As the number one network with viewers in recent years, CBS tends toward boring premiere weeks wherein they double down on what’s already working. This isn’t exactly changing this year, as we still see three procedurals (comfortably ensconced in the crime/law bubble) and a multi-camera sitcom as their new entries. However, within those frames we see subtle shifts in the CBS model. The influence of The Good Wife seems to be giving writers more leeway to play with the serial/procedural balance, while efforts to revive the procedural genre among younger viewers may have found traction with a famous detective. The result isn’t a radically different CBS, perhaps, but it does seem to suggest more of an inflection than one might expect (or at least as much of an inflection as we’ll see until they pick up a single-camera comedy).
Partners (Premiered 09/24/2012)
From Will & Grace creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, Partners is a multi-camera, laugh-track sitcom that explores the unique “bromance” between a gay man (Michael Urie) and a straight man (David Krumholtz). Louis and Joe are life-long friends and business partners struggling to balance their love lives (and their differing sexualities) with their friendship. Partners attracted attention when critics pointed to similarities between it and an earlier series of the same name from 1995. [Taylor Cole Miller]
Alfred L. Martin Jr. – University of Texas – Austin
CBS’ new comedy (a word that can only be loosely applied here) Partners is hideous almost from the first frame. Its multi-horridness goes beyond what it attempts to represent (a kind of Will & Grace 2.0), and can largely be whittled down to this: Partners is just not funny. While the jokes per page are high (and the actors work hard to try to sell this flaccid material), none of them are funny.
The opening vignettes designed to demonstrate that two friends (one gay, the other not) have a long history together instead draws on culturally held stereotypes about gayness wherein “the gays” (always already male) are firmly rooted in knowledge of spas and interior design, areas about which their heterosexual male counterparts are blissfully unaware.
Certainly sitcoms by their very nature must be rooted in broadly based stereotypes, but based on its pilot episode, Partners relies on a kind of gay iconography that connects gays with theatricality (the show’s main gay couple Louis and Wyatt have a dog named Elphaba, the protagonist from the musical Wicked) and camp (a teenage Louis wishes to marry Bette Midler) perhaps as a way to demonstrate that Louis was “born this way” but ultimately, it reifies stereotypes without making a comment (for “good” or “bad” about them. Certainly, pilots are often different from the series they ultimately become (with Golden Girls as a great example), but Partners has a lot of ground to make up given its less-than-stellar 6.8 million viewers. As TVByTheNumbers points out, those numbers are OK for NBC, but not CBS. Perhaps Partners will get better in the second (and subsequent) episodes, but I am not holding out hope in an era that quickly discards show without allowing them time to “find an audience.” And with a show this unfunny, no one should be watching anyway.
Vegas (Premiered 09/25/2012)
In what might be the most indirect spinoff in recent memory, CBS has taken the period flashback episodes of the original CSI and found a way to tell those stories of a nascent, burgeoning Las Vegas trapped between the mob and the law. Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) is a rancher with a knack for solving crimes who values capital-j Justice and who ends up toe-to-toe with the gangsters—including Michael Chiklis’ Vincent Savino—who believe the town is theirs to run. [Myles McNutt]
Myles McNutt – University of Wisconsin-Madison
Given the period setting, Vegas leans heavily on generic deserts and green screen effects, building a facsimile of 60’s Las Vegas through strategic localization wherein key locations like McCarron Airport or the distinctive neon signs of the early strip are recreated in detail and the spaces in between are a generic recreation of period Las Vegas without the same specificity.
What will be interesting to see is how they manage this over time: not every episode will have the budget of the pilot, and I’m interested in what kind of standing sets they’re working with. Whereas Mad Men utilizes primarily indoor locations in order to better transport viewers back a half-century, the sparse geographical outskirts of 60s Vegas gives the show the capacity to use the desert as a location that doesn’t need to be redressed to meet certain expectations: sand is sand, after all, no matter what century it’s in.
It will be intriguing, though, to see how the spaces of the series shift as it moves forward. Whereas CSI’s cases are able to draw from a range of geographical areas within a modern Las Vegas (like the suburbs, for example), Vegas’ tight focus on the gaming commission and its influence on the city’s future may narrow their storytelling possibilities; while my knowledge of 60s Las Vegas and its geography is fairly limited, I do wonder whether the show’s choice to limit the boundaries of its geography to the ranchers and the strip may prove challenging as they attempt to develop weekly cases within this structure, or whether those boundaries might expand should the show become a success for the network.
