A year ago, NBC was a network hedging its bets: more interested in pleasing investors than viewers, it gave Jay Leno five hours of primetime in an effort to limit its financial risk (and torment the American public). In the process, however, it sacrificed any sort of creative risk, leaving the network further away than ever from its hip and edgy reputation in the era of Seinfeld and Friends. This year, however, NBC is back in the game: it’s programming the 10pm hour, it promoted The Event as the most anticipated debut of the fall, and it even has J.J. Abrams on board.
Of course, NBC also has Outsourced, but baby steps.
Law & Order: LA (Premiered 9/29/10)
Anna Everett, UC Santa Barbara:
Wednesday night’s premiere of Law & Order: Los Angeles (LOLA), the latest iteration of the famed procedural crime show franchise, was an impressive debut. However, as a replacement for the original Law & Order it does not quite satisfy. The first installment of LOLA, fittingly entitled “Hollywood,” does have much to recommend it for old and new audiences alike. For example, the new opening sound track is reminiscent enough of other Law & Order programs’ variations on the theme, while offering a unique, jaunty and up-tempo musical signature of its own. Fortunately, for longstanding fans, LOLA retains the famous “dun-dun” or “doink doink” sound button that punctuates the show intertitles and scene transitions.
The show’s dramatic opening sequences telescope its specific, ripped from the headlines narrative almost immediately as a fictional tale inspired by the infamous antics of the dysfunctional Lohan family and other sensational stories of young Hollywood celebrities run-amok. The Law & Order brand’s suspenseful fictional twist on familiar tabloid stories, which works to keep audiences guessing and tuned in, obtains in this new show as well. In the “Order” half hour of the show, the young Lohanesque starlet Chelsea Sennett (portrayed compellingly by Danielle Panabaker) is not sentenced to court-ordered rehab. Rather, the Dina Lohan inspired-Cougar-mom Trudy Sennett (Shawnee Smith) is sentenced to 15 years in jail on murder charges–Wish fulfillment? Perhaps. LOLA‘s casting and characters work well, particularly its West Coast locale and glitzy Los Angeles milieu; as for other changes marking this new show–not so much. Where, for example, is the renowned “dead-body” discovery sequence that opens the show and catalyzes the first “Law” driven half-hour of the program? The violent bludgeoning of a minor character at the start feels more jarring than the familiar cold corpse, whose mystery unfolds with each dun-dun, and crime solved by the show’s end. LOLA, appears as a hybrid remix combining facets of L&O Criminal Intent, Special Victim’s Unit, and the flagship Law & Order series. LOLA’s much younger cast is consistent with Los Angeles’ youth and beauty-obsessed entertainment culture, though lacking some of the trademark chemistry characterizing other shows in the franchise. The absent District Attorney (Peter Coyote) and Senior/Commanding Police officer (Rachel Ticotin) left this premiere episode feeling incomplete, without gravitas.
On the plus side, LOLA‘s quickened editing pace, brighter lighting or visuals, social media savvy and tie-ins (i.e., “this T-shirt needs its own Facebook page”) construct a show style and dynamics capable of appealing to TV’s once-ideal audience demographic (18-49), and beyond. However, NBC’s own pre-show publicity including the saying “this is not your grandfather’s Law & Order” may be missing the goal, especially if some of the 11 posters to the LOLA website’s commentary section are any indication. Of the 11 comments about the LOLA‘s premiere episode, there were several requests to bring back Jack McCoy, among others not very enthusiastic about the show-even those swearing not to watch it. But, it was the first show, and after all, Alfred Molina (Morales), Skeet Ulrich (Winters), Corey Stoll (Jaruszalski), and Regina Hall (Prince) have enough combined star wattage to keep us watching, for a while.
Outsourced (Premiered 9/23/10)
Evan Elkins, UW – Madison:
Outsourced, NBC’s bland-white-dude-in-a-garish-parody-of-India “comedy” is so pitifully, half-heartedly moronic that it seems almost pointless to be angry about it. But in its purported deflection of any serious criticism of its politics, the program’s stupidity may be its savviest tactic.
