While we generally criticize CBS for being a “safe” network in terms of its programming practices, they’re actually sort of risky: most of the series they cancel (see: The Ghost Whisperer, Cold Case) draw demo numbers that NBC would kill for, after all. If anything, the security of the majority of its lineup pushes CBS to introduce more turnover than the other networks, leading to more new pilots and thus more discussions to have. Of course, we can criticize CBS for the uninteresting and confounding decisions they make in terms of what shows they pick up, but you have to give them some credit for being willing to shake things up.
And yes, even when shaking things up involves a remake, a Chuck Lorre sitcom, and Jim Belushi.
Blue Bloods (Premiered 9/24/10)
Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona
“united in duty … committed to justice … devoted to family”
The pilot episode should be charged with “excessive force” for cramming in backstory to introduce the panoply of characters and issues that will play out in future episodes.
The Reagans are a multi-generational New York law enforcement family whose men run the ranks of police officers (rookie, detective, commissioner, retired, and brother killed in the line) and women are with the DA’s office (one seasoned attorney, one new associate).
Although they are all on the side of prosecution (no public defenders), the family debates law v. justice: cop knows man is guilty; kidnapped child needs insulin; legal process stands in the way; brutality is necessary to find child in time; kidnapper will walk unless cop can find untainted evidence over the weekend. Blue Bloods offered nothing new to the “fruit of the poisoned tree” trope. The Sunday family dinner scene was too spare to get into it, despite nods to verisimilitude (PTSD from service in Iraq, John McCain, and Amber Alert).
But there’s a twist: a story arc out of Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. Blue Templar is a mythical (or not) secret society of rogue cops who practice extortion and murder-for-hire. Blue Templar murdered the Reagan son, an undercover cop. As the rookie follows his brother undercover into Blue Templar, the pilot asks us to ponder whether the Police Commissioner belongs to the organization that killed his own son. Really?
Despite this awkward beginning, I give crime drama more episodes to see how it will develop, whether the characters will become interesting, and whether the show will introduce a new spin on the genre.
Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:
If you were to describe Blue Bloods as a the story of a multi-generational family who represent the intersection of law and order struggling with the recent death of one of their own (and the absence of their matriarch), it would probably sound like a fairly solid drama series – it would offer very little in the way of revolution, but sometimes there is room for a character-driven drama series, especially one which stars strong performers like Tom Selleck, Donnie Whalberg, and Will Estes (who are all, for the record, well cast).
However, you could also describe Blue Bloods as a contrived mess of a procedural drama where the members of this family all happen to be involved with the investigation, prosecution, and administration of the case of the week. That story deals with some anvil-like discussions of torture (waterboarding, in particular), and yet due to the familial aspect of the story it becomes petty squabbling at the Sunday dinner table instead of a legitimate discussion.
The central family has the potential to set this series apart from others, but the procedural elements are so heavily defined by their relationship that they step entirely outside the realm of reality: dolls are prototypes, necklaces are engraved, and a judge makes a decision about the waterboarding confession based on a single image. While the cast has the potential to create an intriguing drama series, the integration of the procedural elements is so inelegant that it undermines even the parts of Blue Bloods which work in theory.
Jason Mittell, Middlebury College:
Even though I’m not a fan of generic CBS cop shows, Blue Bloods intrigued me because its creators, Mitchell Burgess & Robin Green, had been key writers on Northern Exposure in the 1990s and The Sopranos in the 2000s. While perhaps their script got tinkered to death by network notes, the low quality of dialog suggests that maybe the couple is much better suited to matching an established creator’s voice than establishing their own. The pilot was a stockpile of cop clichés, clunky dialog, flat characters, and generic plotting, with virtually nothing but a solid cast to distinguish it from any other cop show of the last decade – except for a thrown-in scene about a “secret society of cops” called Blue Templars, which would likely be the season’s most ludicrous twist had it not been for The Event.
I was particularly amazed by the weak dialog throughout, as characters simply explicate their relationships and emotions, rather than talking like actual people. One notable scene toward the beginning of the episode introduces the central family of cops and lawyers with these subtle lines:
“I’m proud of you son.”
“Mom’s probably spinning in her grave with you quitting the law and becoming a cop and all. Golden boy was on the fast track to Washington, and now look at him.”
“I’m sorry, sis, I forgot we’ve got an Assistant District Attorney in the family.”
“She seems to be handling this well, you being a cop.”
“It can’t be easy after watching you bury your brother.”
