As last season began, ABC was on the verge of a comedy breakthrough: Modern Family would develop into the most successful new series of the fall, and The Middle and Cougar Town would slowly but surely develop into solid sitcoms in their own right. Now, the pressure is on ABC to solidify the remainder of its lineup, with a focus on drama (where they found minimal success last year) and only a single new comedy in the lineup. There doesn’t appear to be a breakthrough hit in the Modern Family vein, but right now ABC is a network looking to solidify rather than diversify.
Except for the superheroes, of course.
No Ordinary Family (Premiered 9/28/10)
Megan Biddinger, University of Michigan:
No Ordinary Family, as many critics have already pointed out, is hardly extraordinary, but neither is it exactly ordinary. To me, it feels disjointed. Is it a family dramedy? Is it a superpowered crime show? Is it a sci-fi/supernatural thriller? Right now it feels much the way that Julie Benz’s character Stephanie describes herself pre-powers: racing around trying to be perfect at many tasks and coming up short on every one.
Now, the pilot had some things going for it. There were some funny bits: Daphne texting God during the tunderstorm, Katie shouting physics questions at Stephanie while she runs laps at the racetrack, and Jim and George’s immense pleasure at having/building a lair…with wifi. Additionaly, Julie Benz and Michael Chiklis give unsurprisingly good performances, making the most of rather staid roles. Autumn Reeser and Romany Malco give good support as well.
I’m interested to see if the show can build on these strengths and make something of the narrative possibilities opened up in the pilot, specifically, the introduction of Stephanie’s company (could they be NOF’s Rossum or Massive Dynamic? If so, Stephen Collins is a brilliant casting choice.) and the existence of others with similar powers who are not immediately inclined to use them for “good” (which Powell will be tempted/fall?). I’m not sure the show can balance all of the narrative and stylistic plates it seems to be spinning, but if it can, NOF might become something worth watching.
Kyra Glass von der Osten:
No Ordinary Family is most easily, and most frequently, described as a “live-action Incredibles” (a description used so widely it is almost ridiculous to reiterate it) but so far the series has had none of the energy and humor of that film. Right now what No Ordinary Family has going for it is potential. The pilot was essentially an hour of pure exposition and really gave very little indication of what a normal hour of the show might look like. A villain and secret organization are introduced, but how they will balance against the show’s other plots (a teen girl’s no good boyfriend, an overworked mother, unsatisfied father, etc.) is entirely unclear. Perhaps because of the weight of all this exposition, the writing felt a little dull and leaden, despite the strong acting chops of Julie Benz and Michael Chiklis. Although I was not overly excited by the pilot, I still have a lot of hope for this series, With the recent cancellation of Lone Star, the broadcast networks’ portfolios of hour long dramas are so heavily weighted towards crime and medical shows that I find myself rooting for anything that dares to be different. The premise provides some great opportunities to explore family dynamics in the most extreme of circumstances and the cast is more then up to the challenge of confronting the show’s themes. However right now the show is just telling the story. It needs to do more than that to be more than an ordinary show.
My Generation (Premiered 9/23/10)
Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:
My Generation was, at one point in time, one of two ABC series which featured a mockumentary storytelling structure: Detroit 1-8-7 abandoned the device after being picked up to pilot, however, which left My Generation as the single torchbearer for the format.
It’s unfortunate that My Generation wasn’t able to make the same decision. The documentary format only serves to emphasize the contrived nature of this story, exaggerating the awkward efforts to tie each of their lives in with their fellow classmates and with the events of the past ten years. The “director” of the documentary becomes an expository menace, filling in gaps that only serve to stress the implausibility of the format.
It is problematic beyond the inherent issues with the mockumentary format. While its basic function is to add a layer of realism to a series, eventually you start to ask questions about the imaginary documentary: how do they have sound? Why would they allow them to film these moments? Modern Family has tried to avoid this by suggesting that it’s “just a stylistic choice,” arguing that there is no actual documentary; I still think it remains an issue for that show, but they have a clear strategy about avoiding these concerns.
By comparison, My Generation actually feels as if it is more interested in the documentary than in the characters. Perhaps it would have worked if the documentary was used as a narrative point of entry as opposed to a narrative format: we could meet the characters in the context of the documentary, but then the cameras could leave and the real show could begin.
Unfortunately, I think we’ve already seen the real show, and “real” may be the last word I’d use to describe it.