Still, all of the world’s diarrhea jokes cannot hide the fact that the program premieres within an American context of right-wing anti-immigrant hysteria and Islamophobic rhetoric (read: rhetoric that flattens several Middle Eastern and South Asian peoples, places, and ideas into an imprecise Other). Superficial nods to liberal ideals of “common ground” aside (at the end of the episode, he sits at his employees’ lunch table instead of the other white guy’s!), the show’s stock in trade is the exploitation of tried-and-true xenophobia. After all, the closest thing the show has to a villain is a silent, angry Sikh in a turban.
Apparently, some Americans have expressed offense at Outsourced—not because of its Indian stereotypes but because of its insensitivity in joking about outsourcing jobs during the recession. Here, again, the discourse of (white) American victimization at the hands of foreigners rears its head. The program will be undoubtedly cancelled, but as a constellation of today’s most noxious political discourse, Outsourced might be more relevant and timely than we think.
Aswin Punathambekar, University of Michigan:
9:30 pm: Just in time. Finished reading review of Outsourced in the NYTimes. Two sentences in particular make me optimistic: “the jokes change in tandem with the world’s balance of power,” and Outsourced is a comedy about Indian capitalism that mostly makes fun of American decline.”
5 minutes in: so far, Manmeet (“man meat”) aside, the jokes have been meh, but not too bad. But what’s with the color scheme in the office? *aaagh*
10 minutes in: Struck by how terrible the music has been. A Panjabi MC number can be justified, kind of. But the title song of “Omkara,” a Bollywood film about Hindi heartland politics?
White dude in a garish call-center office, and the song goes “sabse bade ladaiyya re…” (“the most bad-ass fighter in the land”)? Seriously?
12 minutes in: I’ve decided I’ll stick with the show for at least 3-4 episodes.
15 minutes in: This Rajiv character fits the “sly native” stereotype, no? And Madhuri the diffident brown woman who becomes the white guy’s project? *Sigh* What to do. It’s hard to completely let go of po-co jargon.
20 minutes in: Is Outsourced struggling to write past stereotypes? Yes. Offensive? Not really. Not yet, at least.
25 minutes in: someone should write about accents. Thinking of Shilpa Dave’s article “Apu’s Brown Voice: Cultural inflection and South Asian accents.”
End of show: Above all, Outsourced is problematic b’cos it is a step backwards where American TV’s imagination of Desi identity and culture is concerned. Instead of building on The Office (Mindy Kaling), Parks & Recreation (Aziz Ansari), and other shows, this one fails to imagine and explore Desi culture and identity *within* the U.S.
Once again, Desis are positioned elsewhere. The very idea of Desi is outsourced.
p.s. no longer sure what that NYTimes reviewer saw.
Sharon Ross, Columbia College:
Outsourced attempts to redefine comedy by taking the humor of discomfort one step further than The Office and even Curb Your Enthusiasm; it asks us to yuk it up over jokes about sophomoric novelty items and stereotypes of Indian call center employees, but, at least in the pilot, without providing us with any real sense of character. The jokes are fairly flat and will wear thin quickly—fake vomit and blood only gets you so far. The jokes about American ignorance of Indian culture aren’t anywhere near funny, because the writers are struggling to poke fun without being offensive, leading to an awful mess of culture clash “ha has.” So I got bored and found myself wondering: if middle and southern U.S. yokels are busily buying up novelty items, where did our recession go? Why are the Indian workers so clueless about an American culture that has permeated much of their country? Why must there be an Australian hottie in the mix? I wasn’t as offended as I thought I would be (though my husband said he felt beyond uncomfortable watching this), but I wasn’t really entertained either—especially after being treated to the earlier NBC sitcoms of the Thursday night lineup, which sparkled much brighter than this one. DVR Big Bang, folks, and cue it up when Outsourced starts.