This scene would be a perfect example to show a screenwriting class on how not to use dialog to transparently reveal relationships and exposition. Alas the show is not designed to demonstrate screenwriting don’ts – instead it’s a clunky generic mixture of cop and family drama that will probably coast on its actors’ charms and reputations to last out the season. But to quote from one of the few genre clichés not heard in the episode, “move along, there’s nothing to see here.”
S#*! My Dad Says (Premiered 9/23/10)
Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona:
Whoo boy, this was hard to sit through — a bottom-of-the-barrel placeholder. Put aside the telegraphed humor and awkward sentimentality for a moment: the more pressing (and interesting) problem lies in the casting. Did anybody really hear William Shatner’s dulcet tones while reading the “Shit My Dad Says” Twitter feed? Shatner’s never been able to play “gruff” or “crotchety” like John Mahoney in Frasier, Peter Boyle in Raymond, or (my favorite) James T. Callahan in Charles in Charge. For all the silliness of the buffoonish star persona he’s cultivated in his later years, Shatner retains a certain sensitivity and sophistication (fostered by his famously theatrical line readings) that lies at odds with this sitcom character.
When he wistfully remembers dancing with his wife, we buy it. Chasing Girl Scouts with a shotgun…not so much.
Combine the miscasting of the lead role with an annoying, overwrought performance from Jonathan Sadowski and the fact that the Twitter feed isn’t very funny to begin with, and you’ve got a mess that will likely be quickly canceled and forgotten — unless the hammocking between Big Bang Theory and CSI causes Bleep to stick around unnaturally for years (a la Suddenly Susan). Hopefully cancellation will be swift, so Shatner can move on to a more suitable career-capper.
Ethan Thompson, Texas A&M – Corpus Christi
My key interest in watching this show was wondering whether the program would somehow incorporate the “Twittering” origin of its title into its formal style or narrative structure. Not even close. $#*! My Dad Says is your basic failed attempt at a sitcom, and there’s no inspiration here beyond someone realizing there weren’t any sitcoms about curmudgeonly dad/hapless sons on the air. So here’s one with William Shatner. After what should have been a career-capping run on Boston Legal, he has managed to find a gig that makes his Priceline commercials seem like elaborate, compelling entertainment. The only marginally funny moment of the show came when Shatner’s character complained that no one could do a decent impression of him. I think he’s probably wanted to have his own sitcom at least since appearing on Saturday Night Live all those years back, mocking Star Trek fans who supposedly mistook him for his character. The writers and producers seem to have done the same thing, expecting that Shatner would embody a hybrid of Denny Crane and TJ Hooker for their $#*!-talking dad. Unfortunately, they didn’t bother coming up with any funny $#*! for him to say.
Amber Watts, Texas Christian University:
Everyone except for, apparently, William Shatner expected $*(@#4**(# My Dad Says to be abysmal, and—surprise!—it was. Here’s why:
1. It’s network TV, so no one can ever say the show’s name. This is a problem.
2. You can’t search for a title beginning with random characters on a DVR, which—provided you did actually want to watch the show in the first place—makes it way too difficult to find.
3. The writing is lazy. Despite the fact that the source material is a Twitter feed, the show feels ancient, and could be happily hammocked between Three’s Company and CHiPs.
4. What makes the Twitter feed so funny is that it consists of random one-liners from a real person who sounds like he could be a sitcom character. When an actual sitcom character is spouting “sitcom character one-liners,” it’s a lot less funny. Dropping the Twitter feed into a half-hour comedy drains it of everything that makes it a great Twitter feed.
5. It’s a pilot, so it needs to establish characters, relationships, and conflict. Exposition is fine, to a point. But it didn’t have to be quite so maudlin. Did Tim Bagley, as the crazy DMV guy, really need to tell Shatner, “No matter how old your kids get, it’s never too late to be a dad”? Did we really need to see Shatner and his recast-in-August son slow dance to “It Had to Be You?” The short answer: no.
The source material is a first. The execution is not. God bless William Shatner, but hopefully the 12.5 million (!) people who watched this last night learned their lesson and will help put the show out of its misery, quickly.
