Fall Premieres 2015: NBC

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The Carmichael Show (premiered August 26 @ 10/9) trailer here

Jerrod Carmichael is joined by Greek’s Amber Stevens West, Doc McStuffins’ Loretta Devine, LilRel Howery, and David Alan Grier in this family sitcom.

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Note that this initial review will be followed up by a roundtable discussion on the show later this week with Alfred Martin, Khadijah Costley White, and Phillip Cunningham.

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The Carmichael Show stars comedian Jerrod Carmichael as axial character Jerrod as he navigates his relationship with live-in girlfriend Maxine and his overbearing family. The show, part of the growing frenzy that includes the networks bulking up on more quantitatively racially diverse series and casts, is ultimately a strange series on its face.

On one hand, it feels dated in its use of the laugh track, proscenium shooting style and live, studio audience. The series uses two main sets – one that includes the apartment Jerrod and Maxine share, and his overbearing parents’ home, which looks as if it was recycled from 1980s/1990s sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Roseanne.

On the other hand, the sitcom feels fresher than I expected. While the laugh track is distracting, the series settles into a wonderful groove, largely because of the work of Loretta Divine and David Alan Grier as Jerrod’s loving and overbearing parents. However, adding to the series’ freshness is that its storylines are rather current. While the series pilot is mostly concerned with “pilot business” such as setting up relationships and broad overviews of characters, the second episode (NBC is burning off episodes two at a time) is called “Protest,” and deals with a set of protests following the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Charlotte (where the series is based) and discusses aggressive policing and the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The episode attempts to grapple with these issues while simultaneously “keeping it light” enough to be a sitcom.

The bottom line is that the cast is strong and the writing has gotten better after it got over the business of the pilot episode. Given its third and fourth episodes, called “Kale” and “Gender,” respectively, it seems the series is resurrecting the issues-based series. “Kale” deals with race and healthy eating habits, while “Gender” is concerned with the cast attempting to grapple with (and understand) transsexual identity. I’ll certainly be staying tuned to see how this series develops.

Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.

 

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Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris (premiered September 15 @ 10/9) trailer here

An American adaptation of England’s Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, Best Time Ever will see its titular host offer a variety of acts, games, pranks, stars, and such.

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In early 2005 I attended the Broadway opening of the jukebox musical Good Vibrations. One of the takeaways of the evening was that the closest thing to a celebrity on-hand was Neil Patrick Harris, and who cared about Neil Patrick Harris. In less than a year NPH hit with HIMYM and soon became one of America’s favorite gays and a perennial and lovable awards show host. His charisma and singing, dancing, and acting chops made The Best Time Ever an intriguing prospect, but instead of bringing back the Broadway-style numbers and cheeky sketches of 1970s variety shows, the opportunity was wasted. One need only know that Carrot Top made an appearance to understand how truly awful it was. What emerged over the seemingly never-ending hour was an embarrassing train wreck projecting an air of Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve meets The Man Show meets the X Games meets Solid Gold meets Double Dare meets The Jamie Kennedy Experiment meets Remote Control meets American Gladiators meets Circus of the Stars. It wasted the A-list star power and talent of NPH and Reese “guest announcer” Witherspoon on an interminable string of audience participation bits, awkward banter between celebrities, bad karaoke (forcing poor Gloria Gaynor to trot out “I Will Survive” yet again), big glitz/small payoff physical gags, and a big final musical number. No, it didn’t capitalize on NPH’s proven Broadway showmanship; instead it vomited a chaotic mixture of marching band, sleight of hand, cocktail tricks, and pogo stick choreography all over the viewing audience. I have absolutely no idea who this was targeting, and the Marvel Universe Live! and (TWO!) Fisher Price commercials seemed to illustrate that they didn’t either. America loves NPH, but I’m not sure anyone could salvage that show. I’ll just hold out hope that Hugh Jackman can parlay his Wolverine and Broadway chops into a sellable variety show.