Allison Perlman, New Jersey Institute of Technology:
My Generation is something of a fictionalized adaptation of Michael Apted’s Up Series. While the Up episodes begin with footage of its central figures as seven year old children answering the question of what they want to be when they grow up, My Generation highlights the description of how each individual imagines their lives in ten years. Unsurprisingly, their lives look quite different from the “glamour,” “success,” or “family” that the young people had anticipated. The show suggests, through the integration of the off-screen documentarian’s narration and actual footage of the oughts, that the iconic political and cultural events of the last ten years had a determinative impact on these young people’s trajectories.
There is good and bad in this series, though after its pilot it’s one I think I’d prefer to read about than to actually watch. The central conceit is interesting (aside from the use of an Enron back story — in Austin!), as is the constant awareness and irritation of the characters as they are followed by a film camera. As twenty-eight year olds, perhaps they are supposed to read as a little too old to relish the over-sharing culture ushered in by contemporary social networking sites, somewhere in-between the analog world of their parents and the lives lived virtually of their younger siblings.
If the extra-diegetic features foreground the importance of the world outside, the actual storylines are primarily focused on the stuff of melodrama – finding out you have a nine year old child or that your high school sweetheart is married to someone else. In addition, because of the structure of the series, it’s difficult to relate to or feel for any of the characters, who so far at least haven’t read as much more deep than the incessant labels (“the brain” “the wallflower”) that accompany their names. I anticipate that over time the documentary structure of the narrative will diminish, leaving viewers with another night-time soap about good-looking young people.
Anne Helen Petersen, UT – Austin:
My Generation revolves around a group of 28-year-olds — labelled with various stereotypes by the documentary crew that filmed their senior year at Austin’s “Greenbelt High” — all of whom ended up doing exactly the opposite of their prescribed future. The punk girl becomes a mom; the nerd who just wants a family turns out to be infertile. Ten years after graduation, they are a.) once again subjects of a documentary and b.) all converging on Austin for various unlikely reasons.
There’s a fundamental miscalculation at the heart of the show. We’re to believe that these smart, interesting, unique people — e..g all ten subjects of the documentary — have stayed friends with and variously coupled with their high school friends. Wrong. You stay friends with and get married to your college friends. Sure, you might have a high school friend or two, you might marry your high school sweetheart. But for these kids — again, middle/upper class, Ivy League-educated and motivated young adults — high school was the defining, idyllic experience to which they desperately want to return. I call BS. Which isn’t to say that the show isn’t “TV Catnip” for my own 20-something generation. But for a quasi/pseudo-documentary, I can’t imagine a premise less realistic.
Amber Watts, Texas Christian University:
There’s something really intriguing about the premise of My Generation—sort of a combination of the 7-Up films and I Love the 2000s, following the same characters throughout the past decade—but the execution feels off. Part of it is a question of plausibility: the characters are all broad John Hughes “types” (the punk, the jock, the nerd, the rich kid), but from what we’ve seen, they appeared to interact with/date only each other in high school. Ten years later, their stories are somehow even more intricately intertwined, despite the fact that they live in different places and often have to be reminded of who the other main characters are.
That level of implausibility carries through the rest of the narrative: The Overachiever (now, of course, a slacker) learns that he has a nine-year-old son resulting from a prom night tryst with The Wallflower when she calls him at work, while a documentary crew happens to be filming him. It’s all too convenient. Combined with the inescapable impact of the Current Event Greatest Hits—9/11 inspired The Jock to drop out of college and join the army; the Enron scandal tore best friends apart (really); hanging chads made The Brain want to become a lawyer—everything is just too “neat” to be engaging. The cast is talented, but the overall effect left me cold. And I’m saying this as one of the very few people who liked Reunion, which at least had the murder mystery going for it. I might give it another week or two to live up to its potential, but I have serious doubts.
Better With You (Premiered 9/22/10)
Kyra Glass von der Osten – UW Madison:
Better With You is a good example of a solid, simple, old fashioned sitcom. It is not particularly funny, at least not in unexpected ways. Instead it relies heavily on tried and true tropes (married people don’t have sex, early in a relationship people have sex all the time) with very minor twists. The predictability of the “it’s a valid life choice” drinking game aside, I did think the neurosis of the status of unmarrieds in our culture was something of an interesting twist. I don’t really see how the humor of the situations can be mined for the long term but in the short term a lot of the small awkward moments of being an unmarried couple in a wedding crazy culture rang true.