Derek Kompare – Southern Methodist University
I had what I thought were reasonable hopes for CBS’ new period crime drama. As much as the network has made a virtue out of playing it safe with investigative formula for the past decade, it also has occasionally attempted something with a bit more heft (e.g., The Good Wife). In addition, at a time in which the venerable network drama itself is said to be endangered, I would hope that somehow one of the old Big Four would try to recapture some of the dramatic esteem long lost to cable. Moreover, in an age of intriguing period dramas, surely this would be a likely candidate to forge new ground. Sadly, Vegas is instead a sure sign that CBS is content to stand pat.
The series merges CBS’ staple crime formula (down to the classic CSI setting of Las Vegas) with another version of a Mad Men-ish Sixties. I say “version” because it’s a transparent knockoff, with some gloss on the obvious elements (e.g., a plausible reconstruction of Fremont Street circa 1960), and very little supporting it. As period drama goes, this is pedestrian stuff, hitting the necessary design bar (why yes, those are indeed late-50s cars), but never going much further. Similarly, the plot is, to a shocking level, boilerplate CBS crime drama. Indeed, if you squint, it could almost be some sort of CSI flashback episode, only with less interesting characters and situations. Perhaps they’re trying to evoke the formulaic TV dramas of 1960 as well? Meanwhile, both Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis are workmanlike in their portrayals of the two heavily stereotyped leads, with Quaid as a rancher made reluctant lawman, and Chiklis seemingly channelling a paint-by-numbers but PG-rated Vic Mackey. Again, adequate, but unchallenging.
This is competent, uncomplicated, take-it-as-it-goes stuff, perfect for those who like the look of 1960, and may have heard of Mad Men, but find that show itself too opaque. Similarly, for an audience fed a steady diet of similar crime dramas for the last dozen years, it’s more of the same, only with skinnier ties, cooler cars, and more casual racism and sexism. It’s also a dead giveaway that CBS, despite long being in the best financial situation of all the broadcast networks, has no appetite for innovation (at least this season), and would rather mount a mediocre success than a brilliant failure.
Elementary (Premiered 09/27/2012)
Jonny Lee Miller dons the (figurative) deerstalker cap in this latest, modern reimagining of Sherlock Holmes. As always joined by Dr. Watson, in this case his sober companion Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), Elementary sees Holmes tackling cases for (and against) the NYPD in contemporary Manhattan, drawing inevitable comparisons to the BBC’s Sherlock. [Drew Zolides]
Sean Duncan – Indiana University
Elementary is a surprisingly intriguing adaptation of Sherlock Holmes to a New York setting. After the success of BBC’s Sherlock, many Holmes and Sherlock fans derided this production as a crass cashing-in on the former’s success. Yes, it’s a contemporary Holmes, and yes, Elementary is decidedly an Americanization of Holmes in both style and narrative — it is basically The Mentalist with familiar character names. However, it’s a well-written procedural that is paced reasonably, and acted competently (Miller, Liu, and Aidan Quinn all gave intriguing performances). But, most importantly, Elementary has diverged significantly from the origin story of the Holmes/Watson pairing, revealing that what many assumed to be a fault of the series is perhaps its greatest strength.
Producers of the BBC’s Sherlock have reveled in comparing their work to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material, taking the original stories and often wildly reinterpreting them for effect. For instance, Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss stated that the “old dark house” setting of the original Hound of the Baskervilles novel required updating to a plausible “modern horror” setting, replacing it with… an animal experimentation facility. The new setting and style of Elementary does this series some favors by geographically freeing Holmes and Watson from the United Kingdom and thus some of the baggage of the Canon.
Unlike the Holmes Canon, in Elementary, Holmes’ addiction issues plausibly recur, Watson’s backstory involves a very different kind of contemporary medical trauma, and the choice of the more obscure Inspector Gregson rather than the well-known Lestrade flags to the Holmes fan that Elementary is less compelled to replicate the plots of original Holmes stories. Where the BBC series has evolved into a spot-the-reference game, viewers of Elementary have to settle for the occasional beekeeping reference. Elementary is not quite an adaptation of the Holmes *Canon*, but an adaptation of the Holmes *relationships*; a choice that allows for new characterizations, an few surprises, and perhaps ultimately a useful distance from the original source material. And that’s probably a good thing, allowing both Sherlock and Elementary to peacefully co-exist at different levels of adaptation.
Kelli Marshall -DePaul University
I haven’t seen Sherlock (BBC), I nearly fell asleep during Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009), and I haven’t picked up a work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in more than a decade. What’s more, my most recent lucid interaction with this literary series is The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994), a novel that reimagines the older and now-retired Sherlock Holmes as a beekeeper (a nod to the original stories) and his partner-in-crime as a clever, fifteen-year-old girl who “finds women to be the marginally more rational half of the race.” I hope it’s clear, then, that I’m coming to CBS’s Elementary and the Holmes-Watson partnership from an arguably skewed perspective.