Kelly Kessler (DePaul University)’s work primarily engages with gender and genre in the American television and film, often as it relates to the musical.

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As NPH asks: Why is NPH doing this? Good question. Which leads us to our new game—Questions? Cue Bieber’s What Do You Mean? Sponsored by Ask Jeeves (Google it).

Does Reese Witherspoon need money for her legal fees? Do people find the dumb blonde banter funny? Are most of the game titles just pop songs? People do know that Alabama vs. Wisconsin @ AT&T Stadium was in Arlington, TX, not Dallas? I would be pissed, because do you know how much nachos cost at AT&T Stadium?

Why is Nicole Scherzinger a Price is Right model? Asians do karaoke games better—that’s not a question, just a fact. Carrot Top? Is that Matt Iseman from American Ninja Warrior? How did they do that? Does Witherspoon always talk in third person when climbing things? Is that The Voice? How did they do that?   When does The Voice premiere with their new season? (Answer: Next Tuesday on NBC).

Did anyone notice there was so much advertising that it felt weird when the cups on The Voice didn’t have Starbucks logos? Did you know the Jeep Renegade is a versatile yet stylish car? Did you notice they used American Authors’ Best Days of My Life again in a Jeep commercial (one that appeared during a commercial break, not during the show)? No way Gone Girl, Kohler, Hilton Hotels, and Sharper Image can get crammed in, right?

Verdict? Had a few funny moments, NPH has the energy and charisma to mostly hold my attention, I like the randomness, needs more product placement, “pranks” are too PG, the Show at the end of the Show was…there. Would watch again if it accidently appeared while channel surfing, but I’ll probably pick up the highlights on YouTube the day after while eating a Fiber One Chewy Bar.

Tony Tran (University of Wisconsin-Madison) likes to ask questions about Vietnamese diaspora and new media in urban spaces.

 

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Blindspot (premiered September 21 @ 10/9) trailer here

A naked woman (Jaime Alexander) is found in a bag in Times Square, with no recall of who she is or how she got there, with an elaborate, mysterious full body tattoo that offers clues to an FBI agent (Sullivan Stapleton) that unravel a large conspiracy.

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The show starts in high velocity and rarely slows down in its pilot. Within a couple of minutes we’ve met the basic characters and set up the weekly story in which a new tattoo will be explored as well as the longer storyline in which Jane Doe’s mysterious background will get explored.

I loved the Bourne Identity premise, especially when Jane started kicking ass and taking names. That was particularly a relief after we saw her in physical and psychological pain through much of the earlier parts, severely traumatized and tuning toward an unprepared FBI for help. But the story is quite clearly hers and she demands to be part in researching her own mystery. Given that I empathized with her trauma and cheered on her agency and attempts at situating herself in this to her new world, I was strangely unsettled by the hints given to us in the end that she participated in her own victimization.

I’m not sure I’ll stick around for more than a few eps depending on how this will play out, but I was definitely not bored with this pilot. In fact, if anything, I am worried they’ll be able to sustain this frantic pacing and whether the overall conceit will collapse and become absurd within a few weeks/months. This struck me as a show that might have done better with the shorter UK format, but we’ll just have to see if the leads can carry the fairly contrived and yet nevertheless weirdly familiar plot. But I may just stick around a bit longer for Jaimie Alexander being both vulnerable and self assertive in turn. Because who doesn’t love Lady Sif?

Kristina Busse (independent scholar) studies fan fiction and fan communities and is co-editor of Transformative Works and Cultures.

