The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (premiered September 8 @ 11.35/10.35) advance clips here
Dave Letterman retired, Stephen Colbert left The Colbert Report, and though no longer playing the role of Stephen Colbert, Stephen Colbert will now host (albeit without the Colbeard).
see Antenna’s roundtable discussion here.
Life in Pieces (premiered September 21 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here
At this point in the American family sitcom’s history, what new spin could one give it? CBS is banking on telling four independent stories from the same extended family each episode, with cast Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Colin Hanks, Thomas Sadowski, and more.
With Life in Pieces, CBS’s new vignette-based family comedy, I was hoping for Rashomon or Boomtown with a sense of humor: a family comedy with narrative overlap and distinct subjectivities through a sustained bit of storytelling. Instead creator Justin Adler gives something seemingly tailored to the assumed short attention spans of contemporary viewers. The 30-minute pilot includes 4 short, self-contained stories, three of which introduce the three adult children and the family matriarch and patriarch, and one that brought everyone together at a faux funeral/70th birthday party. At 6 minutes per bit, the writers and actors have very little time to get anything moving or make us care. Sure, by the episode’s end we have a good idea of the who, what, and where, but the 4 parts pass so quickly, the viewer neither learns much about the individuals (who pretty much appear as gross stereotypes because of their lack of time to develop), nor has a reason to care about them. It reads a little bit as if Adler said, “hmm, I’ve done amnesia (Samantha Who?) and I’ve broken the 4th wall (Better Off Ted), but I need a gimmick. Ooh, ooh, parallel stories!” The show could well pull together. It has strength in its cast: two-time Oscar winner Diane Wiest (Bullets Over Broadway, Hannah and Her Sisters) as the matriarch, James Brolin as the patriarch, and Colin Hanks (Orange County, Dexter, Fargo), Betsy Brandt (The Michael J. Fox Show, Breaking Bad), and Thomas Sadowski (The Newsroom, The Slap) as the grown kids. The pilot has some funny bits and ends with Brolin being rushed to a Jiffy Lube while locked in a casket. If it can figure out how to create cohesion between the bits, it might have some staying power. I mean, I give it points just for saying Jiffy Lube.
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.
In the quest to replicate the success of ABC’s Modern Family, few attempts have felt as strained as CBS’ Life in Pieces. While copying much of the fabric of that series–an extended family of adult parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, and kids, albeit all thoroughly white and heterosexual this time–episodes are divided into four parts. While this could have been an interesting programming tactic, distilling plots to five-minute chunks between ad breaks, this show also airs earlier, yet goes raunchier. By halfway through the pilot we’d already endured painful riffs on post-birth vaginas and adolescent penises. It’s not that the ABC show doesn’t also go into that territory; it’s just that they do it much better, as winking farce, rather than as Seth MacFarlane on a bulldozer.
Some might be surprised that this is on CBS. But this material is squarely in the comfort zone of the network that’s relied on Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, The Big Bang Theory, The Rules of Engagement, and Two Broke Girls. A wrinkle this time is that the raunchy yuks are produced single-camera style, rather than via the usual multi-cam laugh-track machine. More shockingly, there’s formidable comic talent in front of that single camera: James Brolin, Dianne Weist, Colin Hanks, Betsy Brandt, Dan Bakkedahl, Zoe Lister Jones, and Jordan Peele. That’s a hell of a lineup, and it almost actually redeems it. The material is full of typical pilot shrillness and flop sweat, but the cast, pros all, gives it their best shot.
In an alternate universe, the same cast might have worked in a quieter, slyer, darker comedy. But since that’s not the flavor in Lorre-land, we’re stuck with this. And while it won’t grace my screen again, I won’t be surprised if it actually works exactly as it was designed.
Derek Kompare (Southern Methodist University) is the author of Rerun Nation (2005), CSI (2010), and many articles on television form and history.
Limitless (premiered September 22 @ 10/9) trailer here
Jake McDorman gets a pill from Bradley Cooper, reprising his role from the film of the same name, that gives him super intelligence (cause that’s Bradley Cooper’s gift to give, apparently) and perfect memory. Jennifer Carpenter plays the cop who tries to reel him in to help her and boss Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Everyone wants something. But is there something everyone wants? There’s a whole lot of theory and a fair amount of experience that suggests not really. But, what the hell, it’s pilot season so Limitless is going to give it a shot.
NZT is a pill that makes you very smart. Apparently, being smart can get you things you want: money, women, a human liver.
Fair enough. But watching a chemically enhanced fictional character get the fictional things it fictionally wants is neither the stuff of great entertainment nor that of passable ratings. Imagine if Superman spent his time thinking up brilliant plans so that he didn’t have to fly.
Fortunately, that’s not what Limitless is about. It’s about a fantasy far bigger and more relatable. It dramatizes the same attraction that drives popular infatuations with big data and convinces young men to attend Pick Up seminars instead of just joining a gym or learning how to have a civil conversation.
