Updated! Premiere Week 2011: CBS

September 26, 2011
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What can we say about CBS? Home to the shows  that so many of us love to hate, or at least to ignore, source of 1001 Two and Half Men Jokes, and some of the most influential crime procedurals of our television time. Love it or love to hate it, CBS has been near the top of their game. They may have taken home only very few Emmy’s last weekend but they took home the prize last Fall Premiere Season, with the most new programs renewed for a second season. Some say numbers don’t lie, if this is true then CBS has the most to lose this television season.

How To Be A Gentleman (Premiered 9/24/2011)

Evan Elkins, University of Wisconsin-Madison

How is it that in a program starring David Hornsby (Rickety Cricket from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Mary Lynn Rajskub (who, yes, was on 24, but will always be nearer and dearer to me as one of the goofier Mr. Show cast members), Rhys Darby (Murray from *Flight of the Conchords*), and Dave Foley (duh), Kevin Dillon has the funniest lines? Although Foley now cuts a Stephen Root-esque figure, he didn’t really register in the Jimmy James role, and the rest of the cast is mostly wasted on a bunch of joke-less banter. Still, network comedy generally takes time to develop, and there’s a
wealth of talent here. Perhaps it will mature into something unique and amusing.

You’ll notice that I’ve avoided discussing the episode itself, and that’s simply because there’s very little to say. How to be a Gentleman is about as average and forgettable as pilots get, and I can’t even muster the
enthusiasm to raise the usual critiques about regressive masculinity, awkward framing devices, and one-note characters. For this DVR-less luddite, the fact that its Thursday, 8:30pm EST time-slot butts up against the unimpeachable Parks and Recreation means this is probably the last time I’ll check in on the program.

A Gifted Man (Premiered 9/23/2011)

Nick Marx, University of Wisconsin – Madison

I watched the pilot for A Gifted Man, ate lunch for an hour, then sat down to write this review. In that time, I’ve forgotten most of what happened on this television program. To be sure, that’s a critique of its
milquetoast-iness, but it’s also a bit of a compliment. There’s a quiet subtlety to the show, one articulated in fine performances that save clunky dialogue and (what should prove to be) a pretty unsustainable premise. A guy who’s been in stuff you’ve liked and who I’m fairly certain is not Will Arnett (Patrick Wilson) plays a hotshot neurosurgeon alongside other semi-notable screen actors like Dexter’s Julie Benz and Justified’s Margo Martindale. One of them is his hippie sister, I think, and the other may or may not be the ghost of his dead ex-wife. Now, if Ghost Dad has taught us anything, it’s that when loved ones speak to you from beyond the grave and only you see them, hilarity ensues. A Gifted Man is not played for laughs, save for a sequence in which ghost wife urges the protagonist to keep an urban medical clinic afloat by turning on the computer she left behind. But after the pilot (credit is due to director Jonathan Demme for keeping things understated), it’s difficult to see the show balancing its tonal shifts
without in some way embracing the comedy of a dead woman tsk-tsking her selfish ex-husband into using his gifts to help the most underprivileged, most doe-eyed of New York’s ethnic stereotypes.

Myles Mcnutt, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Is this a television show? It’s a question that faces a large number of shows each year, but I was sort of
surprised to see it bandied about in the lead up to A Gifted Man’s premiere. Like most CBS pilots, the show establishes a pretty basic procedural construct: the eponymous surgeon will attempt to balance his own high-end private medical practice while trying to keep his dead wife’s free clinic operational as her ghost continues to visit him. Both sides of the storyline have the ability to spawn episodic stories, creating two distinct spaces in which they can sketch out the protagonist. What I realized, though, was that the question wasn’t whether or not it’s a television show, but rather whether it’s a television show that people should actually pay attention to. Not every episode will be directed by Jonathan Demme, and not every episode will have the sense of weight offered by a pilot. It seems as though people are quick to jump to conclusions about CBS pilots when even the slightest hint of procedural storytelling is present, especially in this case when a Ghost Whisperer comparison is unfortunately unavoidable. I’ll admit that the show will become more pedestrian once it settles into a pattern, and that I’m not convinced the supernatural elements will meld naturally with the rest of the series. However, I’m willing to give it some time to develop based on the strength of the cast (with recent Emmy winner Margo Martindale, Patrick Wilson,
and Jennifer Ehle among others) and on the idea that a great procedural is still great television provided it finds the right balance between form and function.