Ethan Thompson, Texas A&M – Corpus Christi:
In her review of Outsourced above, Sharon Ross suggests the program wanted to take the humor of discomfort to a new level. I don’t know about humor, but I certainly was cringing with discomfort at the failure of this show on so many levels. Not funny, not at all smart, not provocative, not innovative – even the protagonist’s headphones at the beginning matched the Apple product placement in The Office season premiere. When the “Australian hottie” showed up, I had to ask myself, is it possible for a program to preemptively jump the shark in its own pilot? Still, my experience of watching Outsourced was ultimately one of pleasure. Surely it will quickly disappear and Parks and Recreation, which was the best sitcom on NBC Thursdays last year, will roar back in triumph. Here’s to hoping “midseason replacement” comes early this year.
Undercovers (Premiered 9/22/10)
Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist University:
I was intrigued by the premise and pedigree of this series when it was announced last spring. JJ Abrams doing spies again, with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith twist. I envisioned Alias, but even smarter. Alas, not even Abrams can score every time out. While the production is appropriately splashy, with lots of clean green-screen European cities, decent-enough stunts, cool clothes, and JJ’s trademark mobile camera, there’s not much here beyond that. As the married spies Samantha and Steven Bloom, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe are both likable and undeniably hot, but also surprisingly bland. Despite flying fists and bullets, they may be the most boring sexy couple in TV history. Other than their “tough” life as expensive caterers resulting in a lackluster sex life, there’s no tension or spark to drive them. Without that, there’s little reason to watch them.
As with Chase, this seems to be NBC desperately trying to do straight-up popcorn fare from one of TV’s hottest studios. Accordingly, pretty leads aside, it’s difficult to see how it’ll work out for them. There are loads of great action films around, as well as (Bad Robot take note) five crazy but compelling seasons of Alias on DVD.
Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:
One feels as if NBC has very little interest in the show that Undercovers seems to be on paper. The logline for the series, as Derek suggests above, sounds fairly complex and interesting, but the show as executed is stylish action and not much more. All of the dualities implied by the premise are ignored by the pilot: the show is so much more interested in the espionage action that their personal lives are boiled down to a bland catering business and their time spent in the bedroom. Outside of the fact that they own an adorable dog, their entire lives seem to be defined by their past and present employment situations.
Abrams already spun off parts of Alias – mostly related to prophecy – into Fringe, and here it seems like the spy action parts of that series are returning to the airwaves. However, any excitement we have is eliminated when these characters (whose names I could not remember for the life of me) have no real sense of character. They are not people, they are spies, and the attempts to humanize feel cursory. They feel, in fact, like what procedurals do to try to add depth to their characters as quickly as possible, introducing screw-up siblings or overbearing parents.
There is, perhaps, room for an espionage procedural on television, but considering Abrams’ pedigree and considering the potential found in the show’s cast and style, it would be a shame if that’s all that Undercovers ever becomes.
Erin Copple Smith, Denison University:
I really wanted to like Undercovers. Honestly, I did. And yet…I didn’t. Not entirely, anyway. Most of my displeasure comes from the fact that the actors are having a hard time balancing the comedy with the drama. This problem seemed primarily located in the lead actors, Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha Raw, and was made more apparent by the fact that their co-stars Gerald McRaney (as the grouchy CIA lifer boss/handler) and Carter MacIntyre (as roguish agent Leo) seemed to have a much better rhythm and balance.
But there are promising aspects. Those other actors, for starters, make it a more enjoyable affair, and I’m hoping that Kodjoe and Raw find a better groove and get more comfortable with the characters and dialogue. The question is whether or not they’ll be able to work that out before audiences initially intrigued by the “sexpionage” (gag—and I mean that both ways) get bored with a show that can’t seem to get it together.
