Updated! Premiere Week 2011: ABC

September 26, 2011
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ABC has a host of shows premiering this fall, including the Count of Monte Cristo inspired Revenge, the ’60s period piece Pan Am, the new Charlie’s Angels, the testosterone imbued Man Up and Last Man Standing (which also marks Tim Allen’s return to network television), along with others. Check back here regularly for our contributor’s thoughts on all the new ABC programs. Responses thus far: Revenge.

Suburgatory (Premiered 9/28/11)

Allison Perlman, University of California – Irvine

Suburgatory is a run-of-the-mill fish-out-of-water sitcoms.  Tessa (Jane Levy) and her single father George (Jeremy Sisko) move from Manhattan to an unnamed suburb after George finds a package of condoms in Tessa’s room and decides that he needs to raise his daughter in a more wholesome environment.  The suburb they arrive in is a mélange of outmoded suburbia stereotypes, from the cookie-cutter homes with manicured lawns to the town’s cookie-cutter mindless, materialistic residents. All the women and girls seem to love pink.  The popular girls are mean, their mothers are vampy gossips, and both spend a lot of time texting. City kid Tessa, naturally, is an outcast in this environment while her father, naturally, quickly becomes the object of desire for a number of the sex-starved women in town.  Despite her disdain for her new home, Tessa comes around a bit by the end of the series’ pilot when Dalia (Cheryl Hines, in a role far beneath her talents), one of the mom-vamps, buys her a pink frilly bra to replace the humdrum but functional sports bra that Tessa had been wearing.  The new bra, in some way a synecdoche for the entire town, also signals that the previous absence of a traditional feminine influence in Tessa’s life, one thing that this suburb will provide her.

In sum, I dislike this show for many reasons.  The critique of the suburbs is stale and not especially germane to our cultural moment.  The gender politics of the show are similarly anachronistic.  The relationship between Sisko and Levy is the only likable part of the pilot, but even their banter can’t save a series that seems premised solely on worn out clichés.

Kyra Hunting, University of Wisconsin – Madison

This fall premiere season has been, in my opinion, woefully short on interesting sitcoms and so Suburgatory struck me as a breath of fresh air. It in many ways seems like a strange show for ABC; a bit like Easy A as a television series, or a Desperate Housewives for the younger set, and it may prove to be too specific a taste for the general audience of ABC’s Wednesday comedy block. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There has not been such a clever adolescent voice over on tv since The Wonder Years and it resonated with the gone but not forgotten 15 year old surbanite of my past. There is much about this series that is unrealistic, in particular the economic makeup of this “average” suburban town and the stereotypes of the individuals that populate this suburban jungle teeter precariously on the edge of satire and stupidity but underneath all that there is a kernel of something true about the frustration a young person feels in a community that seems completely alien to her. Tessa’s believably warm relationship with her father adds a more serious and heartfelt dimension to the series. Sisko, who you may remember from Six Feet Under, is likable as a young father, Cheryl Hines is truly funny as their neighbor, and the always charming Allie Grant, from Weeds, makes a great new friend for Jane Levy’s Tessa. Ultimately, I suspect that there will be many who dislike Suburgatory, it is too particular to be universally liked, and there may have been a more appropriate channel for it in the ranks of cable, but I for one will be returning to suburgatory soon.

Pan Am (Premiered 9/25/11)

Allison Perlman, University of California – Irvine

In case you missed the point, characters at the end of the pilot of Pan Am will spell it out for you.  At a table in a London bar, Kate (Kelli Garner) points to the photo of her sister Laura (Margot Robbie), a newly minted stewardess whose photo appears on the cover of Life magazine to accompany a story about “The Jet Age, and announces that the picture represents all of them, that they are the promise of the future.  Nearby, first officer Ted (Michael Mosley) tells the flight’s captain Dean (Mike Vogel) that their stewardesses are “natural selection at work” representing a “new breed of woman.”  In case you really missed the point, the final shot of the episode is of our four stewardesses striding confidently in step out of the airport and onto the tarmac as a girl, her little face pressed against the glass to see them, looks on admiringly.

