Updated! Premiere Week 2011: The CW

September 26, 2011
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Network television’s plucky little sister, the CW, is doubling down on its strategy of women-friendly drama and trying to build a Wednesday reality television night.  Whether the CW is your guilty pleasure, your daughter’s go to network, or that channel you always skip, its unique position as a niche targeted broadcast networks makes its premieres routinely fascinating. This season sees a return of Sarah Michelle Gellar to television, a pair of small town dramas, and a reality show only an anti-fan could love.

Hart of Dixie (Premiered 9/27/11)

Sharon Ross, Columbia College

Hart of Dixie is not really anything special or original, but I have to say it has its charms and offers a compelling antidote to the more typical images of young adult women that we see on mainstream TV (I’m looking at you, Snooki). If you’ve seen the promos, you know that Zoe Hart is a whiz surgeon but needs help with the basics of practicing medicine—and “lucky” for her, her biological dad (surprise!) from Blue Bell Alabama dies and leaves her half his medical practice. So, mixing in Northern Exposure, Gilmore Girls, Sweet Home Alabama and Something to Talk About we have a fish-out-water in the South, with all its quirks and misunderstood traditions. And Zoe needs to decide: will she stay or will she go?

Well, of course she stays—with the help of the mystery dad, 2 hunky guys, and an emergency baby birth that proves her value to the town. As I said—not much original here. But the cast is killer and the characters show great potential (especially for a pilot, they are nicely drawn out). Rachel Bilson holds her own (after you get over the initial shock of Summer Roberts being a surgeon); in fact, the characters made me wistful for the early days of The OC, when silly stock characters came together and created some magical fun, helped by excellent older characters and actors. Here we have Tim Matheson, Nancy Travis (soon to be Elsa Davis of The Wire), and JoBeth Williams; the young adults offer Jamie King, Cress Williams, and Scott Porter (nice to see Friday Night Lights alum continuing on past guest-ing roles in other series). I also enjoyed the trademark Josh Schwartz/Stephanie Savage snarky humor popping up—even if it entailed at times clichés like alligators in the road, rocker neighbors you kiss when drunk, or Southern belles oozing sugar and venom. Is it worth watching? If you have some time and want something sweet and well acted, make an appointment!

Alyx Vesey, University of Wisconsin – Madison

I’m excited for Rachel Bilson’s small screen return. I enjoyed her brief appearances on Chuck and How I Met Your Mother. I follow her InStyle column, even though I know stylist Nicole Chavez deserves most of the credit. And she’ll always be Summer Roberts to me. So I was particularly interested in Hart of Dixie reuniting Bilson with executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who made television magic together (for one season) on The O.C. The show also gives Gossip Girl producer Leila Gerstein the opportunity to run a series.

But I’m not sold on this fish-out-of water medical dramedy. Bilson’s Zoe Hart is destined to take after her distant father and become a cardio-thoracic surgeon before she gets dumped by her boyfriend and her supervisor does not recommend her for a post, believing she has the hands but not the (wait for it . . .) heart for medicine. A strange old man named Harley Wilkes has hounded Hart to join his practice in Bluebell, Alabama since she graduated medical school. Hart visits Wilkes’ practice, only to discover that he died but instructed his assistant to keep sending postcards in anticipation of her arrival. Because, you see, he’s her real father.

Just as this show has dad issues, it does not like mothers. Hart is distant with her mom, who does not want her to be a doctor. Thus, she empathizes with a female patient whose mother is similarly dismissive. Hart also establishes a romantic adversary in high-born Lemon Vreeland (Jaime King), who is engaged to George Tucker (Scott Porter). There might be a potential intergenerational friendship between Hart and precocious Annabeth (Kaitlynn Black), who bond over Sex and the City. The cast is promising, particularly Porter and Cress Williams. But the show lacks originality, and will have to do more than cast Meredith Grey as Doc Hollywood to get me to watch.