Chase (Premiered 9/20/10)
Jonathan Gray, UW – Madison:
I’m experimenting with a class blog this year for one course, and I spent the first half-hour of Chase logging each group in and creating them as WordPress users. This is a boring task, which shouldn’t take much mental space. But Chase was so undemanding, so patently boring and uninspiring, that it was a task that ended up seeming exciting by comparison. If television works by a cycle of innovation—imitation—saturation, surely Chase marks the absolute saturation point of the police procedural. It’s not bad, it’s just not anything. Someone did something bad. Someone else must find them. Banter. She has a cool name (Annie Frost), perhaps the most exciting thing about the show. She uses Great Detective Skills (here, working out that when the bad guy’s kid says he went North that he actually went South. Smart!). She finds him. The bad guy goes to jail. More banter. Yawn. I’m going back to WordPress.
Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist University:
A decade into the Bruckheimer Procedural Machine, the paradigm is clear: a heroic, multi-racial team of investigators face off against the Bad Guys. Here, the Good Guys are US Marshals tracking down fugitives; the series’ title gives it all away without irony, down to the inevitable “noose tightening” momentum of the final act. The team itself is as inoffensive as they come. Although Kelli Giddish has a dash of “don’t-F-with-me,” her US Marshal Annie Frost is little but the amalgamation of every female TV cop of the past decade. As is usual in the formula, none of the others are particularly remarkable (though Cole Hauser’s meandering accent is certainly entertaining). The standard device of “the rookie” joining the team in the pilot also ably opened up the tap for gratuitous exposition. That said, Travis Fimmel’s killer Mason Boyle was certainly creepy and ruthless enough to vibrate slightly off the standard path; perhaps we’ll watch for the Bad Guys.
This is all resoundingly bog-standard stuff. However, as with all Bruckheimer productions, it’s still quite well-executed, with a couple of tense foot chases and a decent use of Dallas locations (including my real-life favorite local supermarket). NBC clearly wants some meat-and-potatoes stability, but it’s hard to see why the lead-in viewers of Chuck and The Event would stick around for such a pedestrian show.
Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:
If you have never heard the name David Nutter, then it is likely you don’t follow pilot season. He is considered to be the maestro of the pilot, with a perfect track record in terms of getting his shows picked up to series going all the way back to Space: Above and Beyond in 1995. And it’s not as if he simply keeps making the same pilot over and over again: in recent years he has directed procedurals (The Mentalist, Dr. Vegas), soap operas (Eastwick, Jack and Bobby), and genre fare (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Supernatural) to equal success. These shows obviously vary in quality, but something about Nutter’s work helped convince networks to give them a shot, making him a hot commodity come pilot season. Nutter is also one of the only interesting things about NBC’s Chase: perhaps Jerry Bruckheimer realized the script had absolutely no life in it, and so he coerced Nutter into directing to try to reclaim his lost glory in the wake of The Forgotten’s failed run, Cold Case’s cancellation, and The Amazing Race’s stunning Emmy defeat (the last one’s less serious, but I’m sure it still hurt). While Nutter did add a fine job of directing the pilot’s action, making solid use of its authentic Texas locations, the fact remains that this will go down as one of those Nutter pilots that probably deserved to break the streak.
The Event (Premiered 9/20/10)
Sean Duncan, Miami University:
NINE HOURS AGO I prepared to watch my DVRed episode of The Event EIGHT AND A QUARTER HOURS AGO I thought the twist with the pilot was somewhat interesting SIX HOURS AGO I shed a tiny tear for Tony Todd’s once promising career THREE MONTHS AGO I first thought The Event sounded like a lot of fun EIGHT AND THREE QUARTERS HOURS AGO I realized I now had no interest in ever going on a cruise, ever SEVEN HOURS AGO I deleted The Event from my DVR series subscription EIGHT AND ONE SIXTIETH HOURS AGO Oh great, a CGI deus ex machina SIX MONTHS AGO I hoped something on the fall schedule would serve as a decent geeky replacement for Lost EIGHT AND ONE HALF HOURS AGO I wondered why they chose Blair Underwood to play a Cuban-American President EIGHT AND ONE TWELFTH HOURS AGO I chuckled at the unnecessary MSNBC logo placement, hoping the plane would just crash already ONE MONTH AGO I speculated that NBC must have incriminating photos of Laura Innes or something FIVE WEEKS FROM NOW I idly noticed that The Event was canceled.
