Fall Premieres 2013: NBC
NBC had a tremendous Fall, and then a precipitous fall; after launching at number one a year ago, the Spring brought precipitous ratings drops and the cancellation of every freshman comedy in favor of more Community and Parks and Recreation. It’s a decision that won them points with critics but also left them with a sizable hole in their schedule, one they’ll fill with more shows hoping to find that magic formula that will make them successful once the sizable Voice lead-in abandons them in the new year. It remains unclear whether this approach will result in sizable hits that reflect broadcast’s history, or more of the decent demographic performance that has kept low-watched shows alive at NBC longer than at any other broadcast network.
Dracula [Premiered 10/25/2013]
In this loose, US/UK co-produced adaptation of the Dracula mythos, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers stars as the eponymous vampire who poses as an American, travels to Victorian London, and plots his bloody revenge for wrongs done to him in centuries past by the Order of the Dragon.
Melissa Click [University of Missouri]
During his interview with Dracula (who has returned to late 19th Century London as American industrialist Alexander Grayson), journalist Jonathan Harker writes down three words on his notepad: visionary, egomaniac, and delusional. Any of these three words could describe NBC’s decision to reboot Dracula for Friday night. Although 5.3 million viewers checked out Dracula’s premiere episode, it’s too early to know if the show will be the second hit that NBC needs this fall.
Dracula loyals may be disappointed with the way the characters have been reworked, such as Grayson’s unlikely alliance with Abraham Van Helsing. Both men are determined to destroy The Order of the Dragon, a centuries old group that has hurt them both. But the story’s lead vampire still burns in the light, turns all of the female characters’ heads, and is driven by a thirst for blood and revenge. Grayson’s geomagnetic creations (a threat to The Order of the Dragon’s investments in oil) offer an interesting twist to this story, as does his attraction to Mina Murray, who looks just like his long-dead wife. Let’s hope NBC, working with Downton Abbey’s producers, can make a compelling story out of these elements in ten episodes—and give Grimm a full-blooded companion.
Caroline Leader [University of Wisconsin-Madison]
In so many period TV shows, creators struggle with how to represent the past to a current audience. Some shows like AMC’s Mad Men luxuriate in aesthetic pleasures: form-fitting sweaters, well-groomed hair, pill-box hats, and a proliferation of cigarettes and liquor bottles. These aesthetics build atmosphere and a strong sense of place for our hungry eyes to consume. NBC’s Dracula is certainly bright and sumptuous, but lacking in truly Victorian splendor. Perhaps this is due to an attempt to modernize the fashion for today’s crowd—or because they don’t have the budget of a cinematic representation of past—but the effect misses the mark according to this fashion junkie.
Gowns and coattails aside, the much-advertised selling point of the show is Dracula, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Rhys-Meyers’ watery eyes and chiseled abs are perhaps aesthetic enough for some, and signal the audience that we’ll in for a sinister, sexy series. The pilot jumps around a lot with rushed sexy bits and fast-paced political intrigue. It’s a bit hard to keep up with Dracula’s plans, but the budding love triangle promises to be tantalizing. All in all, the show would pair well with a glass of Merlot and a Friday night at home, but I wouldn’t stay in just to watch.
Anne Gilbert [Rutgers University]
It’s remarkable, really, that a lush, decadent re-telling like Dracula can turn out so very…dull. The show looks impressive with its ornate sets and lavish costumes, but even with this and a plot of vengeful immortal beings and underhanded machinations of secret societies, the pilot is rather lifeless. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as the titular bloodsucker, sashays about, chomps on the scenery, and affects a terrible American accent that may or may not be deliberate, and his over-the-top performance does a decent job exuding the dangerous sexuality that is meant to linger under the surface of any good vampire tale. But he is also not scary in the least, as he threatens more shady business dealings than real bodily harm.
This is meant to be a reimagining of the reliable Dracula tale, but it is not a particularly creative one. The show could have been an otherworldly horror show, a trippy steampunk innovation, or a deliciously campy guilty pleasure; there are certainly tiny nods throughout that almost go in these directions. Instead, Dracula plays it safe: A moody costume drama that plays like a better-late-than-never attempt to get in on the vampire craze that is just boring enough to miss everything appealing in a vampire craze.