Person of Interest (Premiered 9/22/2011)

Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist University

This is one of those pilots that clearly got the green light based on more on its parts than on whether or not they could be assembled into anything that actually works. In this case, the combination of co-producer JJ Abrams, Lost alum Michael Emerson and former Messiah Jim Caveziel must have seemed tempting, but the added reassurance of a procedural premise and the standard array of action and intrigue finally swayed CBS. There might be a half-decent show floating around between these parts. It’s certainly competently produced, in a New York that somehow reminded me of Cagney & Lacey or better yet, The Equalizer. But the premise—a “machine” created after 9/11 to track potential terrorism and crime used by Emerson’s bazillionaire character to sic Caveziel’s world-weary former government agent on bad guys—makes no sense. Or at least it makes no sense within the procedural confines it was designed to fulfill. The pilot has moments where it feels like it’s trying to stretch beyond those boundaries (e.g., just how
much of a badass is Caveziel’s troubled character, and why), but too tentatively to make an impact. This may have a nice pedigree, but it’s a muddled, boring mess.

Mary Beltran, University of Texas – Austin

I feel a bit like the Grinch of TV in saying this, considering that Person of Interest was created by Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) and that JJ Abrahams (Alias, Lost, Fringe, etc.) is among the executive producers, but the pilot just didn’t do it for me.  With a semi-supernatural storyline about a former CIA agent (portrayed with luminous grace by James Caviezel) who now attempts to prevent tragic happenings from happening with the aid of a mysterious billionaire (yay! the return of Michael Emerson to the small screen), I really wanted to like it.  I do think it has particularly smart casting—Caviezel and Emerson are strong and engaging actors who can imbue a scene with the pathos and suspense the series demands, and I also loved seeing Taraji P. Henson in the role of a police officer who’ll remain integral to the storyline.  In this regard the haunted tone of the series hit the bulls-eye, as I saw it.

However, the series falters in building on this intriguing tone to then make me care about the characters and want to return to them.  Lost managed this feat even while building a truly outlandish narrative (really, think about it), in part by grounding its characters in their real-life backgrounds, regrets, and desires, via the use of flashbacks.  This is where I think Person of Interest could take a lesson.  In this pilot, we learn that John Reese, in his past has lost a woman that he loves, and that he has been unable to return to a normal life as a result. Ultimately, we see that this loss and his associated regrets lead him to accept Finch (Emerson)’s offer to become a shadowy, spy-like vigilante.  However, this backstory is so underdeveloped, that it’s hard to get a handle on what this “love” meant to him or to care about who he is now.  Finch, similarly, is so mysterious that he often feels like a static caricature.  I’m afraid the producers went so far to create a supernatural-feeling suspense drama that they forgot audiences also simply need to care about the characters engaging in the suspense. I’ll give it another try, but I didn’t find this a compelling pilot.

Unforgettable (Premiered 9/20/2011)

