UPDATED: Premiere Week 2010 – FOX & The CW

September 22, 2010
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This combination of FOX and The CW is largely practical: they are each launching a small number of new series, making for a logical combination. However, their small number of new fall series indicates that both networks are not currently interested in reinvention, focused perhaps on experimentation more than any sort of substantial shuffling. In the case of FOX, this makes sense: Glee was a huge hit for the network, and its focus is on American Idol’s relaunch in the spring. However, The CW seemed to fall further from the cultural zeitgeist last season, and its laissez faire attitude may be more dangerous from a brand perspective.

Although Hellcats may just be dangerous in general.


Raising Hope (Premiered 9/21/10 on FOX)

Kyra Glass von der Osten, UW – Madison:

When I decided to respond to Raising Hope my own hopes were pretty limited. While the premise was intriguing and I occasionally enjoyed My Name Is Earl, I very rarely connect with thirty minutes sitcoms. At best I was hoping for a show I could watch with my comedy-loving boyfriend that I didn’t hate. Instead I was pleasantly surprised with a show that I loved and think is genuinely a fantastic comedy, likely the best new sitcom of the year.

The show’s humor has the snarky, sophomoric edge that cropped up in My Name Is Earl, and this  humor is instrumental in preventing Hope from becoming sappy. That more familiar humor, which can be found on several other current sitcoms, is nicely mixed with a quirky, simmering, humor that is more common to films like Juno. This other humor comes across most strongly in scenes with the main character’s mother, wonderfully played by Martha Plimpton, and her apparent love interest. But for me the real secret to Raising Hope’s success is its sincerity and sweetness. There are plenty of laughs but at its core Raising Hope is a story about a family doing the best they can for each other. The actors ooze sincerity but with such an odd edge that it is never boring or maudlin. In a way Raising Hope is the perfect show to follow Glee because both have seemed to find the perfect cocktail of snark and sincerity. It has raised my hopes for this seasons comedy landscape.

Josh Jackson, UW – Madison:

Raising Hope has more heart than you’d expect from a comedy that features both an onscreen execution (by electric chair, no less) and a throwing-up-on-a-baby gag done twice. Loaded with the easy charm that characterized the best moments of My Name is Earl (producer Greg Garcia’s last gig), Hope, like Earl and progenitor Malcolm in the Middle capably manages a quirky, irreverent, and sometimes wicked, sensibility.

Though perhaps merely a result of the pilot’s effort to reach its status quo, a great deal of the credit goes to Hope’s jaunty editing, which does a terrific job creating a sense of manic propulsion. The cast, generally careful to stay on the human side of zaniness, hit all the right beats. Special mention goes out to Martha Plimpton’s wise-and-wisecracking Virginia Chance and Garret Dillahunt, so endearingly puerile that you almost—almost—forget his performance in Deadwood as prostitute-killing sociopath Frank Wolcott. Hope‘s biggest misfire is the terribly unfunny Alzheimer’s-inflicted Maw Maw, though Cloris Leachman tackles the material with her characteristic gusto. Favorite new show so far.

Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:

I have been campaigning for Martha Plimpton to get her own show for a while, especially after two great guest turns on The Good Wife and Fringe last season, but Raising Hope has one fundamental problem: while the show eventually gets to a fairly heartwarming place where Plimpton shines, the lengths it goes in order to get there are outright ludicrous.

Greg Garcia clearly wanted to make a show about a lower class extended family raising a baby, and by the time we get to Plimpton and Dillahunt singing the baby to sleep I can see why he wanted to make that show. However, what I couldn’t understand was why there had to be a serial killer baby mama, or a gruesome execution, in order to get to that point: the early scenes, along with Leachman’s character, are so over the top that it makes the show’s already somewhat ridiculous premise into something which seems wholly inorganic.

My Name is Earl was similarly about a sudden change putting one’s life into perspective, and in some ways Princess Beyonce is not unlike Earl’s lottery ticket: however, while Garcia’s previous show got to that point through issues of luck and fate, Raising Hope crafts an unwieldy scenario which served to plot-block the remainder of the series’ premise and kept me from fully embracing all it has to offer.