The Defenders (Premiered 9/22/10)
Nick Marx, UW-Madison:
“Chief Wiggum, I can’t wait to hear about all the exciting, sexy adventures you’re sure to have against this colorful backdrop,” says Lisa Simpson in “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase.” The Defenders quite literally opens with Jerry O’Connell–who sure has come a long way–finishing up a quickie with a stewardess in his hotel room overlooking the Las Vegas skyline. While the scene (as well as O’Connell’s performance throughout the pilot) are actually kind of winning, it quickly becomes clear that the program isn’t interested in re-inventing the legal dramedy. All your favorite tropes are there: the overconfident, then flustered, prosecutors; the smug, then incredulous, expert witness; the late-night strategy session with Chinese takeout. And so on. There’s plenty to like, in a stimulating-enough-to-keep-the-old-folks-awake-until-the-evening-news kind of way, but the longevity of The Defenders will likely hinge on who emerges as leading man. Belushi plays to the CBS demo, but listening to According to Jim stumble through legalese feels about as natural as Bill Gates coming on to close the 9th inning of a playoff game. Belushi even has the epiphany that leads to a winning case while watching baseball, because dat’s what normal guys do. Also, apparently–and I’ve never been to Vegas–the city’s got lots of sexy blackjack convertible strip stripper Sinatra martini Armani sexy. Who knew?
Sharon Ross, Columbia College:
So, parts of this show have merit…but The Defenders could stand to emulate some past legal dramadies with a little more finesse. When the show focuses on its comedic elements, it provides solid laughs and sparkling chemistry—particularly from Jerry O’Connell, whose charm pops off the screen. However, the majority of the episode slips into tired and boring procedural tropes that lead to yawn-fests for the viewer. And I just don’t really see why Jurnee Smollett needs to be an ex-Vegas-dancer/stripper turned lawyer. If the series can borrow more from the fun of Boston Legal and Ally McBeal by focusing on the office relationships rather than the sappy court cases—or at least better integrate the two domains—then the show will be a fun (albeit not especially DVR-worthy) show to watch.
Nora Seitz, UW – Madison:
A throbbing bass line brings us into a hotel room where Pete Kaczmarek (played by Jerry O’Connell and all of his boyish charm) and a sexy stewardess simultaneously put on their clothing. Their hotel window looks out at the airport, and we see planes arriving and departing in the background throughout the opening scene. Thus, The Defenders literally delivers us in to Las Vegas through the experience of playboy lawyer Pete. CBS clearly uses The Good Wife as a model here: cinematic features, legal drama, veteran TV actors and a cute ethnic supporting female. The only difference is that this show invites its viewers to experience legal drama via a testosterone-imbued world of classic Las Vegas. Pete’s car is a vintage convertible, he and his partner Nick Morelli (Jim Belushi) dress like 1960s mobsters, hold their meetings in mahogany-lined lounges over martinis, and attend a Frank Sinatra, Jr. show as the episode closes. The first case on this procedural drama mirrors Alicia Florrick’s inaugural case on The Good Wife, as Pete and Nick represent a sympathetic young man who seems clearly guilty of murder at the onset of the show, but is valorously acquitted before their 44 minutes are up. Fast-paced dialogue, lush production and a mythical Las Vegas setting invite the spectator to revel in male accomplishment, and I am curious to see if/how the show problematizes hegemonic masculinity in future episodes.
Hawaii Five-0 (Premiered 9/20/10)
Josh David Jackson, UW – Madison:
“What kind of cops are you?” an ashtray-battered perp asks ex-Navy maverick supercop Steve McGarrett. “The new kind,” he says.
The show may not be your father’s Hawaii Five-0, but the (expensive) pilot nevertheless relegates itself to rather well trodden territory. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci reimagine Five-0 for the Mountain Dew demographic (as the two did for the Transformers and Star Trek films) with Peter Lenkov. The result is a spectacle fueled and irritatingly hypervisual (high concept: all dialogue is shot with a sweeping low-angle pan!) exposition bomb likely to keep Hawaii’s stunt coordinators working regularly, but unlikely to offer much more than forty-five minutes of already-familiar TV that’s prettier than most. (And, perhaps, McGarrett and Danno’s slash fiction-ready tough-but-tender bonding.) Beneath all the machine gun sprays, bikini bodies, car collisions, and the veneer of bleeding-edge technological mastery, are the procedural genre’s most familiar clichés, complete with tough-guy talk, loose interpretation of Miranda rights, a clean dirty officer, a “put-the-gun-down-or-I’ll-kill-her” moment, a visit to a paid informant, a warrant gone awry, an imperiled, wired cop, a potential international incident, and, yes, an end-of-episode cast crackup. I’m sure someone’s generating a Hawaii Five-0 drinking game at this very moment.
Perhaps the pilot is an exercise in getting all of these tried-and-true tropes out of its system. Let me know if it does; I’ll be watching something else.
