[UPDATED] Fall Premieres 2012: NBC

September 13, 2012
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As the last-place network, provided we no longer consider The CW a real network, NBC has a lot to prove. Accordingly, it’s getting a jump on the other networks, launching two shows with sneak previews during the Olympics, sneak previewing their comedy series after their big reality hits, and streaming pilots early online. The success of this strategy won’t be known until we see how the shows perform over the long run, but the Fall pilots nonetheless offer a sign of what NBC sees as their most viable strategy to escape the basement in the season ahead (or at least the most viable strategy outside of driving The Voice into the ground).

The New Normal (Premiered 09/10/12)

From Glee creator Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler, David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells) star in this new homonormative series documenting the zany antics of two upper-middle-class white gay men who want to have a baby by a surrogate, Goldie (Georgia King). She relocates from Ohio to Los Angeles to escape her stagnant life, but is tracked down by her mother, a “modern-day Archie Bunker” (Ellen Barkin), whose conservativism and rustic Midwestern values grate on and offend the couple and their employee (NeNe Leakes). [Taylor Cole Miller]

Myles McNutt – University of Wisconsin-Madison

Like most premise pilots, The New Normal‘s first episode has to do a lot of work moving pieces around: Goldie has to get to Los Angeles, Bryan and David need to decide to have a baby, and they have to meet one another to start a magical journey together. The problem is that all of it happens too fast, with perfectly reasonable decisions—like choosing to become a surrogate, or choosing to have a child through a surrogate—rushed to the point of seeming impulsive and scatterbrained. It’s all moving too fast for us to get a read on the characters, outside of the antagonistic, racist, bigoted grandmother who exists solely as a strawwoman enabling the show to pitch its rational, human decision-making as revolutionary and society-altering. Ellen Barkin, sidled with a character even less dimensional than Sue Sylvester (who occupies a strikingly similar role on Glee), will struggle to find the depth required to rescue the character within the confines of the half-hour sitcom.

Barkin’s Jane is also the one character who doesn’t feel improved by a second episode. NBC’s decision to air the two episodes on consecutive days bought the show some goodwill, as Shania’s Little Edie impression was easily the strongest comedy the show produced. While the themes remain saccharine, the removal of the “premise” from such a prominent position gave the characters some room to breathe, and you could start to see how this might work as a weekly sitcom given some strong work from Bartha and Rannells. Unfortunately, given that the show did finally reveal Goldie was pregnant, the premise isn’t going away anytime soon, and Jane continues to persist as the object of Murphy’s worst tendencies.

Taylor Cole Miller – University of Wisconsin-Madison

When I wrote this review of Ryan Murphy’s new series The New Normal for The Huffington Post, I had seen only a (very) early edit of the pilot episode. It was quite simple to disparage because, even with all the tell-tale signs of the genre of comedy (read “cue theory” from Brett Mills’ “Programmes”), the show was just unfunny. It was not even “not funny” but unfunny, as if it were dedicated to birthing a dud wrapped in an assemblage of 90s-era gay humor. I don’t belong to the camp of gay men who are offended whenever a character trots out old-school gay stereotypes (which are on welcome display in this show) because I’m aware of how the gay communities (and their media advocacies elite) have been complicit in perpetuating those stereotypes in order to combat invisibility. I also believe that offense at such characterizations is misaimed: I’ve long felt uncomfortable with campaigns against flamboyant characters, as I think such protests can feel homophobic. When heteronormative power structures impose such stereotypes on gay characters, literally using them to parody homosexuality in a marginalizing and containing way, that’s also unnerving. The predicament of The New Normal is attempting to navigate what it is that makes my experience of the show so unsettling. I’m not sure I would have arrived at such ambivalence if it weren’t for an exquisitely delivered performance of Little Edie from Grey Gardens, again begging the question I constantly ask in my research: who is this text for? Even with all its triteness, eye-rolling humor, and sea of white, upper-middle-class, monogamous bodies, The New Normal still delivers unobstructed kissing scenes, references to gay culture, and millions of eyes—Oh, it’s on NBC? Thousands, then. Thousands of eyes—witnessing the evolution of a new generation of gay representation. Cringing along though I may be, I’m invested in seeing how it unfolds, as this show (if it does indeed become a success) could serve as a political intervention, albeit one where the only perceptions changed are those about white, upper-middle-class, monogamous gay men.

