Fall Premieres 2013: CBS

September 26, 2013
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AntennaFallCBS2-1CBS has normally had to convince advertisers that it was total viewers that mattered, consistently losing the demographic crown but dominating among older viewers. A year after dethroning Fox and claiming victory among adults 18-49, CBS is mostly sitting pretty, without a central concern driving their development strategies. The result is a lineup that while not a dramatic departure from previous years commits to serialized drama and single-camera comedy as experiments for how far CBS can stretch its brand without losing sight of its central missions. The success of those efforts will be up against a high bar at the network, which has canceled numerous shows in recent years that would have been breakout hits by the standards of other networks; whether or not this bar lowers as CBS tries to expand its audience remains to be seen.

The Millers [Premiered 10/03/2013]

In this multi-camera sitcom from Greg Garcia, Will Arnett stars as a man who his his divorce from his bickering parents (Margo Martindale, Beau Bridges), who subsequently move back into his life and plan a divorce of their own.

Myles McNutt [University of Wisconsin-Madison]

It is oft said that one must not judge a sitcom by its pilot, and that is true of The Millers: the version I saw earlier this year had two different actors in the roles played by Jayma Mays and Nelson Franklin, for example, making it difficult to definitively say the series’ lack of subtlety couldn’t be corrected over time.

And yet at the same time it’s hard to trust someone who so willfully indulges in fart jokes in the way Greg Garcia does in this pilot. The dynamic of parents forcing their way into your personal life works as a comic setup, and both Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges are up for the rhythms of a multi-camera sitcom. The series’ biggest problem isn’t that its various parts don’t make sense, but rather that the script doesn’t trust those parts enough to let the rhythms work without the assistance of recurring flatulence designed to appeal to the Las Vegas test audiences that would determine the series’ fate.

Garcia has promised there are no fart jokes in subsequent episodes, and Mays and Franklin are a bit better calibrated than the actors they replaced, so it’s possible optimism is the best course. At the same time, though, whether I’m willing to commit twenty-one minutes a week based on my trust of Garcia’s judgment is an open question.

Eleanor Patterson [University of Wisconsin-Madison]

What are the people on the laugh track laughing at? Seriously? This contrived recombinant of Everybody Loves Raymond and insert-any-crude-CBS-sitcom-here is just not funny at all. Overbearing parents come to visit their kids and seem inappropriately shocked that their son has gotten a divorce, but then decide that this gives them the right to get divorced themselves. The logic is absolutely ridiculous and the disbelief is difficult to suspend. Be prepared for jokes about farts and the humdrum mundanity of white, middle class, heterosexual married life. Okay, we get it, gender difference is inherent, and marriage is horrible (but somehow still desirable), and middle class normality is unequivocally articulated as a white space. Which is why Will Arnett’s character must be coached on how to get laid from his African American co-worker, played by the funny comedian J.B Smoove, who was very good on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but whose talent is wasted here.

This show is so boring, and it’s not just the retrograde morality (divorce, for shame!). The narrative structure and comic timing is interchangeable with any milquetoast sitcom in the history of milquetoast sitcoms. Watching Will Arnett play a snarky, smug local news reporter on the lifestyle beat makes me long for the days of Running Wilde, whose premise was at least somewhat unique. And after Margo Martindale’s fabulous turn in FX’s The Americans, its painful to watch her talent languish in this uninspired tripe. I expect it will be picked up: its ratings were strong and it fits the CBS brand of comedy. The good news is that these shows are only 22 minutes long, and won’t be showing up on competitor-owned Hulu, where I do much of my own cord-cutting viewing.

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We Are Men [Premiered 09/30/2013]

Based on creator Rob Greenberg’s post-divorce sexual escapades, the series highlights a young bachelor left at the altar (Chris Smith) who bonds with three other jilted singles (Tony Shalhoub, Jerry O’Connell, Kal Penn, and Chris Smith) over their shared bad experiences with the opposite sex.