It’s the tantalizing delusion that there really are answers to the messiest, most complex problems of human existence. That love only looks like an impossible Escher staircase because we haven’t seen it from all the angles. That getting rich is about plugging in the right variables in the right equations, not popping into existence at the right time in the right place. Hell, Bradley Cooper even shows up to remind us that death is the one puzzle that we can never truly solve, the one game we can never truly beat. Unless, of course, it isn’t.
Take the clear pill and find out. It’s what we all want.
Matt Sienkiewicz (Boston College) teaches and writes about global media, politics, and comedy.
Code Black (premieres September 30 @ 10/9) trailer here
Starring Marcia Gay Harden and Luiz Guzman lead the cast of this medical drama focusing on an overcrowded and understaffed ER in LA, and based on the 2013 documentary of the same name.
My interest in Code Black has more to do with its production history than its logline—after the show’s table read, Maggie Grace (who is 31) left the series, and producers replaced her with the already-cast-in-another-role Marcia Gay Harden (who is 56). It makes for a fun counterfactual: how different would the show be if the residency director bossing around the new residents was much closer to them in age, and without the same sense of presence that Harden brings to the part?
It’s admittedly more interesting than the show itself, which is rarely bad—the exception being the d-bag male resident who seems drawn from a d-bag male resident catalog—but is operating in some very familiar spaces. While based on a documentary, the show feels closer to ER, distinctive primarily in the fact that it resists any single point-of-view in its pilot: we get various backstories (grieving mother starting a new career [Harden’s original role], golden boy, etc.) but the various residents end up all blurring together. And while the sheer volume of patients-of-the-week fits the show’s focus on the chaos of a “Code Black,” there comes a point where no single character or story or even moment feels like it sticks with you.
There’s nothing wrong with the storytelling engine in place here, and the casting switch has given the show a solidness that feels comforting in its own way (especially if you take this as a stealth spinoff of Harden’s character on Trophy Wife. But the “So what?” of the whole affair makes it difficult to recommend the show beyond a case study in how the ups and downs of TV development can dramatically reshape a series’ identity.
Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies media industries and definitely paid more attention to the pilot’s casual violation of IRB protocol than your average viewer.
Code Black, a term meaning an influx of patients without enough resources to treat them, is aptly named, for it was just as overcrowded with problems.* The first and most distracting was The Good Wife’s new wig, which we saw early in a tease for the premiere, that poor dear. Give back Johnny Depp’s toupee, CBS.
Unlike Grey’s Anatomy, there’s nothing glamorous about Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, a place so afflicted even its blue fluorescent lights cast a jaundice-yellow glow. The set is dirty, the walls all scuffed up, and the action plays on a constant background of dying people of color waiting hours for treatment while a troop of doctors fuss over a young white girl and her feelings. But before you write me off as a queen with a heart raisin, though normally an accurate assessment, hear me out: Weren’t we supposed to translate all these gritty aesthetics and the show’s own premise into a cultural criticism about race, class, gender, and the injustices of this country’s healthcare system? Because if so, what happened in the script, and why was it so hyperfocused instead on the female resident’s age?
There was remarkably little plot in this episode, and the patients moved in and out of importance so quickly, I failed to grasp onto someone to actually care about. It really did feel like video footage of an ER rather than a TV show, and yes, that could be simply symptomatic of it being a sweaty pilot, but it could also mean it will never explicitly address issues of race and class. Will they ever mention why this hospital is always in a code black? Maybe. Or maybe we’re just supposed to infer from it looking vaguely “inner-city.”
Of course an implied cultural critique is not helped here by centerpiece Marcia Gay Harden, a woman who plays roles so typically Hollywood glam and posh, she actually gets away with the name Gay. Look, I am normally all in for MGH, but I’m not here for another white savior show, and I feel some confidence she’s about to be blindsided, Sandra Bullock style. That’s if Code Black succeeds ratings-wise, which it might since Madam Secretary is somehow still a thing.
*I did enjoy the joke about the IRB, though. That was satisfying.
Taylor Cole Miller (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies syndication and queer television.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, October 12 @ 8/7) trailer here
Because stalking is always an endearing premise for romance (?!), and because crazy women are the bread and butter of many a comedy (?!), this musical rom-com focuses on a woman who ten years after being dumped decides to move across the country to pursue her ex.
From its opening scene, a flashback to the end of a short-lived romance at summer camp, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s humor relies upon gender disparities. While Rebecca imagines her first romantic and sexual relationship as a meaningful one, Josh does not. He suggests they “take a break,” to which Rebecca responds, “What? But I love you!” “And thanks for that,” Josh says, unmoved by thoughts of emotional attachment and long-term commitment.
With such an introduction, I settled in for a tedious rehash of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Set to music.