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Yesterday The Wall Street Journal reported the (obvious) fact that NBC hasn’t had a hit show in two years, and as a result, has more fall offerings (14 new shows) than any of the other networks. Aside from Sunday Night Football and The Voice, the only recurrent program on NBC’s schedule that is reasonably attractive to both viewers and advertisers is The Blacklist, a procedural that pairs criminal-turned-informant Raymond Reddington (James Spaeder) with FBI agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) to solve never-ending terrorist plots and unravel the twisty mysteries of Keen’s past. It should come as no surprise, then, that panicky NBC greenlit Blindspot, created by Martin Gero and produced by hot ticket Greg Berlanti. The show mimics The Blacklist’s premise by pairing FBI agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) with mystery woman Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), whose amnesia and numerous tattoos offer clues to drive at least ten seasons of mysteries. I confess that I do watch The Blacklist (don’t judge me) and likely will continue to watch Blindspot because I’m curious about Jane Doe’s past. But I find the “woman with a mysterious past who must figure out her strengths while guided by a strong and all-knowing man” storyline tiresome. While Blindspot’s Jane Doe may have the potential to become a strong and interesting female character, I’d be more intrigued by a pilot that—instead of placing its female lead naked in a duffle bag in New York’s Times Square—introduced her as a powerful character from the start. Blindspot won’t help NBC change its dwindling status among the networks, but NBC’s (over)reliance on the new show does signal the need for the network to focus on developing programs that tell innovative and unexpected storylines instead of thinly veiled facsimiles.

Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!

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Last TV season, Jaimie Alexander guest starred as an amnesiac woman warrior on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Practice must make perfect, because in Alexander’s hands, Blindspot’s Jane Doe is a dynamic heroine. She deserves a far better show built around her. As it is, Blindspot’s only bright spot is its leading lady.

Any crime procedural is only as good as its central partnership, and Sullivan Stapleton as stoic, seasoned FBI agent Kurt Weller has a generic gruffness that’s predictable. That the Australian Stapleton can’t convincingly settle into an American accent is distracting; that there’s yet another square-jawed, blue-eyed white man in the lead is just boring.

The supporting cast sports a little more diversity, though the narrative constraints of a pilot episode mean that little is learned about them. One of Jane’s tattoos does point to a potential storyline concerning FBI director Bethany Mayfair, played by the underrated Marianne Jean-Baptiste. However, IMDB doesn’t list Jean-Baptiste as a cast member beyond the pilot, so this thread may be disappointingly dropped.

The promotional material for the show focuses on Alexander’s naked, tattooed body, so it’s no surprise that the talented actress spends far too much time strategically covering herself or standing in artfully cast shadows. The fetishistic study of this woman’s body parts is oh-so-conveniently integral to the show’s narrative, so it’s doubtful that Blindspot will move beyond all this looking.

Whether or not Blindspot can be more than a tattoo-of-the-week episodic procedural remains to be seen. The pilot mires Jane in a potential terrorism case so easy to solve that it makes one wonder if every tattoo will lead to a story so rote. The overarching mystery of Jane’s identity and the motive for her intricate tattoos promise some serialized elements, but the elaborate set-up may demand a payoff too big to actually deliver.

Laura E. Felschow (University of Texas-Austin) is researching gender in the superhero genre from an industrial perspective.

 

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The Player (premiered September 24 @ 10/9) trailer here

Rich bastards bet on whether Philip Winchester can stop big, nasty crimes from happening, and Wesley Snipes makes the whole thing happen. Taxes are paid in full. And NBC uses the most over-used line for anything set in Vegas in their website’s blurb: “the house always wins.”

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“I need you to wrap your head around the impossible, Alex.”

Look, there’s nothing wrong with a show that has a ridiculous premise. Television is a fictional medium, and so the idea of a syndicate of billionaires betting on crime in Las Vegas does not preclude The Player from working as entertainment. Alex Kane driving a motorcross bike through an abandoned mall to “Tick Tick Boom” as bad guys fire automatic weapons at him is not without its charms.

Where the show runs into problems is when you move beyond its premise and its sensationalist action to the character at the center of it. The pilot knows it has to work hard to explain why anyone would willfully work for “The House”—which sets the odds on crime—when the opening scene of the series is the last employee lying dead in the desert. The show wants this job to appear dangerous, so much so that they show us the odds on our hero’s death, but this is still a TV show—we know that the real impossible is the marketable lead (who got his action credentials on Cinemax’s Strike Back) meeting the same fate as his predecessor.