Evan Elkins [University of Wisconsin-Madison]

We Are Men raises a number of questions: Can a beer commercial be stretched into a half-hour sitcom? Just how easy is it to waste the comedic skills of Tony Shalhoub, Jerry O’Connell, Kal Penn, and The Other Guy (in descending order of formidability)? How many different ways to disdain women can a show fit into its first three minutes? Regarding the last question, does the theme song, a masculine version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” count? (the Cake version, maybe? I’m honestly not sure, and I’m not going to subject myself to it again to find out.)

But We Are Men wants to have its Cake and eat it too. It wants to be a straightforward celebration of masculinity and a winking critique of it. The title gives this away—it’s both a rallying cry for men and an ironic suggestion that we’re essentially dealing with children here. But this sort of faux-ambivalence is old hat at this point.

It’s ultimately hard to see how this has any kind of shelf life. It’s not that it’s impossible for television comedies with shallow characters to be great. In fact, many of the best are flush with them: Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, Party Down. But all of those shows offer exemplars of shallowness with somewhat different perspectives (like at least one woman, for instance). This just offers us four slight, unfunny variations on garden-variety arrested-development manhood.

Alyx Vesey [University of Wisconsin-Madison]

This program bears the distinction of being the only sitcom in recent memory to take Kirk Van Houten’s storyline in “A Milhouse Divided” as its premise (I bet Tony Shalhoub’s Frank Russo sleeps in a racecar bed). The pilot’s journey from failed wedding to singles complex—How do we filter out the teases? We don’t let them in!—introduces a Van Houten-esque collection of characters: perennial divorcé Frank, cheater Gil (Kal Penn, who deserves better), and Stuart (Jerry O’Connell, who doesn’t), a man so saddled with alimony that he literally can’t keep the shirt on his back.

The quartet’s chemistry is serviceable, though the male lead has a bland congeniality that recalls Justin Barta’s unremarkable turn in The Hangover series. More remarkable is the comedic talent just out of frame. Alan Ruck officiates Carter’s wedding. Dave Foley briefly appears as his dad. The show claims HIMYM alum Rob Greenberg as its creator and credits Adam Arkin with directing its second episode.  But if Men’s “charm” is in downing beers and ogling bikini-clad neighbors with the fellas, I’d rather break my lease.

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The Crazy Ones [Premiered 09/26/2013]

Robin Williams returns to TV as an ad man who works alongside his daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar) to make companies happy—starting with McDonald’s, Kelly Clarkson, and James Wolk free-styling about drive-thru loving—and make audiences laugh in this move into single-camera comedy for David E. Kelley and CBS.

Anne Gilbert [Rutgers University]

There’s a lot going on in The Crazy Ones’ pilot, not necessarily to its benefit. Simon (Robin Williams) is insane, but also a mad genius of advertising (or was, in some previous glory days). His daughter Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is uptight, but also sort of charming, and usually right. Their associate Zach (James Wolk) is kind of slutty, but also good at everything and totally likable. Kelly Clarkson is enthralled by her own unironically sultry rendition of “It’s Not the Meat It’s the Motion” in reference to…hamburgers, that we are supposed to eat…but also is just bitchy enough to make it funny. Oh, and because they clearly greenlit their role as “big client” in the pilot, McDonald’s is about family and togetherness, but not at all obesity epidemics or minimum wage battles.

The Crazy Ones is packed tight and manically paced, making it impossible to get to know the characters, much less care when – thank goodness! – they are able to help McDonald’s sell more (non-sexual) hamburgers. There is a slickness to the show that, combined with the David E. Kelley pedigree, the stellar cast, and the high-profile guests, means it takes a while to notice that it’s more polish than substance.

Jennifer Smith [Independent Scholar]

The Crazy Ones is about a man who used to be among the greatest stars of his chosen profession, now older and troubled and trying to prove he hasn’t become repetitive and irrelevant, and it stars Robin Williams, who… well, you get the picture. From the giant painting of young Williams in the ad office to the reference to the character’s addictions and divorces, the show isn’t subtle about the connection. This exploration of Williams’ star text is matched by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s attempts to both live down and live up to her Buffy past — she punches a robot within the first five minutes, but her character’s main arc is her struggle to prove she’s a successful adult professional. The show plays on our nostalgia even as it strives for freshness, which is also, not coincidentally, the point of the pilot’s McDonald’s/Kelly Clarkson plot. I don’t know if this is a good show or not, and it probably depends on your tolerance for Williams’ manic comedy (of which I’m admittedly a fan). But as a textbook study in negotiating star texts and intertextuality (it’s a modern comedic Mad Men, right down to the title), The Crazy Ones is a gift to teachers of media studies.