The script was nothing to write home about, but it was engaging enough, reasonably timed, and delivered by such a good cast that I found myself enjoying the thirty minutes. It wasn’t exciting but it was very adequate – whatever disappointment I experienced was due to the venue. Given the snappy humor and edge of Better With You‘s bookends on ABC, The Middle and Modern Family, Better With You felt remarkably average and safe. If it had been replacing a worse sitcom on CBS (Rules of Engagement, I am looking at you), it would have felt like a breath of fresh airs thanks to Joanna Garcia and Debra Jo Rupp’s top notch performances. It isn’t appointment television but I can see myself tuning in from time to time. At the end of the day Better With You wasn’t bad it just could have been, well, better.
Jonathan Gray, UW – Madison:
Better with You has a very good cast, nobody especially famous, but all quite skilled, and they prove themselves more than able to punch their lines and give them some life. It also has a somewhat interesting premise, taking three couples of different generations, all related, and throwing them together to see what happens. But the script isn’t equal to the task, nor does it capitalize on its cast. If I wasn’t laughing, it wasn’t because I was offended by the humor, because I wasn’t, nor because it was directed at another demo, because it wasn’t. I just wasn’t laughing. I saw that jokes were being constructed, but that was the problem – they all looked so much like jokes, and not like things that are organically funny. Witness the book-ends of the show, both of which play a scene three ways to try and show differences between the couples and their life-stages. The gimmick reeked of having been inspired by something on p. 34 of The Awesome Big Book of Somewhat Naughty Jokes. And thus the funny cast members must work against material that doesn’t let them be all that funny, since it merely wants them to tell jokes. The set-up for each of these is painful (I almost expected a drum roll every time one of them mentioned not getting married being “a valid life choice,” because you could see the jokes playing with that phrase coming). I wish the cast well, but on their next projects not this one.
Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:
Better With You has good rhythm.
Mind you, it’s also not actually “funny,” per se, so perhaps this doesn’t particularly matter. However, judged by all non-comic criteria for a good sitcom, this one’s not bad: there are a number of familiar and welcome faces amongst the cast, and the pilot really does move with a certain sense of purpose. Even though the jokes aren’t actually funny, I found myself getting sucked into the laugh track simply because the dialogue was sharply delivered and the cast was believable in their various roles. You can see how this was picked up: if someone actually found the jokes funny – there’s no accounting for taste – they would have had no other complaints to make, really.
Sure, we could argue that the premise is overly simplistic, but I think there’s an intelligence to its simplicity: by dividing along generational lines, and filtering the same types of jokes through the three different pairings, the show creates the impression of depth unreflected in the material they’re actually given. While I may not be jumping up and down, I can very easily imagine that this could be a solid, enjoyable half-hour sitcom.
Provided it gets some, you know, jokes.
The Whole Truth (Premiered 9/22/10)
Melissa Click, University of Missouri:
I enjoy a good legal drama, and was intrigued with Jerry Bruckheimer’s new legal drama, The Whole Truth, mostly because I enjoy narratives that seek to complicate what is true. If I’m truthful, I’d also have to say that I seriously doubted whether the drama could convincingly tackle “the whole truth” in 60 minutes. The program stars two enjoyable actors: Maura Tierney (ER) and Rob Morrow (Numb3rs, Northern Exposure). Tierney is New York prosecutor Kathryn Pearle, whose cases pit her against Yale law school pal Jimmy Brogan (Morrow), a criminal defense attorney. The two are competitive and antagonistic, but predictably you get a sense that there’s a romantic tension between the two.
What’s interesting about this legal drama is the way it’s put together: once we learn of the crime, we watch each attorney’s multicultural team make sense of the evidence they have and determine what’s factual and what’s not. After Pearle and Brogan present their cases, a verdict is handed down (the traditional close of a legal drama); but in the case of the premiere, it’s not clear if the verdict reflects “the truth.” Just when you think the narrative has ended, the last scene of the episode reveals the accuracy of the verdict to the viewer when a key piece of evidence is discovered by someone related to the case.
Truth be told, I didn’t find the premiere to be particularly compelling. Instead of a nearly solitary concern with guilt or innocence, I would enjoy an exploration of truth based on the development of characters and motive—this would make the drama more of an exploration of the whole truth.