Derek Johnson, University of North Texas:
This pilot felt like a pretty joyless affair to me. Though I suppose it kept with the spirit of the original series backstory, the decision to brutally murder the protagonist’s father (a criminally under-used William Sadler) and then cut directly to the peppy new mix of the classic theme was particularly jarring. O’Laughlin’s wooden, dead-behind-the-eyes performance as McGarrett didn’t help infuse any of the energy demanded of such a great and iconic theme. From watching this pilot, I’m not sure why CBS keeps pulling out the chair for this guy—whether mourning his father, sparring back and forth with Danno, or fighting the bad guys, he maintained the same blank stare. With such a lack of energy in his performance, it was hard for me to pull an emotional 180 and get charged for the ridiculously over-the-top, high-octane machine gun fights. I did like Scott Caan much more as Danno, but I was disappointed that the producers seem to think the acting range of BSG refugee Grace Park extends only from bikini to underwear. Ultimately, I just didn’t feel much at all to connect with, but I imagine that the mix of CSI-style police procedural and NCIS-style military themes might give regular CBS viewers more in which to be interested.
Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:
While all remakes effectively rely on nostalgia, Hawaii Five-0 also relies on audience familiarity in the way it establishes its cast of characters. There is no elegance to how Daniel Dae Kim’s Chin Ho Kelly and Grace Park’s Kona Kalakaua are introduced: we are not given enough information about Kelly’s departure from the force or Kalakaua’s supposed ostracization within the academy – the excuses the show uses to bring them into the elite unit – to truly get a sense of their characters, and the pilot doesn’t bother to do anything more than that.
Instead, the series coasts on the notion that the audience will connect with these characters based on their previous roles within genre television – why else would the show go to Comic-Con other than the fact that Kim (late of Lost) and Park (late of Battlestar Galactica) are royalty there? While the episode is built around providing adequate development for Alex O’Loughlin’s Steve McGarrett, and Scott Caan breathes life into the clichéd divorced father storyline with his Danny Williams, the supporting players are so nonchalantly introduced into the story that their presence is (to this point) little but a form of short-term nostalgia.
However, because that short-term nostalgia is fairly powerful, and because the pilot is pretty well-focused overall (especially compared with other pilots in its genre), it ends up being more intelligent than problematic – not unlike The Big Bang Theory, which uses its ties to geek culture in order to add value to its basic sitcom trappings, Hawaii Five-0 will look to use its connection to genre television to convince viewers that this isn’t just another police procedural.
And, for now, it’s working.
Bradley Schauer, The University of Arizona:
One’s enjoyment of Hawaii Five-O will be directly proportional to one’s enthusiasm for machine guns, which are apparently ubiquitous in Honolulu. The pilot’s emphasis on spectacular action (especially in the pre-credit “South Korean” sequence) is frequently satisfying, but seems unsustainable – not every episode can cost $8 million. Will future episodes focus more on investigative procedure and underworld intrigue, even though there was little of either in the pilot?
Once again CBS has inexplicably tied its fortunes to the wooden Alex O’Loughlin, a mix of Keanu Reeves and Tom “Ed” Cavanaugh. His nostril-flared, furrowed-brow performance as the self-righteous and uptight Steve McGarrett is antithetical to Jack Lord’s iconic cool, leading one to wonder yet again, “Why remake a show if you’re just going to alienate people who liked the original?” (Although, mercifully, McGarrett does loosen up over the course of the pilot.)
The rebooted McGarrett also suffers in comparison to Scott Caan’s likeable Danno, perhaps the only winning element of the show thus far (aside from a few nifty stunts). Poor Grace Park has barely enough time to change out of her bikini before she’s ordered to strip down again by a sneering, cartoon villain. The awkward banter at the end of the episode does not bode well for the show’s long term survival. In all likelihood, Hawaii Five-O will suffer the same fate as the recent Bionic Woman, The Fugitive, Dragnet, Knight Rider … wait, tell me again: why do networks insist on remaking these old shows, when the track record for nostalgic reboots is so dire?
Jason Sperb, Northwestern:
The second attempt at remaking the landmark show, Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980), certainly fared better than the first, if for no other reason than the Gary Busey pilot (1997) never even made it on air. The newest version has promise, although the long-term vision for an engaging narrative remains undefined. The original’s 5-O unit has been seemingly remade as a buddy cop show—the antagonistic Scott Caan is a welcome respite from James MacArthur’s bland “Sure thing, Steve” routine, yet his wise-guy act risks becoming equally one-dimensional. The potentially interesting multicultural angle is mostly a holdover from the groundbreaking original, but the casting of two more white guys in the main roles is positively retro—at best—forty years later, particularly when set against such a richly non-white environment as Hawai’i. There isn’t much story, though it ends on a potentially interesting hook—just doesn’t really develop it as such. Will Victor Hesse (James Marsters) be the new “Wo Fat,” the communist agent McGarrett tracked across the 1970s? Unlikely, but it points to the core question mark with the newest Five-O—that the premiere may be “a lot of fun” isn’t really a substantive, specific model for building a sustained audience.