Go On (Premiered 09/11/12)

Matthew Perry stars in this tale of a sports radio host who loses his wife and is forced into group therapy in order to be allowed to return to work. While this basic premise could facilitate either a comedy or a drama, the collection of zany archetypes that populates said group confirms its comic aspirations, while romantic tension with the group’s leader (Laura Benanti) will provide the requisite “Will They, Won’t They” to appease the genre gods. [Myles McNutt]

Mobina Hashmi – CUNY-Brooklyn College

I wasn’t expecting In Treatment, but I did naively hope that the dynamics of therapy would play some part in Go On. Instead, from the moment Ryan King (Matthew Perry) enters and transforms group therapy into a fast-paced playoff for the saddest story, it’s clear the producers aren’t even bothering to pretend that therapy is anything other than a flimsy pretext to bring together a group of misfits who will end up bonding into a surrogate family. As a narrative device for introducing characters “March Sadness” is cute. The problem is: a) I’ve met these folks before and nothing I’ve seen makes me believe I’m going to learn anything new about them, and b) the producers, anxious to reassure us that they’re not really mocking loss just had to include a sincere montage of group members alone and grieving. The second episode has a similar by-the-numbers feel as it dutifully establishes Ryan’s relationships with his inexplicably caring assistant Carrie (Allison Miller) and his boss Steven (John Cho).

As Eleanor points out, Go On pits masculine action against feminine stasis. I’d actually be okay with this dichotomy, crude as it is, if the show committed to it. Instead, by the end of the very first episode, Perry realizes that, as it turns out, he does need help because like any normatively-socialized straight White guy he is incapable of acknowledging his feelings without the help of a caring woman (or two) and a sufficiently-diverse microcosm of society. And, by the second episode, it’s clear that he is going to spend his time reluctantly helping the group members and rediscovering his emotions. Still, Go On might just work. It has some good one-liners, it assures us that professional sport has all the life lessons we need, and it promises guest appearances from sports celebrities. What more can you ask for?

Eleanor Patterson – University of Wisconsin-Madison

NBC is banking that the familiarity of Matthew Perry as a sarcastic, flippant erratic male at odds with the world around him will lure viewers to this contrived semblance of a sitcom. Go On’s pilot begins as Ryan (Perry) hijacks his group therapy session and coaxes them to compete for the saddest sob story. My own misfortune was just beginning, as Go On proceeded to draw broad plotlines around a cliché war of the sexes between the requisite uptight, controlling therapist Lauren and egotistical, yet fun-loving, radio host Ryan. Lauren may run the therapy group, but the show consistently portrays her to be incompetent. For instance, Ryan uncovers that Lauren’s only therapeutic qualification is her background as a Weight Watchers coach who successfully lost 40 lbs. Ryan eyes Lauren and down as she tells him this, and Lauren says, “oh yeah, it’s good,” “it” presumably being her body. This scene then allows for a subtle product placement that is not neutral, but reinforces hegemonic feminine beauty standards. It also undermines the (feminine) strategy of working out feelings through therapy, and I think the pilot hits us over the head with a “talking about your feelings is stupid, go out and do something” message. Therapy isn’t totally thrown under the bus—or else there would be no premise, right?—but that is because Matthew Perry is here (yay!), and he gets them of the therapy room and into zany gags that won’t make you laugh. Perry out acts everyone around him, except John Cho, whose talents are absolutely wasted in this dire series. Even so, Perry seems to be calling in his performance; his grief seems more proportional to losing one’s ice cream cone than losing one’s wife. Which is more grief than I will feel if this show is cancelled.

Guys with Kids (Premiered 09/12/2012)

Vanessa Cosby and Meadow Soprano’s kids and some other not-famous baby get carried around town by fathers (provided by John Wells’ dating agency: Law and Order’s Anthony Anderson and West Wing’s Jesse Bradford, respectively. Forget the not-famous one) who make lots of jokes about being in their thirties with kids yet wanting to stay young and cool. In-the-know humor ensues from the comic mind of Jimmy “doesn’t have kids” Fallon. No, it doesn’t involve an episode in which Bill Cosby and James Gandolfini show up as grandpa buddies … but with more product placement opportunities for Snugli and other baby goods than even The Apprentice could muster, it may only need a 0.5 rating for NBC to keep the show. [Jonathan Gray]

Kyra Hunting – University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dads are having their media moment right now: single fathers are the focus of the Fox comedy Raising Hope and ABC Family’s Baby Daddy and two dads are at the center of The New Normal.  From this perspective, Guys With Kids fits nicely with the trend. However, compared to their television cousins, Guys with Kids has two fatals flaws: 1) it is resoundingly not funny (see the half a dozen jokes centered on the fact that one of the father’s has four, yes four, kids) and 2) its exploration of parental masculinity often takes the form of brutal, sometimes mysogynist, stereotypes. Raising Hope, Baby Daddy, and The New Normal all include quirky, tough, women who are flawed, certainly, but ultimately likable. Guys with Kids, by comparison, offers only cookie cutter characters.