Derek Johnson, University of North Texas:
What interested me most about The Event were its titles, which due to the constant reminders of how the non-linear story was jumping through time were on the screen a lot. First, I couldn’t help but notice that the designers used the Bank Gothic font already shared by 24 and Battlestar Galactica. Aren’t there any other fonts out there? Or does the formulaic attempt to inherit the mantle of serialized geek television extend as far as trying to match pre-sold typographic styles? Second, while The Event never really lost me in its constant jumps through narrative time, the titles meant to orient me often added more confusion than clarity. This was most apparent immediately following the teaser, when the series used the same typeface in only slightly different positions for three interspersed, overlapping functions: 1) the ongoing attempt to list all the names in the sizable cast, 2) to indicate that the story had moved back in time “X minutes earlier”, and 3) to indicate narrative focus on the character of “Simon Lee”. As a result, I wasn’t initially sure if Simon Lee was a character or actor. Maybe the producers should consider some boldface or italics to differentiate? Or, I don’t know, stop jumping back and forth in time just long enough to get an uninterrupted cast list on screen?! I didn’t particularly hate The Event, but it certainly shows the contemporary serial drama’s embrace of type (in both the narrative and typographic sense).
Outlaw (Premiered 9/15/10)
Nora Seitz, UW – Madison:
The pilot for NBC’s new legal drama Outlaw begins with despair. Hurried footsteps in a prison corridor, then a cut to a close-up of death row inmate Greg Beals (the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA) telling his girlfriend to move on. Moments later, Greg’s lawyer bursts into the room, optimistic the Supreme Court will grant a stay of execution. The court is split on the decision, but conservative Supreme Court Justice Cyrus Garza (Jimmy Smits) breaks the tie by voting in favor of the stay and then resigns to work on Beals’ case. As Outlaw engages with its premise of redemption and breaking the rules to uphold justice, the show positions its spectators to accept Garza as their last hope, or rather, what Garza symbolizes: rugged, self-empowered individualism. Outlaw constructs a legal system broken beyond repair, and transfers the responsibility for ensuring that justice is carried to Garza, a rogue justice whose symbolic break from the Supreme Court in this pilot demonstrates his break with submitting to authority or conforming to legal conventions. That Garza is a Latino knave who walks through the pilot seducing women and dealing cards with a knife has gendered post-racial implications: Garza has obviously been able to overcome racism to achieve his Supreme Court appointment. Yet, Outlaw does not suggest that Garza’s Latino heritage is irrelevant – the very name of the show harkens back to cultural constructs of Latino bandits and outlaws, and the pilot is imbued with Garza’s ethnic hypersexuality. Outlaw’s construction of Garza is dependent upon the character’s embodiment of Latinidad, and thus invites spectators to revel as he fights to redeem our failed justice system.
Sharon Ross, Columbia College:
Outlaw makes me want to live blog while watching simply to escape the boredom and inanity of the pilot. This is my second viewing, and still it is difficult to sit through, in spite of its strong cast. I also can usually forgive a silly premise if there’s payoff, but this one is a doozey—am I really supposed to believe a young Supreme Court justice can be a publicly boozing gambler womanizer, quit the Court with no notice, and take his entire team of interns/clerks with him? Am I supposed to believe that producers are still this clueless about corny dialogue (“his life is in your hands”) and the relleant factor of maudlin music in dramas? The actors do the best they can with the material, but it’s painful to see the sexist clichés underneath the trite attempts to blend “hippness” with progressiveness. (I nearly wanted to smash my TV every time a younger female character spoke, but I’m especially offended by blonde “Mereta,” whose primary legal career goal appears to be to bed Jimmy Smits.) Sorry folks—this may well be the worst of the bunch this year. If you want good Smits, dig up some old LA Law!