The Secret Circle (Premiered 9/15/11)

Sharon Ross, Columbia College

You know you’re watching a WB show when…Ooops!—I mean CW…

But Secret Circle did feel oh so very 1990s and ergo WB-ish: The Craft meets Dawsons meets The OC meets Twilight (thus the modern twist). If they can lose the Twilight angst and embrace the camp or comedy values of these other texts, they might pull off a fun adventure for us as viewers. There are some good ingredients: dead adult witches—with the remaining live ones apparently up to no good as their children discover their own latent witch powers; secrets galore, involving forbidden sex/romance and magic; a teen hangout by a carnival pier; a blend of adults and teens; hottie casting; decent soundtrack. But then there are the bad ingredients: a sorry slow pilot, with the “big reveals” visible a mile away (you don’t have to be clever to watch so far); central casting that led to my husband and I imbd-ing everyone to see where we knew them from (thus, you don’t have to be paying full attention so far); and stock characters that led to me remembering everyone as Nice Witch, Slutty Witch, Punk Boy Witch, Sexy Chippendale Witch, Reluctant Heart of Gold Orphan Witch…and perhaps most grievously: Vaguely Multiracial Witch—who gets next to no dialogue and no character background comparatively.

Still, given my love of The Craft, the appeal of Australian Mermaid Show Girl (H2O) aka Slutty Witch, and a decent cast overall, I’ll tune in for a few more episodes. Vampire Diaries started out similarly weak and found its footing, so it’s worth at least the old college try if you’re into the supernatural and the wonders it can offer for metaphorizing the teen experience.

Kyra Hunting, University of Wisconsin, Madison

It would not be a The Secret Circle review unless it described The Secret Circle as Dawson’s Creek meets Eastwick meets Pretty Little Liars, etc. with a healthy dose of The Vampire Diaries and just in case you were liable to forget it the CW is happy to remind you with a Bing commercial featuring Kevin Williamson researching The Secret Circle.  As a result the series feels more than a little familiar, with many of the “twists” revealed in the first fifteen minutes of the show and many of the other mysteries certainly not requiring a connection to the other world to figure out. However the familiarity of the program is not always a bad thing and the show has something of a comfortable nostalgia to it. The trope of adolescent power had proven interesting in the past, much of the cast is charming (if largely stolen from failed CW shows and obscure Scream sequels), and the show has a strong combination of teen angst and drama and supernatural mystery that can be built on in future episodes. While the pacing of the show felt a bit off at times, too much was given away too quickly, and the writing varied from slightly clever to pretty trite; the show’s cozy small town feel, potentially intriguing familial mysteries, and extensive cast (not to mention my residual love of Gale Harold from years of Queer as Folk) were more than interesting enough to make we want to return next week and it received the highest praise a CW show can receive from my vaguely television adverse husband “okay, sure, I’d watch it again.” While not exactly a grand slam, I’m sure many will agree with him.

H8R (Premiered 9/14/11)

C. Lee Harrington, Miami University

H8R cracks me up.  Based on the premise of celebrities meeting and trying to win over people who hate them, the premiere featured Snooki – who successfully transformed her hater into an accepter – and Jake Pavelka, who failed profoundly. Hosted by Mario Lopez, who himself could be a reasonable show participant, H8R explicitly claims an anti-bullying tone, with Lopez stating the goal of the show is to “hold haters accountable.”  Cameras catch the hater in the midst of a rant, unaware that the celebrity is witnessing the behavior and is about to surprise them in-person and sans wary publicist guiding their response. In some ways the show reminds me of the compelling values clash that signaled early seasons of “Wife Swap,” but here instead of social class being the barrier, celebrity culture stands in the way. The potential to really explore core issue – what people think they know about celebrities from reading the tabloids and the open vitriol with which people express their distastes – is unfortunately subverted by cheesy tabloid graphics and a Jerry Springer-ish confrontational set-up that’s unnecessary, in my opinion. I’m curious to see what celebrities have signed up for this – presumably not A-listers and hopefully not all reality stars – so I will probably stick with it, at least for a while. I have reservations about whether the show can develop at all – the problem with “The Marriage Ref” after a couple of amusing episodes – but the premise is fab.