While Tempest Bledsoe breathes some life into her character Marny, its premise—the spouse of a dissatisfied househusband—manages to feel worn out despite having few TV precedents. The characters of Emily, a cheerful stay at home mom who just wants a night out, and Shiela, the shrew of an ex-wife who dictates how her husband raises there child, are even less original. While ostensibly the fathers are supposed to be the heart of the show, they fare only marginally better. Househusband Gary seems to be almost always whining and wants nothing more than access to a TV, the “traditional” dad Chris is the voice of experience but is mostly seen “wearing,” rather than interacting with, his children, and Nick asserts his parental independence by having Kareem Abdul Jabar “dunk” his baby; these fathers are painted in broad strokes as immature or detached. These simplistic character types, the normalization of stay-at-home parents in an economy that often requites two incomes, and even the live studio audience makes the show seem locked in the past.

This series had the raw materials of a really interesting show. How to negotiate being new parents and newly divorced at the same time, figuring out how to be a stay-at-home dad and how it differs from being a stay at home mom, and integrating children into a male social circle are all interesting topics that could provide fresh and fertile narratives. However, by leaning too heavily on worn gender stereotypes and trite humor, Guys With Kids manages to take a novel premise and make it feel like a program we have seen a thousand times, and are sick of already.

Jonathan Gray – University of Wisconsin-Madison

Sitcom pilots are usually bad, as the opening premise labors under the weight of endless archetypes at best, stereotypes at worst, waiting for someone’s performance, or someone’s writing to provide something interesting and new. And thus it’s perhaps banal and meaningless to say that the pilot of Guys with Kids is bad. But it is bad. On one hand, the humor is so utterly predictable, and it’s hard to look beyond the childlessness of the creative mind behind the show, Jimmy Fallon, when listening to endless jokes about life with kids that seem to be written either by people without them, or by people with them whose resulting lack of sleep has led to sloppy writing. Indeed, you’d think that my relatively new status as parent of a baby would make the characters and situation more familiar, but they still felt so very foreign to me. Louie CK, they ain’t. I laughed about three times, all thanks to Zach Cregger, the only cast member who seems at home in the format. Rounding out the cast are Anthony Anderson, whose hamming it up is more befitting of a sketch, variety, or vaudeville show than a sitcom in 2012; Jesse Bradford and Erinn Hayes, who are trying to do with the whine what David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston did with the pout in Friends, but I can’t see it working; Tempestt Bledsoe, who stumbles through the pilot like Han Solo coming out of carbon freezing, yet without a wookiee to guide her (or any of the coolness of Harrison Ford); and then there’s Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who apparently has been told that sitcom acting requires swinging from side to side (either that or someone showed her how to rock a kid to sleep, but she keeps doing it without the kid). And Kareem Abdul Jabbar shows up (having followed Bledsoe through a portal in time?) to be completely wasted. I won’t say it’s horrible, but it’s almost worse by being just plain old boring and unfunny.

Revolution (Premiered 09/17/2012)

Fifteen years ago, an unknown phenomena caused electricity worldwide to fail. Without technology, society fractures and the resulting post-apocalyptic landscape is ruled by sinister militias and warlords. The “epic” drama focuses on Charlie, a young woman searching for her place in this new world after her father’s sudden death and her brother’s kidnapping. Charlie heads on a mission to find her uncle and save her family, not knowing that the mission could also solve the mystery of why the power went off. With creator Eric Kripke and Bad Robot Productions at the helm, pedigree would suggest a series built on mystery and action. [Jenna Stoeber]

Mobina Hashmi – CUNY-Brooklyn College

The opening sequence of Revolution is the most compelling scene in the pilot. On the eve of the Blackout, Charlie and her younger brother Danny are hypnotized by their individual screens. Suddenly Ben bursts in warning that the end is nigh. He manages to call his brother Miles with a cryptic warning and to download something (all of civilization? Nuclear codes? The complete run of Lost?) onto a tiny shiny triangular Magic Object. Bugs Bunny flickers, distorts into static, and vanishes. The lights go out. Danny bursts into tears. It’s not clear if he’s upset about the darkness, his parents’ agitation, or the iPad dying. When Charlie remembers this scene fifteen years later, it’s as a golden memory of eating ice cream for dinner. But, as shown, it’s a bleak vision of the American family.