Christopher Cwynar, UW – Madison:
More Shark than Law & Order, TWT sees network drama warhorses Rob Morrow and Maura Tierney saddle up once again in this legal series that purports to offer viewers both sides of a featured case each week – the titular ‘whole truth’. We see the methodical prosecutor Tierney doggedly pursuing leads and imposing discipline among the ranks while a pudgy Morrow plays a hotshot defense lawyer with a crack team and a puckish swagger. Naturally, these two have a romantic history – and passable on-screen chemistry – and the pilot suggests that this be a source of tension throughout the series. All of this occurs in a generic New York City that boasts a slightly unnatural sheen in this incarnation. The program prioritizes frantic action interspersed with brief lulls over consistent dramatic tautness in both its plotting and its style. This catches up with it in the courtroom scenes, which make up most of its final seventeen minutes. We don’t get to follow the trial at each step; instead, we fast-forward through snippets of bland testimony before observing the brief and surprisingly trite closing arguments. The post-verdict revelation of whether or not the alleged perp had actually committed the crime was evidently intended to surprise, but it came off as ludicrous. To find an audience, TWT will need to convince viewers to pull for the protagonists knowing that one of them must be working towards the wrong outcome. This is not Shark – where there was no justice, only winning – but the program will need to provide interesting and complicated cases if it is to overcome viewers’ diminished capacity to root for the good guys.
Bill Kirkpatrick, Denison University:
Okay, so what’s going to make this procedural different? 1. Energy. 2. Style. 3. Actual potential for suspense.
The plot of the pilot was as straightforward as a courtroom drama can be: vic murdered, suspect arrested, evidence presented, verdict delivered. Unlike Law & Order, where we’re just killing time until the wacky legal theory or implausible plot twist adds interest to the third act, or CSI, a show so infatuated with “evidence” that the microscopes and blood centrifuges should demand syndication residuals, The Whole Truth embraces the economical storytelling of an old Perry Mason episode. I frankly found it refreshing.
Less charming is the frenetic pacing, personified by Rob Morrow as a severely over-caffeinated defense attorney. The show employs a binary structure, bouncing us back and forth relentlessly between Morrow and Maura Tierney as the prosecutor. I didn’t time the scenes but I’d be surprised if any of them broke the 60-second mark. And forget about character development for anyone but the leads. On the plus side, there’s no time to get bored, and I wasn’t.
The show looks good too, and even showed a little narrative flair with well-placed flashbacks. Visually, it’s all sepia interiors, with only the occasional aerial shot of Manhattan telling you where on the North American continent we find ourselves.
The real ace, however, is that the show never tells you whom to root for. The guilt or innocence of the accused remains genuinely up in the air for longer than most procedurals, and you can sympathize with both of the leads. Unlike L&O, which stacks the deck with unlikeable perps and sleazy defense attorneys, it will be okay when the prosecution loses a case or two. Add the suspense generated by the sexual tension (and history) between Morrow and Tierney, and–if the audience shows up–it’s easy to believe The Whole Truth has at least three or four good seasons in it.
Detroit 1-8-7 (Premiered 9/21/10)
Liz Ellcessor, UW – Madison:
Detroit 1-8-7 has two things that I unironically enjoy – Michael Imperioli and shots of city traffic. Beyond that, the first episode offers a standard police procedural, all wrapped up in Detroit. The first episode tracks the investigation of the “Pharmacy Double,” complete with high-stakes interviews, car chases, and a shoot-out. It’s also the first day on the job for Detective Damon Washington (Jon Michael Hill), newly partnered with gruff, respected veteran Detective Louis Fitch (Imperioli). Their relationship is rocky, as seen when Washington’s phone rings – to the tune of The Supremes’ “Baby Love” – during their investigation.
Watching the pilot, I was struck by the attempts to integrate Detroit and some jarring stylistic choices. There does seem to be an attempt to treat Detroit as a character, through heavy-handed references (“We may be the last assembly line left in this town”). But, the pilot was shot largely in Atlanta, so local flavor could increase as production moves fully to studios and locations in Detroit. Stylistically, there are some handheld shots, some odd framing, and chyrons introducing each new character, as well as labeling several scenes. This seems to be attributable to attempts to shoot 1-8-7 as a mockumentary, a conceit that has been dropped from future episodes.
Yet, the most difficult part of 1-8-7 was reconciling my prior knowledge of Imperioli – a Mafioso on The Sopranos, a retro jerk on ABC’s late Life on Mars – with the upstanding, if misunderstood, Detective Fitch. I’ll give it another episode or two to see if the character deepens for me, but as of now, 1-8-7 lacks the plot, style, or characterization that would keep me watching.