Amber Watts, Texas Christian University

It’s surprising that we haven’t encountered this premise before: Mario Lopez forces a celebrity to hang out with someone who hates him or her.  In theory, the hope is that the hater can learn and grow, and viewers can learn how to “combat bullying” or something that sounds just as earnest but rings completely false. In reality, the show trades on our desire to watch someone call Snooki worthless, or Bachelor Jake Pavelka “a douche,” while Mario Lopez laughs at him. As a schadenfreude-aficionado, I loved the first episode, although I fully understand why most people would not.  The Jake-hater in particular, a punchy 20-year-old named Daniele, was hilarious.  Unlike the Snooki-hater, who seemed to reluctantly cave in by the end of the episode, Daniele remained unimpressed with Pavelka, even after he gave her a mini-Bachelor experience that ended at the actual Bachelor mansion.  Her response was, “It’s a house. I’ve seen it before.  I don’t need to be in front of it to know it’s real.  Like, where’s the rest of his life?”  Why I found it fascinating: Neither Snooki or Jake seemed surprised that they had haters, but both countered the hate with the same argument: “You don’t know me.”  Snooki, in particular, seemed convinced that the only possible reason someone could dislike her is if they don’t know her well.  Neither seemed to understand that their haters mostly hated what they represented. The Snooki-hater’s large Italian family was leery of how Jersey Shore depicted Italian-Americans, and having dinner with Ms. Pollizi wasn’t going to change that.  So as a purely academic exercise in gauging how celebrities read (or misread) their own status and understand how their fame works, H8r is worth watching.  Also, I’m really looking forward to the woman yelling at Joe Francis in a few weeks, because he deserves it.

Ringer (Premiered 9/13/11)

Amanda Ann Klein, East Carolina University

The first few minutes of the pilot episode of Ringer finds Sarah Michelle Gellar being strangled on the floor of a darkened New York City loft. As I watched her struggle, I became frustrated. “Just kick his ass, Buffy!” I yelled at my TV. Then my husband reminded me, “That’s not Buffy.” Right. This is Bridget, a recovering addict/prostitute who escapes the witness protection program by pretending to be her own estranged twin sister, Siobhan. Bridget is able to take over her twin’s identity because Siobhan killed herself in front of green screen (errr, I mean, in a big ocean) and because becoming Siobhan is as easy as pulling her hair into a chic bun. Much of this episode was disappointing: the dialogue was often clunky in its attempts to provide exposition; the background music made me feel like I watching the Lillith Fair, not an urban thriller (a saccharine cover of “25 or 6 to 4”? Really?); and I do wish the show had waited a few more episodes before revealing the identity of the mysterious Sean. But the pilot was not all terrible green screens and rich people clichés. The scenes in which Bridget tentatively navigates her relationship with Andrew, Siobhan’s husband of five years, were both nerve-wracking and enlightening; every wrong turn Bridget makes with Andrew tells us a little bit more about Siobhan and her quirks. For example when Bridget kisses Andrew upon his return from a two-week trip, he responds with surprise, “Aren’t you friendly?” (Aha! Siobhan was having an affair!) Likewise, every time Bridget encounters someone new she doesn’t know if he¹s there to kill her, have sex with her, or arrest her. Watching Sarah Michelle Gellar wear couture and tremble is not as fun as watching her stake vampires, but Ringer is definitely worth a second look.

Eleanor Seitz, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Darkness pervades the CW’s neo-noir thriller Ringer. In typical noir fashion,  mystery, intrigue and a femme fatale drive the narrative of this show. The unique premise of the show is appealing, and abounds with opportunities for engaging complex story lines. Recovering addict Bridget seeks redemption and respite from her past and reaches out to her twin Siobhan, who she hasn’t seen in six years, and then ends up assuming Siobhan’s identity after she kills herself (or does she?) But this enticing plot is perhaps overshadowed by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first return to television since her departure in 2003.  Gellar plays the role of producer, as well as twins Bridget and Siobhan, and there are a lot of over the shoulder shots when the twins interact with each other, which kind of gave me whiplash. Luckily one of them dies (or does she?) and then we can commence with arty mirror shots that don’t overwhelm the viewer. The best I can describe this is to  compare it as some sort of hybrid between The Parent Trap, Laura, and Gossip GirlRinger’s execution of this script is compelling and almost beautiful, with its dark narrative and luscious cinematic production, minus the sailing scene, which is evidently filmed on a fake lake backdrop like the one at Universal Studios.  Bridget’s own naïveté and ignorance of Siobhan’s glamorous (yet devious) life almost functions as an audience surrogate, and as she encounters each new reveal and threat, so do we. I like it, and I hope that it doesn’t get axed. The real question seems to be whether Sarah Michelle Gellar’s star still shines on the small screen enough to draw in a large enough audience in the CW’s demographic.