Mike & Molly (Premiered 9/20/10)
Megan Biddinger, University of Michigan:
I’ll be honest: my expectations of Mike & Molly were always low, but I was intrigued by the potential for a show that pays attention to the ways that body size shapes people’s experiences without fully defining them. Sadly, while watching the premiere, I found myself trying to remember the last time I saw such an uncomfortably unfunny sitcom (it was 2008’s Do Not Disturb). The pilot established believable chemistry between the likable Mike and Molly, but it was mostly a barrage of clumsy, but no less brutal fat jokes. The producers and writers might have wanted to contrast the leads’ self-deprecating (not self-loathing) jokes with others’ oblivious and sometimes mean-spirited comments, but the pervasive and unvaried canned laughter homogenized the tone. The 3 camera set-up worked similarly, I think. The show felt like it was laughing at, not with, Mike and Molly and so I didn’t laugh (Fine. I snorted once at a joke about a 3.5lb fart). I will give the show credit for raising interesting questions about representation, form, and comedy. The aspects that limit it are unlikely to change, though, and I’m unlikely to keep watching regularly.
Christopher Cwynar, UW – Madison:
Obese male cop and obese female teacher meet at a downtown Chicago Overeaters Anonymous meeting and romance – or at least an awkward courtship – ensues. This premise might have yielded a tender and lighthearted examination of the social dynamics surrounding obesity, which is often regarded as a personal failing in North America. Instead, viewers get nothing but testicle, fart, and lesbian jokes punctuated by a laugh track that sounds as though it was recorded in the seventies. I had hoped that Swoosie Kurtz would be able to make a positive difference in the classic ‘wisecracking mother’ role, but The Swooze can do little with material of this caliber. Molly’s pothead sister and Mike’s quick-witted African-American partner provide additional ‘laughs’; the latter reinforces the program’s resemblance to King of Queens, though Mike & Molly cannot approach the comedic value of that average program. The regrettable inclusion of an immigrant restaurant worker, who makes jokes about sending unfinished plates back to Africa, represents an unfortunate lowpoint in both taste and humor. Unfunny, offensive, and insufficiently sincere in its tender moments, Mike & Molly is an embarrassment. Let’s hope that it is quickly put out of its misery so that The Swooze can get on with the business of playing ‘Blanche’ in a Golden Girls reboot for the new century.
Jonathan Gray, UW – Madison:
I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by Mike and Molly, not because it’s all that good, but because I’d expected worse. It’s hard to know at this point how grating the incessant fat jokes will become; I remember thinking that Big Bang Theory‘s premiere was absolutely littered with geek jokes, and that they’d have to dry up eventually, and yet BBT went on to find some space to breathe, so maybe M&M will too? Beyond this, though, are nagging questions about production and audience — sure, there are fat actors, but are the writers heavy? Are the audience who are laughing at all these jokes about meatballs and rolls of fat actually heavy themselves? I find myself too troubled by the ghosts of absent and unknown audience members while watching this, and by the question of how the laughter is meant to work, especially since it’s not really my cup of tea (if humor’s going to be sophomoric, I think it should go all out, South Park-style, rather than merely titter at grown men using a kid’s urinal). I laughed at a few (other) moments, and at least it has a bit of heart (the appeal of which I can see for some audiences who want sincerity with their snark). It’s not for me, but I’ll be fascinated to see those ghosts materialize, and to see what shape of audiences they take.
Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:
Considering the volume of weight- and flatulence-related humor in Mike & Molly’s premiere episode, it raises the question: what, precisely, are likable and talented performers like Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy doing in it?
Gardell and McCarthy, in those moments unspoiled by juvenile comedy, offer a compelling take on two people who are looking to improve their lives and connect with one another, their scenes an oasis of charm amidst the cesspool. If the show was interested in examining America’s relationship with weight, it could have found a sitcom in the Overeaters Anonymous meetings, which play as basic, but honest, standup comedy which feels earnest without being too contrived. Gardell and McCarthy are strong comic actors who make the most of the scenes uninterrupted by the riff-raff, in particular with Gardell’s speech about why he became a police officer: it’s a tad bit contrived, in that it creates an excuse for character background exposition, but Gardell finds the honesty in the scene, and the show becomes about a police officer who’s fat instead of a fat police officer.
If you eliminate Molly’s family, and create a series about a police officer and a teacher who balance work, life and love and who both attend Overeaters Anonymous, this could be a legitimately enjoyable comedy series with two strong leads.
Instead, it’s a complete and total mess.