Pan Am, in other words, seems to have little confidence in its audience or, really, in its own premise.  The pilot in seemingly every scene has non-diegetic music, from the soaring instrumentals of the opening sequence to the use of “Mack the Knife” in the final act in London.  The over-reliance on music however only highlights, rather than deflects from, the trite dialogue and banal plot lines.  The characterizations are clichéd and really heavy-handed, the use of flashbacks amazingly diminishing rather than augmenting the complexity of the characters.

Like The Playboy Club to which it has been linked, Pan Am has been identified as a network show trying its hand at a Mad Men-like series.  Yet neither show really seems all that interested in the era it depicts, aside from the costumes its characters can wear and the settings that the locations in the past allow them to explore.  (Pan Am does feature a short sequence in Cuba right during the Bay of Pigs, but it is so ridiculous and ahistorical that I hope and pray the series avoids any similar gestures to the political history of the 1960s.)  The reliance on a mob-murder in The Playboy Club and stewardess-as-cold-war-spy in Pan Am speak to this, as does the hackneyed characterization of the past that the series ostensibly are promising to upend.

Kit Hughes, University of Wisconsin – Madison

After watching NBC’s Mad Men rip-off The Playboy Club, I steeled myself last night for another dose of winky self-congratulatory “look at our authentic sets!” and “can you believe how sexist/racist/terrible things used to be?”  I was pleasantly surprised.  The visuals were actually quite nice; airport sleek is different enough from Madison Avenue slick that I didn’t find myself bored with the show’s gleaming interiors and international boulevards.  Not that the show doesn’t have its faults.  Besides some heavy-handed music choices (I think they might make it through the entire Sinatra catalogue in the first season) the episode suffered from poor sound mixing (I get that planes are loud but I put my foot down when an orchestral score wants me to be inspired so bad that I can’t hear people speak).  Characterization was also heavy-handed at times.  One of my favorite examples is Maggie (Christina Ricci), who plays a purser (a word said so many times in the first five minutes looking it up on Wikipedia seemingly constituted this week’s play-at-home-game).  Laughably bohemian, she flees her oddly painted apartment to catch a plane while a bearded, bespectacled man yells, “Does the Marxist dialectic count as a dual thesis?” It is network television, after all.  And with that in mind, Pan Am was well worth a watch.

Charlie’s Angels (Premiered 9/22/11)

Sharon Ross, Columbia College

Heaven help us—Charlie’s Angels have been reborn and clearly some kind of karmic retribution is occurring. Only my commitment to Antenna could have made me sit through the whole pilot; this was (as my colleague Kelly Kessler would say) a hot mess. There were about 2 moments of campy humor and there were accordingly about 2 moments of anything interesting happening in this story. Why should I be rooting for a socialite thief, a dirty cop, and…well, frankly I don’t know what Minka Kelly’s deal is exactly, except that it killed off a Latina actress (probably mercifully).

To be fair, I wasn’t expecting genius depth here; but maybe just a little USA network tongue-in-cheek kick-ass girl action, or the retro modern twist vibe of the first movie. Instead we got a show that asked us to take seriously dialogue such as “I never knew my heart could hurt this much” and “you’re angels of justice, not angels of revenge.” (Not even Victor Garber voicing Charlie could pull off this last line.) I felt like a 12 year old delivered this script—and that made me fell like a 12 year old (or perhaps more like a 16 year old sister forced to watch her little sister’s show).

This is TV at just about its worst: cookie cutter factory plotting and casting. I just can’t reconcile a story about Central American political strife and girl gang members turned good with Bernie Madoff jokes and hot women in red leather Devil outfits. There was a reason the absurdities of the original 1970s series had its charms—IT WAS THE 1970S, when the very thought of women leading a drama was a massive step forward. I wouldn’t even say, though, that this was a sexist show (though the bad dialogue paints the women as infantile in their mental development). It was “simply” a boring, uninspired, and trite pilot. Save yourself the trouble. I think it will be a quick cancellation, up as it is against X Factor, Community/Parks and Rec, Vampire Diaries, and Big Bang Theory. If you need your action chick fix, watch Nikita instead, my friends.