Karen Petruska [University of California – Santa Barbara]

I have taught Advertising and Promotional Culture too often to glean from CBS’ The Crazy Ones the sincerity it and its promos seem to want to inspire. Despite the program’s focus upon a loving relationship between father and daughter, it also features characters that mark the complexity of advertising as a business, particularly through characters such as the pandering, exploited female assistant and the charming, corrupt character portrayed by James Wolk. Advertising is called out as manipulation repeatedly. For example, despite assurances that “icons don’t like to sing about meat” and that Kelly Clarkson “[w]on’t do jingles,” Clarkson is nevertheless driven to do just that in order to reinvent her celebrity brand. A relationship of mutual dependence is therefore set up between all the central players, each using each other to advance individual ends, just as the many mentions of McDonald’s throughout the episode serve the ends of producer 20th Century Fox, distributor CBS, and the larger ecosystem of television economics.

The Crazy Ones repeatedly exposes consumer culture anxieties—whether the agency can “pivot” (read: manipulate) Clarkson, whether a practiced pitch can read as “authentic,” and in my favorite moment, Gellar’s character replies to a question about whether icons like John Lennon were paid when employed to sell an idea (not a product) in an ad with “that’s besides the point.” Ultimately, the show is sorta funny and can sell a new brand every week (cha-ching). But if I tune in, it will be to see how long the show can sustain an awareness of the central dilemma of television and advertising: they seek not to entertain but to exchange viewers as currency. That balancing act is actually pretty entertaining.

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Mom [Premiered 09/23/2013]

Anna Faris and Allison Janney play daughter and mother, respectively, in this Chuck Lorre-produced comedy about a recovering alcoholic and working mother of two who must adapt to her mother’s return to her life at an already complicated time for her romantic relationships and her relationships with her two children.

Jennifer Smith [University of Wisconsin – Madison]

While the overbearing laugh track and Jon Cryer cameo make Mom unmistakable as a Chuck Lorre-produced CBS sitcom, this pilot surprised me with its genuine, layered approach to the exploration of the familial relationships between three generations of imperfect women.  Elevated by the ample comedic talents of stars Anna Faris and Allison Janney, Mom lets its women take center stage, making their flaws and challenges the driving force of the plot. When they’re the butt of jokes, it’s because of choices <em>they</em> make, and their relationships with each other, a relative rarity in current domestic/familial sitcoms.  Sure, the women are emotionally-stunted addicts who make poor life choices, but the men are philanderers, deadbeats, and narcissists – there’s no question of where viewers’ sympathies should lie. And refreshingly, the show treats characters with back stories grounded in addiction and teen pregnancy as subjects of gentle comedy rather than as freak shows or tragedies. This episode suffers from Clunky Sitcom Pilot Syndrome; the beginning, especially, is abrupt and disorienting, and the exposition feels shoehorned-in. But the comedic timing and slapstick are well-executed, and the characters are compelling. It’s not quite Roseanne or The Golden Girls, but it has potential.

Alyxandra Vesey [University of Wisconsin – Madison]

It makes sense that the promos for this series highlight the pilot’s diner scene between mother-daughter duo Bonnie (Allison Janney) and Christy (Anna Faris), following an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Janney and Faris lock into the itchy rhythms of their dialogue, relishing the “k” sounds in phrases like “licking cocaine crumbs out of shag carpet” in harrowing recollections of each other’s substance abuse problems.