Kit Hughes, UW – Madison:
Detroit 1-8-7 begs comparison with The Wire. Shot on location in Detroit, the show follows a homicide unit and features a predominantly non-white cast (though the main character, Det. Louis “Nobody understands that guy but he gets results” Fitch, played by Michael Imperioli as an ethnic white, recalls Irish-American Det. McNulty). However, despite a similar self-positioning in opening credits and promos, the resemblance ends there.
The new show establishes only a flimsy relationship with Detroit, using an arsenal of Motown hits and city establishing shots to convince its viewers that this show really is serious about the city (and, presumably, to get its money’s worth out of that new Michigan tax credit for in-state filming). When the pilot follows a double homicide and a murder on a bridge, it employs case labels as it switches from one case to the other—either a presumption that audiences can’t follow two cases (with two separate sets of detectives) and/or a remnant of the show’s abandoned documentary style, which pushes through unexpectedly in a later moment when a minor character grimaces aggressively into the camera. Luckily, the two storylines converge and audiences get a respite from hand-holding intertitles. Though minor, the labeling, both in the case of the Detroit city establishing shots and the case titles, points to a similar explanatory impulse that pervades the rest of the episode, which has about as much subtlety as an instruction manual.
It’s not all bad though; the show does have some zany surrealist qualities, like a five-minute hostage situation and a suspect interrogation that employed the age-old “silent treatment” to get a confession.
Favorite line: “Your clerical backlog just got somebody murdered.”
Daniel Marcus, Goucher College:
What can we expect from Quality Network Action Drama in 2010? Cast members from classic shows (Sopranos, NYPD Blue)? Check. Jittery camera movements and rough editing (Homicide)? Check. Black cop speaking Italian (Homicide)? Check. Lessons in interrogation mastery in the box (Homicide, NYPD Blue)? Check. Shout-outs to local cuisine (The Wire, K*Ville)? Check. Sympathetic character left suddenly at death’s door in final scene, pending results of focus group testing (ER)? Check. Location shooting in notoriously crime-ridden city that is not New York or LA (K*Ville) and in which I have lived (Homicide, The Wire)? Check.
As any Antenna writer or reader will attest, it is hard to expect anything more than the re-combination of familiar elements at this point in our culture. Yet we still hope – that the specific combination of elements will ignite and interest us in new ways, that the fusion of actor and character will emerge as compelling, that the writers will actually have something to say. Michael Imperioli’s big moment in the premiere, in which he elicits a confession in the box without saying a word, could point to some innovative impulses in the writers, but was also glibly simplistic. A pilot that smacks of lazy cop-outs when it could be digging in deeper into the characters is not a good sign; they had years to come up with characters and dialogue for this hour – what are they going to be able to do in a week? It is probably too much to hope that the series will truly make use of the fantastically rich social history of Detroit, rather than just using it as a colorful backdrop of urban ruin, supplier of social archetypes, and source of good soundtrack music. And if a series isn’t going to live up to the standards of the classics, it should not borrow so obviously from them.
Jason Sperb, Northwestern:
Most of my initial reservations about this show remain, despite a generally satisfying premiere. The show’s creators were absolutely right to note that they are catching the city of Detroit at an interesting moment of civic rejuvenation—neighborhoods like Midtown and New Center have been revitalized in the last ten years, while the city has made a concerted effort to bring attention, people and income back to Downtown. However, I have real trouble seeing how a major network program, which focuses very directly on the city’s murder rate, helps this civic cause. There are a million other interesting stories in Detroit to be told, and I fear that the premise of Detroit 1-8-7 will not only box itself into too narrow of a narrative corner, but also alienate the same audiences it may depend upon to survive. That said, I enjoyed the first episode—maybe it was just the location shooting, the local references, but I think, more objectively, it also shows a promisingly rich set of characters and potential storylines beyond just Michael Imperioli’s wonderful lead, Louis Fitch. But ethically, and narratively, it needs to expand its diegetic scope to survive—both to tell a story unique to Detroit, but also to go beyond the trappings of another generic crime show. Are there other, non-stereotypical, stories of the city to be told besides poor people killing other poor people? What roles, for example, do the corrupt, and the wealthy—north of Eight Mile, not just south —play in creating an environment which leads to crime? In other words, how does one narrativize cultural and historical context? For the moment, I’m on board.