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5 Responses to “ Updated! Premiere Week 2011: The CW ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on September 16, 2011 at 5:39 PM

    On H8R, I stand by my pre-review, still amazed that CW feels it needs to stand up for crappy celebs. And yet while watching it, the thing that struck me is that for all its supposed interest in working against “haters,” it’s now giving them the best outlet to 15 minutes (after commercials and Lopez) of fame … and thus oddly the show seems to encourage more haters, and especially more extravagant and over-the-top declarations of that hate as way of getting on TV.

    As for Ringer, like Amanda, I found myself wondering, a few seconds in, why Buffy didn’t just roundhouse her assailant. To the point that I think it was a fun little device put in there to insist that Gellar is now playing someone else. Yet half an hour later, albeit offscreen, she clearly beat the crap out of her police protection. Indeed, it felt very much like Buffy was back — still vulnerable and looking for big guys who can tower over her and tell her it’ll be alright, yet still in charge of those guys and a force to be reckoned with. Add Gellar from Cruel Intentions as the Siobhan, and it seems like we actually have the three Gellars, not two. Which makes for intriguing tv, I found.

  2. Kristina Busse on September 28, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    Sharon, I hear you on the Northern Exposure, though I thought a bit more of Everwood (maybe because I’d just seen Revenge : ). But maybe Alaskans really hated Northern Exposure (I’m curious about that now), because as an Alabama local, I was constantly frustrated with the show. For starters (and yes, i’m nitpicking), they really wanted Louisiana, because there ain’t much Bayou and coast line territory in Alabama (I wonder if they looked at a map–we’re the state that sits over Florida’s panhandle!). It’s like a hodgepodge of small town with city square and quirky everyone knows everyone else, but they want the alligator and the scenic Spanish moss on Live Oaks.

    As for the characterization–there’s plenty wrong in Alabama; there’s plenty weird and bizarre (as several of my friends are realizing as they suddenly are trying to defend their daughters’ desires to become Azalea Trail maids); there’s even the hunting and the fishing and the Southern accents…

    And yet it all feels off–feels too indebted to someone’s idea of what they think the South might be like than its reality. And–and here i may get a tad defensive–I do wonder whether other places are stereotyped just as badly or whether the Deep South just lends itself to it more easily…

    • Myles McNutt on September 29, 2011 at 1:31 AM

      I can’t speak to the authenticity of the representation, but I do have a theory: is it just that pilots, so filled with operational shorthand and cultural/narrative/genre codes to begin with, just inevitably fall into that which is convenient or broad so as to avoid getting bogged down? This is not an excuse so much as an explanation, and a point of note as the show moves forward. Are they interested in exploring more of the Alabama setting as their narrative burden lessens? Or will it become a sort of moving target in which the show avoids specificity in favor of convenience throughout the series? Is the pilot representative of their overall approach, or a stop-gap solution that gives them a foundation on which to build?

      My gut tells me it’s the former, given how (as you note) they choose spaces that you feel they want to be representative which are not particularly accurate, but I’ll be interested to see how it evolves.

      • Kristina Busse on September 29, 2011 at 6:54 AM

        That’s a really good explanation for the stereotypes we get in so many shows. You’re right that we shouldn’t fully judge any pilot on that, because it is necessary to a degree (and makes the show legible and allows them to evoke resonance beyond the little time they have). But I share your fear… I’ll probably watch the next episode, simply to find out if we can move beyond the hicks-with-a-heart-of-gold stick.

    • Jonathan Gray on October 4, 2011 at 9:51 PM

      The Shallow North gets it awfully too — Canada is in perpetual winter, with naive, child-like hockey fans who are inevitably white and polite