I’m unconvinced that Mom, co-created by Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker, deserves the pair’s comedy master class. This critique hovers over Faris’ career, as she frequently delivers Goldie Hawn-level zaniness in lesser efforts (though I stand behind Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face). For example, the writers need to develop Christy’s work life without relying on winking cameos from Two and Half Men’s Jon Cryer. But some of Mom could work. I’m interested in Christy’s working class family and easy rapport with shaggy ex-partner Baxter (Matt Jones, of Breaking Bad fame). I liked Faris’ brittle candor in the AA scene. I’m leery of Bonnie intervening on behalf of granddaughter Violet (Sadie Calvano), who mirrors her mother’s teenage hedonism. But I’d like to see Janney and Faris trade barbs in a program worthy of their talents.

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Hostages [Premiered 09/23/2013]

Toni Collette stars as a surgeon scheduled to perform an operation on the President, only to have her home invaded by a rogue FBI Agent (Dylan McDermott) who holds her family hostage in the interest of determining the outcome of that operation; this fifteen-episode “limited series”—that means it will be capped at fifteen per season—tells the story of how the family and their captors’ secrets unravel in captivity.

Bärbel Göbel-Stolz [Indiana University]

CBS’ Hostages trailer looked not too promising. There is a promising cast, but the premise is problematic. Where can this plot possibly go?

Breaking with CBS’ procedural line-up the series sets up characters, narrative arcs, and subplots. Possible storylines that extend this to a season run, however, seem illogical. Being illogical is something that a good thriller is not. The FBI agent would not compromise the control needed to handle the situation; he does not make mistakes. It seems unlikely that his kidnapper alter ego would. Opportunities are laid out before us, but are too few to push past a heavy-handed pilot. There are so many possible complications; I almost do not care when they will come into play. The sole question is not if or how, but when. It makes me think I am waiting for a bus.

Exception: The evil kidnappers kill yellow labs, America’s favorite furry family member. But then, the pet is revealed alive. This is the series’ promise: you won’t know who is good or bad. It still feels predictable. The sub-plots will extend this series’ run, likely at the cost of narrative cohesion, pace, and my interest in watching. I hope my pessimism will be exchanged for excitement. I am not holding my breath to find out.

Jonathan Gray [University of Wisconsin – Madison]

Someone needs to sit down with the Hostages writers and explain how thrillers work. They seem to have misheard the notion that thrillers can’t be all action, and require some build up, as “make sure there are lots of boring scenes in between the exciting ones.” The first fifteen minutes in particular are profoundly boring, even in spite of the music’s heavy-handed attempts to create suspense or to try and convince me that Dylan McDermott’s Duncan Carlisle is Totally Badass. McDermott and Toni Collette both find ways to make the show slightly more interesting as it goes along, but much of the show felt so trite, so paint-by-numbers. The only scene in which something seemed legitimately at stake was one in which Collette’s Dr. Ellen Sanders almost cuts off a finger. Good serial programs nearly always need a few episodes that are there simply to set things up, and that aren’t all that enjoyable, but it’s bad strategy to make the pilot one of them. I’m left expecting a show that will continually spin its wheels. The pilot ends with Sanders seemingly buying herself two weeks, but unless the writers do something, I can’t see it lasting too much longer than that.

Alyxandra Vesey [University of Wisconsin – Madison]

I watched the Hostages pilot for Toni Collette’s face. As a longtime fan (the popsicle scene in Little Miss Sunshine!), I delight in her visage’s affective athleticism, which always reveals—and, often, quickly buries—characters’ subjectivities.  Even when the material fails to meet her, watching Collette build a character for a primetime political thriller is an event to me.

Adapted from an Israeli series, Hostages models itself after Homeland, with remnants of 24 crowding the margins. Collette plays Dr. Ellen Sanders, a surgeon with a seemingly perfect family life. She inherits President Paul Kincaid (James Naughton) as a patient. But the episode devotes much of its packed, at-times incoherent hour to her family’s kidnapping by an FBI team led by special agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott). His unclear motive is tenuously connected to an assassination plot and his ailing wife. For me, the hook is in its final scene when Sanders, who injected blood thinner in the President’s bloodstream to buy time against Carlisle, stares into the camera during a press conference and dares him to make a move. It’s a heightened conclusion. But Hostages might set itself apart if it prioritized its formidable lead actress and her face’s storytelling capabilities.


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