Sharon Ross, Columbia College:

There is a lot that irritates me about the sitcom Raising Hope—maybe it’s the network exec living inside my brain, but I worry about this show’s legs. When your premise rests on the antics of a family struggling to adequately raise an infant, you have to wonder what happens as that infant ages and the producers face a scenario of a series centered on a cute toddler/preschooler/tween…You get the picture. I also winced more than once—Cloris Leachman, who I love, is wasted in the pilot in a thankless role, and do I really need to see SNL-style fake vomiting on Tuesday nights? However, there were some laugh-out-loud moments as well, and if the show can focus more on the humor of current parental obsessions with protecting babies and children, they may have something here. Martha Plimpton is stellar as a hard-edged, white-trash mom with more to offer her son and granddaughter than she realizes and so if I see more of her (and the great grocery store girl) I’ll stick with this show. (Though I still think it’s better suited to a Brit-style short-term lease.)

Running Wilde (Premiered 9/21/10 on FOX)

Megan Biddinger, University of Michigan:

In one of her voice-overs, 10 year-old Puddle Kadubic nods to Arrested Development when she describes Steve Wilde feeling “like he made a huge mistake.”  The this pilot was uneven, I’m not quite ready to say the same for Running Wilde‘s producers (Arnett, Mitch Hurwitz, and James Vallely—all Arrested alumni). Steve Wilde could’ve been just a re-hashing of Gob Bluth, but Arnett manages to imbue the character with some humanity and self-awareness, playing him as a man who could possibly change, but lacks courage and direction. The show also avoids making Emmy, an environmental activist, Puddle’s mother, and Steve’s childhood love, into a saint. Unfortunately, Emmy sometimes feels too much like a tepid Lindsay Fünke. Still, this move allowed me to understand how these two might actually want to get together even though there isn’t much chemistry between them yet.  Besides building relationships between these characters, Running Wilde simply needs to be funnier. The snappy exchange between Steve and Emmy at the hotel pool is bookended by lame gags about the indigenous people Emmy works with. Similarly, the last iteration of the running tiny pony joke, which I really enjoyed, was accompanied by dialogue that fell flat. I’d like to see the show really tighten things up, but I’m already amused and intrigued enough to come back and see what happens next. Here’s hoping I’m not making a huge mistake.

Andrew Bottomley, UW – Madison:

By all appearances, Running Wilde (in addition to Raising Hope) is Fox’s big attempt to fill the network’s live-action comedy void left by Arrested Development and Malcolm in the Middle, both of which went off the air in 2006. Fox, of course, cancelled Arrested and hasn’t heard the end of it ever since from fans and critics. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve brought back Arrested’s creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, and one of the series’ stars, Will Arnett (David Cross gets a guest role as well), for Running Wilde. And – guess what? – the new series’ basic plot and character types are remarkably similar to Arrested. The dysfunction of the rich is a prominent theme. Arnett’s Steve Wilde, like Gob Bluth before him, is a vain, seemingly clueless fool infantilized by wealth. Keri Russell takes up the Jason Bateman straight role of a seemingly selfless, grounded person who is tasked with trying to bring the loons into touch with reality and change their misguided ways, but in doing so it is revealed that she doesn’t have it all together either. Only, the elements that made Arrested so remarkably funny – namely, its self-reflexivity and metatextuality – are mostly absent here. Granted, it’s a pilot that needed to pack in a lot of backstory, and there’s clearly room for improvement. Personally, I’m willing to stick with it for a bit. But on first blush, Running Wilde appears to have carried over some of Arrested’s story elements but very little of the edgy, innovative comedic style that actually made the show, you know, enjoyable and funny. And that’s a shame.

Josh Jackson, UW Madison:

Will Running Wilde become Fox’s first genuine live-action sitcom hit since Malcolm in the Middle? Man, I hope not, if the pilot is an accurate indicator of the show’s quality. My goodwill for the program—which reunited Arrested Development producers Mitch Hurwitz and James Valley with scene-stealers Will Arnett and David Cross, and then threw in Peter “Thanks, ants. Thants” Serafinowicz (yay!) in brownface (boo!) as a bonus—dissolved quickly under the weight of its stale comedy and a premise that was hackneyed when the episode opened and tedious by its end. There’s not a single character I’d like to see get a second of additional screen time. Arnett is once again doing his self-obsessed manchild thing, softened, unconvincingly, for his turn here as conflicted lead Steven Wilde, and his will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with environmentalist childhood love Keri Russell is missing the basic elements of chemistry. I, like many, continue to be a huge cheerleader for Arrested Development, but Running Wilde has a steep learning curve ahead of it, and if it can’t make the climb, then I welcome its cancelation.

Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:

Running Wilde‘s pilot never stops moving: characters zip back and forth to the Amazon without any real sense of time, and the emotions of Steven and Emmy’s fling seem surprisingly fresh for over a decade later. It’s all in an effort to establish the show’s premise, but the problem is that the end result doesn’t feel worthy of the buildup. While that premise — Emmy and Puddle moving in with Wilde and forming an unconventional family with his cadre of servants — is established by episode’s end, the amount of time spent explaining emotions instead of displaying them, either through narration or through in-narrative storytelling, is problematic. We never get the chance to connect with the characters because they’re too busy reconnecting with one another, and in the process are defined much too broadly based on their individual passions of self (in the case of Wilde) and blanket environmentalism (in the case of Emmy).

Not to harp too much on the Arrested Development comparisons, but what made the show work is that we were eavesdropping on a family with history and (dysfunctional) community. Here, the mashup of the two worlds was more jarring than the episode’s storytelling acknowledged, resulting in a dysfunctional pilot instead of a pilot about a dysfunctional situation – it will take word of a substantial turnaround for me to bother sticking around.

Lone Star (Premiered 9/20/10 on FOX)

Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist University:

There’s a lot to like about Lone Star; I can see why the buzz has been so strong around it. It starts with the premise, which amazingly, for a 2010 network show, doesn’t involve cops, supernatural events, or high school kids. This is a family drama in which “family” is a precarious construct; earnestness here always comes with doubt. The cast is outstanding, particularly Jon Voight and David Keith as the lead character’s dual patriarchs. While I can see the Clooney comparison to James Wolk, and his performance is strong, he seems a bit too cuddly, lacking a certain danger with he could better counter Voight, Keith and Eloise Mumford and Adrianne Palicki (as his wives). Still, the relationships are very intriguing, if a bit difficult to see how they could be strung along for too long with straining credibility. The production itself is gorgeous: virtuosic in places, with the almost-seduction scene a particular standout. Texas (actually, all Dallas; yay!) looks fantastic as well; this wouldn’t feel right elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this may all be a moot point, with the show’s abysmal ratings reportedly having sealed its fate already. It certainly deserves another shot, but it’s sadly unlikely to get one.

Myles McNutt, UW – Madison:

While Lone Star is the most engaging pilot I’ve seen so far this year, I would not necessarily say it is the best: great pilots, after all, usually create fewer fears about a series’ longevity, and while I found Lone Star compelling I had some problems when I looked into my crystal ball and imagined the series’ future. Many critics called the show one of the best of the year, but the majority expressed concerns similar to my own in regards to how well this concept will sustain itself over time.

I am not so naïve as to believe that critics have considerable sway over the viewing public, but I wonder if these concerns over longevity led those usually influenced by critical opinion to avoid the series entirely – considering its atrocious ratings performance, there was certainly something which kept viewers from tuning in. While critics raised similar concerns with a series like The Event, a slow-paced melodrama is drawing from a much smaller audience and has little in the way of “must-see” potential when compared with a much-hyped genre premiere.

While I am personally willing to give Lone Star a chance to prove me wrong in regards to its uncertain future, I don’t necessarily think that viewers who read those reviews felt the same way – and, perhaps most importantly, Fox is unlikely to feel the same way in light of the series’ summer burn-off-esque numbers. It seems criminally unfair, but the year’s most compelling pilot is unlikely to survive to see November Sweeps because of concerns that it will not be able to live up to said pilot (or, more accurately, those concerns combined with the fact that nobody bothered to watch it, potentially because of the pre-air prevalence of those concerns).

Jason Mittell, Middlebury College:

Lone Star was pre-hyped as the season’s best example of innovative television storytelling. But while I quite enjoyed it, the pilot did not meet my expectations. The plotting seemed quite straightforward, portraying the cons without any sense of confusion or layered deception. The plot unfolded with conventional melodramatic storytelling, with clear heroes and villains (and anti-hero), rivals and romance. Aside from the premise, there was little new here, despite being billed as the season’s most innovative show.

So why did I still enjoy it? Lone Star highlights how televisual pleasures can flow from the effective execution of the conventional. At its core, Lone Star is a primetime soap evoking Dallas with a bit of a con game framing the story. But it’s so well done that its conventionality seems original. The show’s stand-out element was the lead performance of James Wolk, who leaps off the screen like a cross between George Clooney and Kyle Chandler (minus 20 years), and this is a huge asset in a show like this – Wolk’s charisma sells the semi-ridiculous premise that he’s fallen in love with both women and the real lives they represent. The supporting actors all inhabit their roles effortlessly, creating a consistently enjoyable ensemble and selling all the relationships, no matter how contrived (jealous son looking to unseat his favored brother-in-law) or narrow in scope (the girlfriend with a sexy small-town charm with a bad news ex-). The strength of the ensemble and Wolk’s leading turn reminds me that more than any element in a show, if I don’t want to spend time with the characters, I’m unlikely to come back next week.