But what’s frustrating is that the writers saw no other possible option to get him to that point than speedily fridging his ex-wife/partner before act one had barely gotten started. The juxtaposition between the schlocky action and the constructed tragedy never reconcile, and that isn’t helped when her death is thrown into question for the purpose of creating a serialized mystery component for the rest of the season. The dynamic that brings the pilot to its close has potential—a competent action hero with a direct line to all-powerful tech support grappling with the moral complexity of these components—but the emotional dimensions of the pilot have nowhere to breathe, and that moral complexity feels at odds with every other signal of what the show is betting on.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies the media industries and wonders if pilot season is secretly billionaires just gambling on what they can convince people to watch.

 

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Heroes Reborn (premieres September 24 @ 8/7) trailer here

Was anyone even still watching when Heroes ended? Still, Zachary (Chuck) Levi joins the cast, and HRG himself returns (Jack Coleman), albeit joined by the others who couldn’t get post-Heroes jobs (in other words, to save the world, one apparently no longer needs the cheerleader).

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Second verse, same as the first.

There’s a telling moment at the end of the second hour (!!) of the Heroes premiere when Zachary Levi’s character Luke has stolen Noah Bennett’s car, and he looks at the Heroes symbol hanging from the review mirror. “Who’s car is this?” he asks his wife Joanne, after the two of them have inexplicably shot up Primatech paper.

There’s no mystery to “who’s car this is” because we know the answer; but in depicting that symbol, the show alludes to the previous seasons of Heroes (2006–10) that serve as background and fodder for this new miniseries. The problem here—and it’s a larger problem within the Heroes Reborn narrative—is that the symbol, half a DNA strand in an S-shaped curve, propelled an immensely compelling mystery in the original show. Here it serves merely as a mnemonic, reminding us that “Yes! We’re Watching Heroes!” while doing nothing to deepen the mystery or move the narrative onwards.

In fact, nothing really moves this plot forward. While I enjoyed the preview of the upcoming season—lots of action! And guest stars! And story!—I was underwhelmed by this season premiere. Two hours (with, as NBC incessantly droned, limited commercial interruption) should have been enough time to develop the characters and plot. Instead, the story about resurrecting the investigation of the “Evo” (evolved human) population took almost 90 minutes to unroll while other elements (the CGI video game scenes?) seemed to be completely superfluous. I’m sure things will start to come together as the show progresses, and as a miniseries it will certainly be able to weave a stronger arc than the last few seasons of Heroes did originally. But I found the whole experience tiresome, like I was watching Heroes try to out X-Men the X-Men, and I’m not sure I’ll have the stamina to care if the show continues to plod instead of develop.

Paul Booth (DePaul University) studies fandom, time travel, and digital technology and is the author most recently of Playing Fans and Game Play.

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Heroes Reborn has big shoes to fill: when Heroes premiered in 2006, it set itself apart through intensely serialized storytelling, a visual style reminiscent of comics, and transmedia extensions. All of these aspects have become commonplace. Particularly considering the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and multiple superhero TV shows, Heroes Reborn faces an uphill battle in terms of garnering viewers. Did the premiere build a strong foundation for this undertaking? Not entirely. While I didn’t find the premiere terrible, I also didn’t find it innovative. I appreciate that Heroes Reborn gave many nods to its predecessor (complete with awkward car product placement) and anchored its narrative in some of Heroes’ central themes (conspiracy, identity struggle, impending catastrophic event). More disappointing were the lazy techno-orientalism weaving through the Tokyo storyline and the one-dimensional female characters. There is some potential even in those weak aspects: I found the video game sequences interesting in terms of folding a typical transmedia extension into the main text, and the reveal of Molly Walker might suggest that there’s more to her than the weak storyline she had in this episode.