Revenge (Premiered 9/21/11)

Mary Beltrán, University of Texas, Austin

This vengeance tale, created by Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, and Mike Kelley for ABC, focuses on Emily Thorne, the assumed identity of Amanda Clark, a young woman seeking revenge on the wealthy family responsible for framing her father for murders he didn’t commit seventeen years prior.  While Revenge hearkens back to the best of the ‘80s prime-time soap (think Dallas and Dynasty), it seems to lack the emotional complexity and originality—or in an alternative appeal, a wicked or winking sensibility—needed to draw in a sizeable contemporary audience.  The series stars Emily VanCamp as Thorne/Clarke and Madeleine Stowe as Victoria Grayson, icy matriarch of the Grayson family; while VanCamp offers a few poignant moments in the starring role, neither are particularly interesting to watch in these roles.    The rest of the cast is sprawling and poorly developed in the pilot; everyone is starkly defined into respective “have” and “have-not” roles in relation to the seaside Hamptons setting. Many, of course, have a secret.  The production values are notable: stylish settings and costumes and a taut soundtrack contribute to the series’ appeal, and a number of appealing, lesser-known actors promise to make the bumpy ride ahead entertaining. With further character and narrative development Revenge might deliver as a suspenseful soaper, but I’m not sure it will to do so quickly enough to save itself.

Sharon Ross, Columbia College

Revenge is Sweet. This is what Ringer (though it had its charms) should have been, to be blunt; and while I loved Emily Van Camp in her Everwood days, I truly didn’t know she had the ability to grace TV with such a delicious bitch—it’s as if Crystal Carrington finally saw the wonders of Alexis Colby and became her undercover acolyte. There’s also a fun Dallas nod with some sexual shenanigans taking place at a South Fork Inn—so yes, this is a soap, and if you love a good prime time soap this should keep you happy. (Incidentally, not a good fit as a follow-up to the ABC sitcoms.) We also have additional winning elements, however: a glamorous tale that still acknowledges class tensions and the current economic climate (allowing you to not feel bad about liking some of the socialites), intra-upper-class enmity that also taps into the myth of the American Dream, a terrorism sub-sub-plot (ups the ante for seeking revenge), and a nice use of flashbacks that stimulates your predictive mode as a viewer (leaves just enough hanging and provides just enough information). It also didn’t hurt that the pilot was beautifully shot and nicely directed (Phillip Noyce).

This is The Count of Monte Cristo for the Millennial Age. We know Emily will come to love people she sees as ends to a mean—and then have to choose about hurting them. We can tell she will do appalling things—perhaps unwittingly being duped by people she thinks she can trust (by perhaps even those she is trying to avenge). So many questions, so many potential answers—exactly how I like a good mystery driven soap to jump out of the gates. (Dare I say it reminds me of the best seasons of Desperate Housewives? Hope I didn’t just jinx it.) In short, if you like serials that pose some solid social, cultural, and moral dilemmas, this show could be for you. I’ll be tuning in for sure—other than 2 Broke Girls, the best premiere (new or old show) to-date. One question for the already-fans: when summer season ends, does it still take place in the Hamptons?


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One Response to “ Updated! Premiere Week 2011: ABC ”

  1. Kristina Busse on October 1, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    Allison, I couldn’t agree more with your critique of Suburgatory. It’s interesting that it’s showing right before Modern Family. The latter is interesting and appealing to me, because it retains empathy with its often biting sarcasm. As a suburban mom, I watch Modern Family and feel the need to laugh at myself and see attention drawn to the everyday absurdities of my life. With Suburgatory I not only don’t recognize myself in these caricatures, I don’t want to spend any time with them–even to mock them. No matter how cute Tessa is 🙂