intriguing. Of course, all that looks to change with next week's episode, so maybe I'm speaking too soon.
But—and I hope I'm speaking too soon about this—I see big problems up ahead, most of them having to do with the Studio 60 within Studio 60, and the fact that the big sketch, the one that was so brilliant that it was supposed to reassure everyone everywhere that Studio 60 was back and more brilliant than ever, was… terrible. A self-deprecating Gilbert & Sullivan parody? Really? That's the new height of sketch comedy? I understand Sorkin is committed to writing every episode, but maybe he could treat the sketches the way West Side Story treated Natalie Wood's voice: Bring in someone who can actually sing. Also, why is taking care of Studio 60 apparently Peet's only responsibility? Doesn't she run, like, the whole network?
Noel: I'm worried about the show-within-a-show aspect of Studio 60 too, although I understand that Sorkin actually has SNL/Kids In The Hall refugee Mark McKinney helping with the sketches. Still, so far, Studio 60 has been at its best when it sticks with Sorkin's biggest strength: celebrating the way people work together to make something happen. I'm especially hooked on the Whitford/Perry relationship. Sorkin's Sports Night was one of the best examinations of male friendship in pop-culture history, and this looks like a strong follow-up.
I also appreciate that Studio 60 occupies that increasingly sparsely populated middle ground between serial drama and case-of-the-week procedural. Not that I mind the latter when it's done well. Until Fox put it "on hiatus," I was really enjoying Justice (Fox, Wednesdays 9 p.m. ET), Jerry Bruckheimer's attempt to CSI-ify the legal drama. Granted, some of the show's kick is the goofiness of using trumped-up special-effects sequences to show, say, a room full of paralegals looking for precedents. But the inside look at how high-paid legal teams conduct today's modern super-trials is genuinely fascinating, and in the early episodes, the writers and producers have done a good job of balancing Victor Garber's leading-man charisma with the slow reveal of his associates' personalities. And that end-of-every-episode gimmick of showing how the crime really went down is never not creepy.
Anyway, Justice is a lot better than Shark (CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET), which has James Woods going for it, but otherwise is a non-starter as a legal drama and as a character piece. The pitch is something like "House with lawyers," but Woods' character isn't as brilliant or thorny as House, and the cases aren't as wondrously perverse. Really, Justice is more like House. It shows how the people affected by our social institutions matter less than the institutions themselves. Shark, by contrast, is too conventional. It's the anti-Justice.
But we need to go back a bit. What have you disliked so far?
Keith: That's easy: Six Degrees (ABC, Thursdays 10 p.m. ET), mostly because of high expectations. J.J. Abrams of Lost and Alias is the executive producer, and the cast includes Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, Erika Christensen, and Jay Hernandez. So far, so good. Except it isn't good. The high-concept premise—that its characters are connected by the famous-but-dubious six degrees of separation—is hoary to begin with. But so far, the show's done one of two things with it: shorten the degrees of separation to one by having the stories overlap, or throw in lots of random shots of one character walking behind another without the two knowing they're connected.
Worse, the stories are impossibly corny, from the limo driver who just needs one last score to put the street life behind him to the alcoholic photographer who just needs a break to get his life back together, and so on. Weaving a bunch of clichéd situations together does not a glorious dramatic tapestry make.
To the actors' credit, they only occasionally seem to let on that they're slumming it on television. But every time Hope Davis opens her mouth to deliver that dialogue, I know she's slumming. The weird thing is, two episodes in, I'm starting to find it queasily compelling for all the wrong reasons. I may keep watching.
I've got a similar problem with Jericho (CBS, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET), which takes a fantastic premise—semi-mysterious dude is stuck in his small hometown during a probable nuclear apocalypse—and saddles it with every worn-out device that prime-time drama has scared up in the past few decades. The pilot alone had escaped prisoners, children in peril, and an emergency tracheotomy. It's a daring '00s idea executed like it's still 1978. What's next, is someone going to have to talk a non-pilot through landing a plane? Also, neither Skeet Ulrich nor Gerald McRaney fill me with confidence. Noel: I have a feeling I'll be done with both those shows—and NBC's Kidnapped (NBC, Wednesdays 10 p.m. ET) too—after about three episodes. My reading of Six Degrees is that it's essentially Desperate Housewives with less silliness and more earnest urban connection. No matter how hard I try, I haven't been able to shake off Desperate Housewives—although the recent storyline about Doug Savant's annoying baby-mama is testing my resolve—so I've got an impulse to hang in there and see where Six Degrees is going. (At the least, I want to know what's in that mysterious box.) But I don't think I can put up with many more quirky meditations on luck to find out.