Sean Saves the World [Premiered 10/03/2013]
Sean Hayes returns to TV as a gay man who finds himself raising his daughter as a single father, helped by his co-workers (Megan Hilty, Echo Kellum) and his overbearing mother (Linda Lavin).
Jennifer Smith [University of Wisconsin – Madison]
My expectations for Sean Saves the World were neither high nor low, and after watching the pilot, I can only say that my expectations were met exactly. NBC has promoted the show as the triumphant return of Sean Hayes to network comedy, pairing him with Michael J. Fox in an attempt to sell its new Thursday night lineup as a return to the glory days of Must-See TV. But while Fox proved himself a charming leading man in his second hit sitcom and Hollywood blockbusters, then stayed in the public consciousness through his activism and guest appearances, Hayes has been done little of notice since his breakout sidekick role on Will & Grace. It’s not that Hayes is bad in this new, leading role; he sells the emotional moments capably, and his skill at physical comedy serves him well. But I couldn’t help wishing he was still the wacky counterbalance to a (comedic, not sexual) “straight man” – or, preferably, that the show allowed him to be zany and over-the-top and still the lead. Instead, the character is stuck in the middle, trapped in a mediocre, predictable sitcom, portraying the same domestic upper-middle class white male stock character that makes up 90% of the queer representation on television. It’s fine, but it’s nothing new.
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Welcome to the Family [Premiered 10/03/2013]
Two teenagers—one white, one Latino—fall in love and make a baby, not knowing their fathers (Mike O’Malley and Ricardo Chavira) have become enemies, bringing the two families—also including Mary McCormack and Justina Machado—together into one multi-racial melting pot as the new arrival beckons.
Caroline Leader [University of Wisconsin-Madison]
Sitting down to a new NBC family comedy, I feel confident what I’ll see: some sort of Modern Family copy that doesn’t have the cast or writing to keep me laughing. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the Welcome to the Family pilot. Unlike other recent short timers—NBC’s The New Normal, FOX’s Ben & Kate, and ABC’s How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)—this show doesn’t come across as too saccharine or wacky. The humor is subtle, delightful, and snarky. What Welcome to the Family did particularly well was in the unraveling of the Yoder and Hernandez families in the face of crisis. As much as they are set in contrast by race and class, we are meant to see the two families as similar. Both families have macho dads and strong-willed moms—Caroline Yoder (McCormack) is especially funny as a woman about to embark on her second honeymoon with her husband. In fact, the show puts almost too much effort toward defying our class and race expectations once they are identified. Like its close relative Modern Family, with Welcome to the Family, there will be squabbles and soft-ball jabs at each family’s expensive, but we’re always safe in the homes of loving nuclear families whose dysfunctions are as well kept as their living rooms.
Alyx Vesey [University of Wisconsin-Madison]
Welcome to the Family’s biracial blended family allows NBC to replace The New Normal and try to erase memories of many family sitcoms that failed to capture the attention that ABC receives for Modern Family and other comedies about “non-traditional” extended families.
However, it wobbles atop an implausible premise. When valedictorian Junior (Joey Haro) and spacey Molly (Ella Rae Peck) discover they are expecting their first child, abortion isn’t considered—this is a network sitcom—and I don’t imagine it will be entertained by Molly’s mother Caroline, who scowls at a positive home pregnancy test in the pilot’s coda.
As a result, I’m unconvinced of the leads’ chemistry. Haro’s Junior is blandly upstanding and Peck’s Molly “humorously” espouses contradictory feminist politics. Instead, the pilot focuses on the burgeoning rivalry between expectant grandfathers Dan and Miguel. Such consideration is not extended to Caroline and Lisette, nor to Junior’s gadget-obsessed younger brother Demetrio (Fabrizio Guido). If creator Mike Sikowitz and his team want to build a family, they should start by developing nuanced characters instead of archetypes who deliver hack jokes about the indiscretions of empty nest syndrome and teenage romance.
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Ironside [Premiered 10/02/2013]
Blair Underwood stars as a paraplegic detective in this reboot of the 1967 police procedural.