The series that Lone Star most reminds me of after one week is The Good Wife, my favorite network drama from last year. While both shows feature premises that are more original than typical procedurals or melodramas, their shared strength seems to lie more in the cast’s execution of their conventional elements rather than the value added from their innovations. It’s what television has always done at its best, inviting us to return each week to spend quality time with characters whose charisma overrides their flaws.

Sharon Ross, Columbia College:

FIRST: DO WHAT YOU CAN TO SAVE THIS SHOW! I am beyond sad that FOX is already talking cancellation after dismal ratings rather than seeking a better time slot. This was one of my favorite pilots from the season, and I think it could be a big hit if viewers find it. (Dancing With the Stars is killing it.) This show is lovingly made; you can tell that the writer (a relative newcomer) loves the prime-time soaps of the 1980s—but also wants to add more depth and raw emotion than that era brought us. There are truly genuine moments of familial love (and antipathy) in this series, and the pilot dares to ask a weighty question: What is “real” and what can be counted on in a world where we believe the American Dream is about making your own reality? I would never imagine a character leading a double life could be someone I would empathize with, which is also a testament to James Wolk’s acting. FOX, please don’t rob me of a solid, character-driven, inventive drama! (Sigh…look who I’m appealing to…)

The CW

Nikita (Premiered 9/9/10 on The CW)

Jonathan Gray, UW – Madison:

Nikita plays like many an action video game – it’s visually quite beautiful, a true product of the HDTV era; it has stark villains (including Shane West having fun with his role) with an almost infinite number of random henchmen, and the occasional boss-type more-skilled henchmen at their disposal; the key story is kind of inconsequential (at this point), driven by revenge and little else; and the fight sequences are built-up to well, and exhilarating when they come. Nikita has plenty of costumes, weapons, and styles of combat, too. Perhaps it could become more complex narratively, and perhaps we’ll see more depths to the characters, but in the meantime, this is remarkably fun. As with Chuck or Human Target, I don’t know if I’d care to see a bunch in a row, but as with those shows, it shows every sign of being something very enjoyable. And when up against Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, The Office, and Fringe, it’ll need infinite ammo to survive, so let’s hope someone at The CW knows the cheat code.

Sharon Ross, Columbia College:

This is one sexy show, for sure—and the reboot of the previous 3 iterations feels as modern and fresh as the producers want it to. I like Maggie Q a lot and she makes you believe that she will eventually best the Big Baddies who ruined her life by turning her into an assassin and enjoy every second of it. The cast is spot-on and I think the surrounding ensemble is where the real potential for the show lies. I found myself bored pretty quickly during the pilot—you can only watch so many cool fight scenes before they wear thin, and if that emphasis continues the show is likely doomed. Likewise, the Charlie’s Angels/Dollhouse strategy of women in provocative clothing and role playing is a little too retro sexist for my taste. However, the final moments of the pilot suggest that there could be some meat to future plots, allowing the ensemble to show their acting chops with stories of double agents/moles and political shenanigans. If they embrace this aspect, the show might take off—so I’ll watch again to see what happens…

Hellcats (Premiered 9/8/10 on The CW)

Kyra Glass von der Osten, UW – Madison:

Since it premiered two weeks ago, I have been describing Hellcats to my students as cotton candy television: it is saccharine sweet, fun, silly, sometimes plain bad, and you may feel guilty about it the next day. I agree with most critics that the show is in many ways derivative, as it is essentially Bring It On and ABC Family’s Make It Or Break It blended together and set in college. I also agree that the writing is at times spotty, both in terms of quality and logic: a former gymnast who doesn’t know what a layout is? Seriously? At the end of the day, I am not sure that either of those things affect my enjoyment of the show. I enjoy the sappy drama, over the top humor, and bubbly energy, and I think much of its target audience will too (while many others will loathe it for just those qualities).