Kit Hughes, University of Wisconsin -Madison

Admittedly, I chose to review Unforgettable partially because I wanted to ridicule its working title, The Rememberer.  This leads me to a dilemma, however, since I’m not sure if I should allude to 30 Rock’s fictional film The Rural Juror or shoehorn in some sort of joke about the show might be the ur (or erer)-text in a new genre bound by shocking levels of derivation.  In any case, the show is not good.  Late to the party on the psychic and mentalist procedurals, the show’s style and its “vision” sequences are fairly laughable.  Flashbacks employ a modified fish-eye lens look while Carrie Wells walks around, looks around, and reaches toward stuff.  To be clear, there are multiple Carries in the sequences, all aimlessly doing their thing—a crime scene vision that carries the same jolt of excitement provided by the triple-exposure effects that reigned in 1980s mall studio portraiture.  The narrative isn’t much better than the style.  The episode is genuinely baffling when Carrie decides to confront unarmed a murder suspect at night in his empty shipping yard.  (Did I mention that the police have DNA evidence of the murderer, and they already know that the suspect shares biological affinities with their evidence—more than enough for a subpoena? Oh, and the suspect isn’t a flight risk—and Carrie isn’t a cop.) The exposition is often lazy, and it is unclear how the show will tackle murders that Carrie didn’t personally witness.  As one of the characters tells Carrie, “bed pans and black jack: trust me, that’s not working.”

Sarah Murray, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Says the bad guy as he’s choking Poppy Montgomery with a crow bar: “You shouldn’t have come alone.” Says Dylan Walsh as he shoves his gun into the back of bad guy’s head and saves the day: “She didn’t.” Unforgettable tries very hard to be taken seriously and this may be its downfall. After a two-year hiatus following Without a Trace, Montgomery returns to CBS as burned out former detective Carrie Wells. Wells suffers from hyperthymesia, or “superior autobiographical memory” (as does Marilu Henner, apparently), which causes her to be tortured by her sister’s unsolved murder. This becomes the driving force of the show. A fortuitous murder re-connects her with former partner and lover Al Burns (Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh) who subsequently promises to help her vindicate her sister if she joins his New York City-based squad.

There are plenty of grievances to be aired, but of utmost concern is plain old bad writing. It’s a terrible waste when actors who are capable of managing subtlety sound like they have pull strings (see above). Also, plot pacing based entirely on one woman’s total recall probably has a shelf life. Or maybe it doesn’t? Medium lasted awhile. I do wonder how they solved murders before Wells’s hyperthymesiac brain arrived. The supporting characters aren’t given much to work with either, evidenced by this gem: “If it’s a Derek Jeter rookie card, it’s mine” (referring to the discovery of the murder weapon).

The good news is that Walsh and Montgomery have decent chemistry, and Montgomery brings some oomph to the role (although pick an accent, please!). There’s also potential to explore storylines that deal with the unruly nature of memory and temporality, so long as the memory puns are kept to a
minimum (they were not in the pilot).

Myles McNutt, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Forgetting the show’s premise for a moment (see what I did there), there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Unforgettable – which, fun fact, was originally titled The Rememberer, so it could have been worse – structurally speaking: it sets up characters, it establishes relationships, and it even throws in a bit of history and mythology to provide some shorthand characterization and to complicate those relationships. However, when you work in the premise, the show becomes one enormous gimmick, as Poppy Montgomery channels Marilu Henner and everyone else who can creepily remember every piece of information they’ve ever known. While it’s nice for a procedural driven by a slightly enigmatic figure whose difference enables them to do better at their job – in the vein of House, The Mentalist, etc. – to feature a female lead, Poppy Montgomery is mostly a non-entity, and the device in practice just makes for awkward storytelling: she might remember everything, but she has to forget it at least briefly in order for the show to last forty minutes each week. As a result, the gimmick is ultimately subservient to the basic rhythms of procedural structure, and they’re more likely to be in conflict than in concert given what we saw in the pilot. However, perhaps all CBS needs – and perhaps all CBS is looking for – is the ability to say that you’ve never seen someone like this on television, which is technically true. As a result, a gimmicky and dull as Unforgettable was, it might just capture audience interest long enough to iron out some kinks, earn a second season, and become another long-running CBS procedural that confounds those of us who didn’t see anything worth saving upon its premiere.