William Proctor [University of Sunderland]
Another season, another generic crime drama, this time a reboot of cop show Ironside which originally ran for eight seasons between 1967 and 1975. The problem with this pilot is its reliance upon well-worn genre footprints that have steadily grown tired and clumsy amidst a television schedule that has so much more to offer. Fans of detective shows may find a lot to like and may take pleasure ticking off the check list of protagonist angst, but I was left cold and bored by episode end. To be sure, Blair Underwood is fine as the eponymous, paraplegic detective, but, as a character, it is difficult to empathise with someone so arrogant, angry and cynical with a questionable moral centre to boot. The opening sequence where Ironside repeatedly assaults a suspect in order to discover where a kidnapped child is being held may seem warranted when the strategy succeeds. But it also illustrates that police brutality is sometimes necessary to get the job done, something that does not sit easy with me at all. It would be remiss to suggest that the shooting that paralysed him gave birth to this ethically dubious character, but flashbacks within the episode illustrate his fondness for dangling suspects off high rise buildings prior to that tragedy. I like the idea of Ironside more than I actually like Ironside. A missed opportunity and one which I doubt will be picked up next season.
Eleanor Patterson [University of Wisconsin-Madison]
Maybe it’s how the camera often shoots up at actor Blair Underwood from below, or how he manages to beat up perps, or coaches hockey, or grunts as he works out, or picks up ladies on the job, but something tells me Ironside wants us to think its wheelchair-bound protagonist is one tough mother…you know. Indeed, this show invites us to see Ironside’s physical difference as an asset. For instance, when he finds a gun at a crime scene, his supervisor asks how he noticed it. Ironside replies, “I have a different perspective from here.” Yes it’s corny. A lot of scenes are shot at Ironside’s eye level as he interrogates people in a seated position, inviting us to feel comfortable with his physical difference. There are also frequent flashbacks of an able-bodied Ironside, which not only gives us backstory, but also relieves some of the potential discomfort we might have watching different physical mobilities. I’ll admit Underwood’s charisma and the narrative’s surprises and visual pleasure drew me in. Like other contemporary network dramas, like The Good Wife and Scandal, Ironside is shot in the cinematic style of the quality television we’ve become familiar with on cable. The casting of an African American as the lead in a show about a crime solving detective solving crime might compound his otherness, to use Alfred Martin’s concept of “double duty,” Ironside is a character that does “double duty” as the only African American character and the only differently-abled character. However, this show also brings us a strong non-white hero sorely needed in prime time drama. Its low ratings might discourage NBC from picking Ironside up, but I hope I’m wrong.
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The Michael J. Fox Show [Premiered 09/26/2013]
Michael J. Fox returns to TV full time for the first time since his Parkinson’s diagnosis as a news anchor returning to TV after a Parkinson’s diagnosis, exploring the impact of his work and his disease on his family (including his wife, played by Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt).
Melissa A. Click [University of Missouri]
NBC’s decision to order a full 22 episodes of The Michael J. Fox Show in August 2012—before it had even been shot—caught my attention. I have enjoyed Fox’s frequent appearances on The Good Wife as lawyer Louis Canning, who uses his disability to manipulate juries, judges, and opponents. Fox has done much to raise awareness about Parkinson’s since his diagnosis in 1991, and his guest stints on Scrubs, Boston Legal, and Rescue Me have complicated television’s very limited representations of disability.
For these reasons, I had high hopes for The Michael J. Fox Show. After watching the show’s first two episodes, I think my hopes were too high. While Fox’s guest stints pushed the boundaries of television’s representations of disability, his new show places disability into a fairly predictable domestic sitcom. The show’s single-camera, mockumentary framework updates this familiar format, but its comedic orientation puts Parkinson’s in an awkward position—both normalizing it as a regular part of the family’s daily life and making it a frequent punchline, ultimately reiterating its abnormality. Fox’s new show will do great work raising awareness about Parkinson’s, but I’m not convinced the show will do much to raise the profile of the domestic sitcom.
Maria Suzanne Boyd [Georgia State University]
As a child of the 80s I might have a moral obligation to give The Michael J. Fox Show a stellar review. Sadly, as much as I wanted to love this show, it alternated between being sacchariny sweet and borderline offensive. NBC, overplayed its hand by airing the program’s first two episodes. The pilot positions Fox’s character, Mike Henry, as an inspiration and example for his family members who face much more banal problems than his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. While episode two, “Neighbor,” relies on stale portrayals of women such as the hot, divorcée neighbor and the self-obsessed, still-single, thirty-something sister.