Thankfully, however, CEG quickly moves to problematize the differences between men and women. Rather than simply assuming an inherent binary gender division, it considers why women experience the world differently from men and sympathetically explores painful experiences common to many women.
By the end of the opening scene, the show has introduced viewers to anger at divorced and unloving parents, suicidal behavior, and talk of abortion. By the episode’s end, the show has expressed a host of feminist critiques. The sexist double-standard of beauty culture is depicted in a manner both humorous (woman struggles to put on Spanx) and graphic (full bikini wax results in blood splatters on the bathroom wall). The exploitation of women is figured through sex work and unfulfilling pink collar office work. And, perhaps most significantly, a woman’s unwavering romantic attachment to a man—the very premise of the show—is found to be untenable. When confronted with the accusation that she moved across the country for Josh, Rebecca counters with the absurdity of such a decision. “So you’re saying that I moved here from New York, and I left behind a job that would have paid me $545,000 a year for a guy who still skateboards?” she asks sarcastically, only to realize that she actually has. For a woman to sacrifice so much for a man is “crazy”—not as in a Beyoncé lyric celebrating the overwhelming effects of love but as in an actual mental health issue.
I may be taking it too easy on CEG. It puts racism and anti-Semitism on display but, at times, only to produce an uncomfortable situation. Mental illness is played for laughs, perhaps too uncritically. The show’s tone can be confusing, and musical interludes outlast their purpose. In spite of these problems, I’m curious to see how dark the show will get, how unappealing yet sympathetic (particularly to women viewers, I suspect) the main characters will get, and how many feminist-inflected jokes will make it to air. For these reasons, this strange and potentially disappointing show is worth watching.
Jennifer Clark (Fordham University)’s work in television studies tends to gender concerns both historical (women’s labor and role in production) and contemporary (representations of masculinity and anxiety).
I want to like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because it’s created and written by women, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, and directed by a woman, Joanna Kerns. I’d hoped that meant the series would engage a feminist sensibility in its humor (especially given Bloom’s history producing funny yet thoughtful videos). Raising my hopes, Entertainment Weekly compares the series to Portlandia and Flight of the Conchords, and calls it “an empowerment fantasy.” Going a step further, Time asserts that the show flips “the Bechdel Test on its head.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a great example of how passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean a media text is feminist. Bloom’s character, Rebecca Bunch, has spent much of her life miserably cramming down her own feelings, yet it’s hard to watch her leave her job as a respected lawyer to relocate to West Covina, California, chasing an ex-boyfriend she dated for two months at summer camp as a teenager. Rebecca needn’t become Alicia Florrick, but I wish she hadn’t spent the remainder of the pilot chasing after her long lost beau Josh to the exclusion of anything else. The one great moment in the episode is the musical number “Sexy Getting Ready Song.” Rebecca’s song describing her preparations to see Josh that evening is humorously interrupted when a rapper, who (presumably) enters the song to objectify the women dancing in Rebecca’s fantasy, expresses horror at what it takes women to get ready for men. He apologizes and walks off set, reemerging at the end of the episode to apologize to a list of women he had previously disrespected.
I loved these moments in the pilot, but believe that this humor is at odds (at least so far) with Rebecca’s character. At the end of the episode when I’d hoped she’d give up on Josh and move on, her co-worker Paula pledges to help her get Josh just as he texts to ask her to dinner. These two are going to have to talk about more than Josh to keep me watching!
Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!
When I first heard the premise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I immediately thought of Felicity, in which Keri Russell’s character moved to New York because a guy she’d had a crush on, but never spoken to, was attending college there. It was presented as only slightly crazy.
For Felicity, though, the choice was Stanford or the similarly prestigious University of New York. For Rebecca, it’s between $545,000 dollars a year in New York City vs. a bigoted boss in West Covina, where “People dine at Chez Applebee’s” and the beach is four hours away. She comes off deranged.
It’s the most original show this season—star Rachel Bloom parlayed YouTube videos into a co-writing gig—and yet still seems derivative. It’s like Glee, in the sense that the lead is a Jewish overachiever who sings and dances. Or maybe it’s more like Smash, because of the original songs, and the Broadway stars. Some songs had funny lyrics, but I never laughed out loud, except at the Simone de Beauvoir- referencing rapper.
Rebecca does not seem all that rootable so far, although she got more so when teamed up with the similarly crazy Paula. The notion that the last time she was happy was when she was 16, at summer camp, and that she’s trying to recapture that through the seemingly boring, aimless, Josh, is sad. So are allusions to a past suicide attempt. I get that we are in the age of anti-heroes, but this seems like it’s supposed to be a straight-up comedy, not even a dramedy like Orange is the New Black or Nurse Jackie are supposed to be. It’s hard to imagine how this holds up long term.
Cindy Conaway (SUNY Empire State College) writes about girls on teen dramas and dramedies.