2 Broke Girls (Premiered 9/19/2011)

Erin Copple Smith, Denison University

I really wanted to like 2 Broke Girls. I did. But I’m afraid the future looks bleak. For starters, a played out concept (the classic odd couple pairing) made worse by the usual 3-camera sitcom pilot heavy-handedness. (See Max the waitress. Max is hardened by living paycheck to paycheck. But she is friends with the elderly cashier, so we know she’s not heartless. See Caroline the fallen heiress. Caroline is a ditz. But she’s been to Wharton, so she’s not as dumb as you might imagine.) Then there’s the over-the-top raunchiness that’s meant to remind us that this isn’t your grandma’s 3-camera sitcom. (The first line of the episode has Max making a comment about her boobs, followed by her walking in on a waitress getting frisky in the walk-in, and several jokes about orgasms and bodily fluids.) But I could have forgiven all of that and written it off as pilot awkwardness if the pacing and acting had worked…unfortunately, they didn’t. For as much as I like Kat Dennings (Max), her performance here was clunky and eyeroll-inducing. And Beth Behrs (Caroline), while marginally better, was still something of a caricature of an Upper East Side airhead. Even worse were all of the supporting cast, whose performances were so one-dimensional as to be laughable (and not in a good way). The one conceit that seemed even remotely fresh emerged in the final minutes, when Caroline tries to convince Max that her homemade cupcakes are good enough to warrant opening a trendy bake shop–an endeavor that will only cost $250,000, an amount she thinks they can easily accumulate within a year if they both get extra jobs. The final shot is of their current total: $387.25. But I fear they won’t come close to hitting the $250,000 mark, since they’ll probably be canceled somewhere around $2500.

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5 Responses to “ Updated! Premiere Week 2011: CBS ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on September 20, 2011 at 4:23 PM

    Erin, I agree with you completely (spookily so?) re: 2 Broke Girls — awful supporting cast and characters, clunky (and surprisingly/ disappointingly so from Dennings), and the sophomorism of the humor was made all the worse by its repetition (just in case you missed that there was cum on the uniform, they made the joke again). 6.5 eps seems about right, so I agree with your maths too :-)

    • Kyra Hunting on September 20, 2011 at 7:17 PM

      I am particularly looking forward to the half episode.

    • Erin Copple Smith on September 20, 2011 at 8:42 PM

      Well, your agreement is gratifying, Jonathan! I was so disappointed, as I really do like Dennings, but man. BAD. And yes–the cum-on-the-uniform jokes were awful. That was the first thing I mentioned to Andrew when telling him how bad it was. Of course, CBS is still hanging on to the awful Rules of Engagement, so who knows?

  2. Sharon Ross on September 24, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    Wild! I really enjoyed this sitcom and especially enjoyed what I aw as great chemistry between the 2 actresses. While the ratings can’t be a guideline given the monster 2 1/2 Men lead in, they did do well enough (19+ million) to get to a full half season (unless there’s a monster match drop off in the next few weeks). It’s not genius and it had it’s crass moments for sure (see above) but I found it to be appropos of the lead-inand the target market (my college juniors and seniors like it). Harmless fun so far–and once in a while I like a sitcom that doesn’t aim to over-think itself. Like Mike and Molly and Big Bang (though not a Lorre show), this might find a matured groove as it winds towards its second season, I think. I found it to be less tiresome than The New Girl, which was a little too cutesy for my taste (though has much potential I think.)

    • Erin Copple Smith on September 25, 2011 at 7:21 AM

      Thanks for the input, Sharon! I have to say, I was surprised NOT to like it, as I (frankly) do not have very erudite tastes in TV. My sister and her husband are visiting this weekend, and they loooooved it, so you and your students are certainly not alone. Big Bang is one of my favorite shows on TV, and I also really enjoy Mike & Molly, but for some reason…2 Broke Girls really turned me off. (And I dug The New Girl, unlike basically everyone else in academia!)

      I suppose it goes to show that there’s no accounting for taste. Funny, that’s a point I belabor with my students–you like what you like because you like it! I chose to review premieres I thought I’d enjoy, but…not so this one! Thanks for adding your more favorable review here.