What I was expecting from Elementary: I expected a feisty, outgoing Watson who is intellectually on par with a rather controlled, emotionless Holmes. I expected ongoing verbal gymnastics between the lead characters a la Moonlighting‘s Maddie Hayes and David Addison excluding the sexual tension. I expected fluid camera movement to connect Holmes and Watson, symbolizing their equal playing field. I expected low-key lighting, dark alleyways, and one or two Victorian-style staircases. I expected remarkable crime-solving skills. And maybe I expected some bees.
What I got from Elementary: Rather than a plucky Dr. Watson (Lucy Liu), I got an aloof and humorless one (She sets two alarm clocks! She instructs Holmes to “Wait in the car!”). Similarly, rather than a restrained Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), I got a wild and hyperactive one (He’s into sex games! He crashes cars willy-nilly!). I got a couple of sarcastic/humorless lines from Holmes but little banter between him and Watson (e.g., she’s his “addict-sitter,” “glorified helper-monkey,” and “personal valet”). I got some fluid camerawork but mostly when Holmes is in the frame; rarely does the camera connect the (would-be) partners. While I didn’t get dark alleyways, I did get long corridors and a heavy wooden staircase. And as expected, I got superhuman crime-solving skills, all very reminiscent of House‘s Gregory House (i.e., look at something in the room, spark brain, immediately solve case). And I got bees—but really, on a Manhattan rooftop?
What I was anticipating from the pilot of Elementary and what I was given somewhat conflict. I’d hoped for a livelier Watson—having the character cheer while watching a televised baseball game doesn’t translate to “dynamic,” writers—as well as a lot of repartee and an overall grittier, noirish tone. And maybe these things are coming; it is just the pilot after all. I’ll watch again. At the very least, I’m curious how much honey will ultimately be produced on that rooftop.
Made in Jersey (Premieres 09/28/2012)
This new drama tells the story of Martina Garretti (Janet Montgomery), a young girl from New Jersey with big hair and bring dreams to make it as a lawyer in Manhattan. Her big Italian family in New Jersey is brash, loud, pushes and fond of animal prints, and Martina brings her Jersey style and street smarts with her to New York in this legal procedural. Will she make it on her own in the big city? Or will her WASPy boss (Kyle MacLachlan) fire her for being too outspoken. Hairspray and culture clash ensue. [Eleanor Patterson]
Karen Petruska – Northeastern University
Made in Jersey is not a good show. You probably already know this because of this review and this review and this review, which calls it the “worst non-CW drama pilot of the season.” Ouch. Plus, it is on CBS, and other than The Good Wife, do any of us watch anything on CBS? (Wait, apologies to Max Dawson, I suppose some scholars watch Survivor).
I watch Hawaii Five-O. It is an excellent show to watch while eating dinner because it repeats all important information multiple times for those not quite paying attention. CBS procedurals are very considerate that way. Made in Jersey is a case in point, not only repeating information but also finding all sorts of ways to convey our heroine’s central personality traits–she has a funny accent and she’s has no clue about social graces. To make sure we know our heroine is spunky, for example, we see her in the first minutes of the show telling off a rude guy on a bike (a guy who wears a bandana, so you know he’s a punk). She’s also standing next to a young kid of ambiguous ethnic origin, so she’s coded as Other from the get go. Oh, and she knows that pliers are an essential tool for working-class girls to help them zip up their skin-tight jeans. Did I mention that she’s really, really loud as well? Those Jersey girls, always loud and with their big hair and tight clothes, and isn’t she funny yet charming?
What is more frustrating with this particular show is that there is the potential for real drama. In the days of the 47%, a focus on class could offer genuine insight into contemporary debates about who succeeds and what helps them do it. Instead we get a portrait of The American Dream as easily realizable since the only barriers to success are familiarity with social codes and etiquette. Call me cynical, but a program that codes a lovely white woman (the actress is British, to boot) as “Other” not only bores me but is borderline offensive.
Most problematic, the show imbues one character with all the 1% venom, and this character is a woman. While the white male characters are professional and compassionate towards our heroine Martina, the blonde woman (Stephanie March, in a thankless roll) is threatened by Martina (of course) and she repeatedly insults our young lawyer throughout the episode. Do we really need one more show that reinforces the most simplistic readings of gender, class, and race?