The show did have some bright moments. Betsy Brandt gives a delightful performance as Mike’s wife who secretly orchestrates his return to work. And, in what I hope will be a running gag, the show is self-aware in NBC’s desperate move to try to recreate the network’s ratings glory days of 80s and 90s “Must See TV” programming. And as the narrative explicitly states, it’s impossible not to love Michael J. Fox.
I won’t be appointment viewing, but the show has earned a spot on my DVR.
William Proctor [University of Sunderland]
I have to admit, I am completely biased when it comes to Michael J. Fox. As a kid growing up the eighties, Back to the Future’s Marty McFly was an icon, plain and simple. So I was a tad concerned that he would return to television screens as a pity-figure given his tragic struggles with Parkinson’s disease. Thankfully, my anxieties were misplaced. The Michael J. Fox Show works well as a metafiction about his life, but also a charmingly good-natured sit-com that bursts with optimism and hope. Sure, Fox is often self-deprecating but not in a cringe-inducing way. This is not comedy for the Family Guy generation. What is remarkable is that Fox’s comedy timing is spot on and the central cast all connect brilliantly. In a post-9/11 climate of despair and fear, The Michael J. Fox Show is a rare pleasure that provides a beacon of positivity to light up ubiquitous prognostications of doom and gloom. To be sure, there is tragedy and struggle, but the emotional core centres around triumph over adversity and, for that, I am grateful. The tale within the narrative about an African woman giving birth in a tree sums up the philosophy of the show succinctly. A beautiful tale expertly told. Bravo!
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The Blacklist [Premiered 09/23/2013]
James Spader stars as Raymond Reddington, a criminal wanted by the FBI who offers himself over to authorities to help solve an impending terrorist attack. He’ll only speak to Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), who’s about to start her first day on the job as a profiler, and who believes she has no connection to Reddington; he disagrees, and their back-and-forth dynamic sets the stage for an ongoing, tentative arrangement moving forward.
Caroline Leader [University of Wisconsin-Madison]
A man in chains sits in a room, surrounded by a multitude of armed guards. He awaits his protégé: a young, female agent who will consult him on a crime about to occur. No, I’m not talking about The Silence of the Lambs. I’m referring to the suspiciously Starling-Lecter-esque relationship in NBC’s new crime drama The Blacklist.
I tried to set aside my initial prejudice against its copycatting of Lambs, but The Blacklist insists on invoking its predecessor repeatedly as Reddington probes the darkest corners of Keen’s psyche and leads her through her investigation. Keen departs somewhat from Starling; she is light-hearted, perky, maternal, but with a dark side—which incidentally is revealed very quickly. Like Starling, though, she has serious daddy issues that Reddington will likely exploit and assuage simultaneously.
Every media project has an influence, but when it imitates its antecedent too closely, the comparison may be ugly. The Blacklist’s imitation is a thinly veiled distraction for what seems to be a run-of-the-mill episodic drama with characters whose secrets have already been revealed.
Jonathan Gray [University of Wisconsin-Madison]
The Blacklist is captivating, with an impressive 24-like pace. It trusts that it will have a fifth episode, and thus is happy to leave things till later; indeed, it’s comfortable in its own skin, written, acted, and filmed with purpose. James Spader is having fun but can handle the serious parts too, Megan Boone is okay so far, and enough Larger Questions are posed, and posed well, to lure me back. I hope, though, that all the bad guys don’t end up being crazy foreigners – the “next week on” clip showed a crazy East Asian to match this week’s crazy Balkan/West-Asian/Random Arab (sorry, I wasn’t paying attention if his nationality was offered). Another concern is that Red’s obsession with Keen is really creepy, and part of a disturbing gendered politics, wherein, for instance, while Keen stands and comforts a child (while looking remarkably composed and pretty for someone whose husband was tortured in front of her last night), the men behind her run around with guns, disarm bombs, give information, solve crimes, and save America. If the show addresses that creepiness, gives Keen more to do, and gets off the black-and-brown-list occasionally, I’d feel more comfy indulging in what is a decent, promising action-thriller.