Similarly, I want to know more about the worldwide apocalypse in Jericho, but I don't much care how Ulrich resolves his daddy issues. And I want to find out more about the oddball aristocrats involved in Kidnapped's titular crime, but I don't know how much more tough-talking police procedural hogwash I want to endure. I'm telling you, man, Lost aside—and unlike you, I'm more into Lost than ever, after last season's mind-bending finale—twisty TV serials are for the birds.
With one major new exception. (Two, if you count Smith.) I admit to being skeptical about Heroes (NBC, Mondays, 9 p.m. ET) going into it, but the opening episode was sly, funny, geeky, and full of promise for the weeks to come. I hope the creators don't take forever to bring all the storylines together and get the master-plot started, but for now, I'm enjoying the way the pieces are being put on the board. You liked it too, yes?
Keith: Yes, I did. It's edged out Studio 60 as my most promising show of the year. (Of course, as with Studio 60, episode two could change that.) I'm a soft touch when it comes to superheroes, but I think even discounting that, there's a lot to admire about this, specifically everything you mention, an eerie tone, and mostly strong performances. (Ali Larter… who knew?) I also got a sense from the pilot—to address your concerns—that there was an effort to make the plot truck along. We've got a looming disaster, an evil (?) mastermind, and connections between most of the characters. (Or at least confirmation that they're separated by less than six degrees without having a scene of one of them standing in line behind another at the coffee shop.) Also, the effects work, which is reassuring. We'll see if they pull it off in the long haul. So far, I'm optimistic.
I'm also intrigued by Ugly Betty (ABC, Thursdays 8 p.m. ET), although my interest is tempered by an increasingly reduced tolerance for camp. I know they're doing an American telenovela, and camp is part and parcel with that. But I love America Ferrera's earnest performance as Betty—the unglamorous journalist adrift in the world of fashion magazines—and could care less about the intrigues and machinations of the magazine world. (I did my time with The Devil Wears Prada already.) But I don't hate those elements, and so far, Vanessa Williams is kind of fun as the villain. And Gina Gershon was a lot of fun in her guest role. And I love the cameos executive producer Salma Hayek has done on the show within the show. Still, I'm mostly there for Ferrera, who can convey five different flavors of hopefulness and hurt in a single shot.
Noel: I'm intrigued by Ugly Betty too, but it's getting shoved aside in my Thursday-night scheduling jam. I was able to watch the first episode on its ABC Family rerun, but I doubt I'll see another one for a while, since on Thursdays I'm TiVo-ing Survivor and watching My Name Is Earl and The Office in real time. Anyway, Ugly Betty's apparently a hit already, so I'll have plenty of chances to catch up with it later, if I so choose. And I might just. I've got a little problem with the campy elements too—and the set design, which is kind of oppressive—but at least it's got a sensibility and a character base that isn't seen much on network TV.
The same could be said of ABC's Help Me Help You (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET), which stars Ted Danson as a neurotic celebrity psychologist in charge of a group of distinctively nutty patients. But while the group-therapy scenes are surprisingly funny—thanks in large part to Danson's well-honed comic timing—once the characters go their separate ways, the comedy dies. The show looks and feels a little different than anything else on TV, but it still isn't that entertaining.
Which brings us to The Class (CBS, Mondays, 8 p.m. ET), a show that looks and feels utterly conventional, but which, no matter what anybody says, I kind of like. I understand everything that's wrong with it: the "third-grade class reunion" premise is flimsy and stupid, the cast's racial makeup is far from diverse, and the show's structure is essentially Friends redux. But The Class fits well on CBS Monday, the home of the old-fashioned, studio-audience-invited, three-camera sitcom. The Class even operates under the guidance of James Burrows, the Cheers/Frasier/Friends/Will & Grace guru, who knows how to maximize the comic quirks of otherwise-bland TV characters. This is far from must-see TV, or even appointment TV. It's "let's see what's on" TV. And in a TV season where nearly every show is demanding I pay attention for 20-odd weeks, it's comforting to know that there are still shows I can drop in on just like, you know, whenever.
That's probably enough for now. Maybe in a couple of weeks we can look at some of the shows that haven't premièred yet, see how these shows are holding up, and check in on some of our returning favorites.