Ultimately I don’t think that it will be quality that will matter most in the failure or success of Hellcats. The most important part of the show to me seems to be the casting. Placing Ashley Tisdale and Aly Michalka at the center of the show positions it to attract younger teens who may be growing out of venues like the Disney Channel and/or may be followers of ABC Family summer shows (like Make It or Break It) that have just ended. If these former Disney stars can attract former Disney viewers to the CW and establish them as loyal viewers throughout their teen years, Hellcats may prove to be far more important then its pom poms suggest.

Jonathan Gray, UW – Madison:

Hellcats suffers from two key problems:

(1) Aly Michalka can’t carry the show. She’s just way too earnest, and trying too hard, making it look like work.

(2) It’s not fun. Only Ashley Tisdale seems aware that the script could even be played for camp value (which makes Michalka’s performance all the more problematic in comparison). Sometimes actors can play it straight and let the script do the work (witness Michalka’s similar performance in Easy A that works because of a good, fun, and funny script), but the bland script here provides no such rescue. Bring it On it ain’t. Granted, nobody at The CW is programming for me. But my household television spends a lot of time tuned into tween fare, so I’m not immune to the pleasures of teen camp. I’m a sucker for good high school or college melodrama. But give me Greek, Buffy, FNL, Gossip Girl, or, heck, even 90210 over this any day.

Sharon Ross, Columbia College:

I find myself rooting for this show because of the glimmers of potential evident in the pilot—but having had the chance to see episode 2 I am more reluctant and now wavering in my assessment. It’s light-hearted and fluffy fun, and I see no problem with that being an option in a landscape of teen TV full of often adult-like angst. The choreography is fabulous and right up there with Bring It On. But Bring It On was a film, and so far Hellcats isn’t holding out much promise of long term investment in the way that Greek did. The world of this show is too narrow for a college campus, with everything centering on the lives of the cheerleaders as cheerleaders. I know the producers’ goal is to balance Marti’s pre-law ambitions with this new environment she has entered, but the character leaves me cold with her blend of snarkiness and sexual display. (It’s just not right to condemn cheerleaders for their outfits and then show up to class in a midriff-baring tank. Come on, CW!—give your audience some credit for class!) But dare I say this, Ashley Tisdale’s Savannah is a revelation of the actress’s skills; she makes me laugh in a good way and even when she prayed to God I bought the sincerity with which the moment was meant to be interpreted. If TPTB can let the show stretch its legs, it might be worth watching.


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3 Responses to “ UPDATED: Premiere Week 2010 – FOX & The CW ”

  1. Kyra Glass on September 22, 2010 at 7:15 PM

    Lone Star is the first network show I have seen in a long time that has made me really think about the major networks as liabilities for good shows. Let me be clear, I loved the show. It was beautifully shot, each frame well balanced and interesting. The writing was engaging and felt authentic. It was well acted in subtle and interesting ways. There were moments that were truly unexpected, something that is becoming very rare in television, and the shows focus on a likable but ethically complex character made me hungry for more. However, as others have posted the shows ratings may have put it in danger. Perhaps what is more realistic is to say that the shows venue put it in danger. On AMC, on Showtime, maybe even on TNT this show would have had a real chance. Acceptable ratings numbers are far lower, witness Mad Men, there is greater patience to allow a show to grow, and critical acclaim holds a lot more weight. Lone Star strikes me as an attempt at a Mad Men, a network wanting a high quality, writerly, beautifully filmed drama to compete in the realm of Emmy’s and critical acclaim. Yet they don’t seem ready to support a show in the way that this kind of a show would need to be supported.
    Sharon Ross makes a wonderful point when she mentions the built on disadvantage of putting a new, and in many ways boutique show, on a night in which ABC and CBS both have strangleholds on a large swathe of the audience. Certainly we can hope that they at least give it a chance to thrive on a better night, or that NBC viewers flock to it in droves when they discover how truly bad The Event is, indeed it deserves to be a hue network success. But perhaps our best hope for Lone Star is that instead of getting cancelled it gets moved to F/X, where perhaps it should have been in the first place.

  2. Jason Mittell on September 24, 2010 at 6:53 PM

    I got a chance to watch Raising Hope last night, and was shocked by how much I hated it. I’d always liked My Name is Earl, so was hopeful about it, but I found Hope taking the worst of Earl (laugh at the dumb hicks!) without the best (the clever characters & storytelling, the random oddball humor of Randy & Crabman). Few shows I’ve seen seem to have this much contempt for its characters & their lives, without allowing a real connection to any of them. The ending seemed completely artificial & unearned, and I fear that the show will spend 20 minutes mocking these people before allowing them to seem human for 2 minutes for “balance.” And I simply never laughed…

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