In terms of transmedia, there isn’t much—9th Wonders is a cover for a standard show Tumblr account, and the app seems to repackage information also available at NBC’s website. The prequel web series Dark Matters is richer in content, but familiar in form. Most interesting is the ARG-style HeroTruther YouTube Channel: launched in June and without any apparent connection to the show or NBC, but the mostly low viewing numbers suggest it didn’t have the impact often expected of promotional ARGs.

Melanie E.S. Kohnen researches television, digital platforms, the media industry, and cultural diversity.

 

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Truth Be Told (premieres October 16 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

This sitcom follows two couples who are friends, with facile commentary on sex, race, and relationships. Marc-Paul Gosselaar, Vanessa Lachey, Tone Bell, and Bresha Webb star, after Meaghan Rath was pulled away since another show starring her was greenlit, and was in her first position. Titled People Are Talking in development, till they realized that pretty much nobody was talking about this one.

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Look, Truth Be Told is bad at its very core. The show believes that it has something significant to say about race and gender, and the truth is it has nothing to say: every joke skims across the surface of anything significant, reducing complex cultural issues down into not simply bad jokes, but bad jokes that fail to accumulate into anything approximating reasonable human behavior.

But here’s the thing: I knew this. It was clear from early critical reactions, and from tin-eared comments from creator DJ Nash about writer diversity at the Television Critics Association press tour. What I didn’t know was that #TruthBeTold would be so incompetent from a production perspective, especially given How I Met Your Mother vet Pamela Fryman in the director’s chair. The show is aiming for a hybrid format similar to HIMYM’s, with a significant amount of outdoor scenes in addition to standing sets, but there’s one problem: this is an ugly mess of a television program.

I’ve never seen anything like it as far as broadcast sitcoms go. Whatever Fryman was going for completely falls apart: the compositing work on the daytime driving sequence is embarrassing, the lighting differences between the indoor and outdoor scenes are too jarring to be seen as realistic, and the laugh track appears to be being played on a mid-2000s iPod dock just off-screen given the lack of fidelity. And yet it’s the editing that’s the most obnoxious, going for the type of quick cuts that HIMYM was known for but failing to understand the necessary flow for such jokes to land. In one scene, a character continues a sentence she started outside after having moved inside, and how anyone who watched the show felt this was anything but distracting confounds me even more than the writers who believe this trifle to be anything close to provocative.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies media industries, and voted for Kodos in the show’s on-screen “Thorny Issues” social media polls.

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2 comments for “Fall Premieres 2015: NBC

  1. Kyra Hunting
    September 22, 2015 at 2:08 PM

    All great analysis here. I wanted to chime in on how much Blindspot kind of broke my heart. As one of the links Melissa Click offers, the trailers made Jaimie Alexander’s character look enticingly interesting, strong and powerful and well the premise leaves the potential for that to happen. I found the combination of the extensive time she spent speechless and naked, her frequent fear and helplessness, and MOST disturbingly the fact that she was constantly saying “please” and asking permission to act really off-putting. Some of the premise makes this logical, the fear spurred by total amnesia but the combination of features, for me, made it intensely uncomfortable for me to watch. As many of you said Jaimie Alexander, and the women who were enticed to watch by the trailers, deserves better.

    • Laura E Felschow
      September 23, 2015 at 4:08 PM

      I couldn’t agree more, Kyra! I’ve since read other reviews of the pilot episode from other outlets and many speak of the opening scene in Times Square as a piece of riveting TV. Me, I started cringing immediately and I don’t think I stopped for about twenty minutes! (I mean…she has a man’s name literally tattooed across her back, and that man spends the entire episode questioning her and ordering her around. Uncomfortable to watch, indeed.) But, given that each time Weller tried to boss Jane around, he eventually had to admit he needed her help…maybe all that macho posturing and the positioning of Jane-as-helpless-victim will stop. I’m willing to give the show a few more episodes simply because I enjoy Alexander as an actress, but all my prior experience as a TV viewer tells me I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

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