The rest of the pilot abandons this potentially critical perspective in favor of a libertarian family drama. Ben is now an anxious single father after his wife’s death, Charlie’s a rebellious young woman who resents Ben’s girlfriend Maggie, Danny has asthma. This uneasy domestic status quo is broken when Ben is fatally wounded, the militia takes Danny, and, in an emotional scene, Charlie is charged with finding Miles, the only one who can help her rescue Danny. We now have the separated orphans, their surrogate mother and, in Miles, a reluctant father. This family drama is, as per genre protocol, inscribed within the broader socio-political imperative to uncover the meaning of the Magic Object so that peace and prosperity can return to the land.

Like Terra Nova, Fox’s failed foray into this genre, Revolution is a fantasy of rebooting American civilization as a self-reliant homogeneous community. Safety is represented by the Mathesons’ off-the-grid lifestyle in the remnants of a suburban enclave. The only form of government, Monroe’s Republic, is an oppressive tax-collecting, people-stealing, power-hungry monster. A resistance movement is only hinted at in the pilot, but given that the other two non-White characters in the pilot (Captain Neville and Nate, a militia spy) are on the wrong side, having an African-American woman as its face doesn’t bode well for our family.

NBC did its best to hype Revolution. It reminded us of the pedigree of its producers (Supernatural, Lost, Fringe) and promised girl power in the figure of Charlie who, wielding a bow à la The Hunger Games, intones in a promo, “When the world lost its power, I found mine.” Cheesy, but potentially fun. The pilot, unfortunately, is anything but fun.

Myles McNutt – University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’m having a hard time forming any kind of strong opinion about Revolution. While you would think a high-concept show would lend itself to evaluative extremes, encouraging either appreciative obsession or frustration-fueled revulsion, the truth is Revolution is uninterested in inspiring these kinds of feelings. Instead, it’s comfortable sitting in the middle, offering the basic signifiers of serialized genre storytelling with none of the heart or character necessary to sustain them.

The problem, I think, comes with the way the pilot production process works in the post-Lost era. While networks are still in search of a similar genre success story, producers can’t bank on networks taking that risk, or more specifically they can’t bank on them taking a specific kind of risk. Revolution ended up a 10/9c series, but themes of family and the young sibling protagonists made it easy to imagine a family hour version of the series (albeit with a bit less blood) had NBC chose to schedule it accordingly. The series is underdeveloped because the development process has to leave holes, holes that are filled in once the network’s plans for the series become more fully-formed but nonetheless remain evident in the pilot.

Accordingly, I’ll likely give Revolution a few more episodes to see how it approaches its generic identity now that its relationship with NBC’s brand identity is clearer (although the show’s advertising campaign hasn’t offered much evidence of remarkable clarity in that area). This is not to say I’m optimistic that the show is capable of balancing its rote serialized mystery with uneven character dynamics in order to create truly compelling television, but I remain curious to see what show Revolution wants to be beyond ticking off the “genre” box in NBC’s pilot production slate.

Animal Practice (Premiered 09/26/2012)

Justin Kirk plays a quirky and unorthodox veterinarian named George Coleman, who works at the upscale Crane Animal Hospital in Manhattan. Live animals abound in this work place sitcom, including Dr. Rizzo, a capuchin monkey and Coleman’s best friend. Dr. Coleman is much better at interacting with animals than with humans, which may make for some interesting comedy when his ex-girlfriend Dorothy (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) inherits his business from her family. [Eleanor Patterson]

Phil Scepanski – Northwestern University

As the apparent flagship program of NBC’s new strategy to go broad in comedy, it is tempting to focus on Animal Practice‘s flaws. And it’s got them. The lead plays too deadpan to fulfill his role as audience surrogate and members of the supporting cast try so hard they seem ready to collapse from exhaustion. The animals primarily serve as background objects or vehicles for lazy sight gags, the cheapest of which come from a lab coat-wearing monkey named Dr. Rizzo. If, however, the monkey is an actual licensed veterinarian, I may grant grudging laughter to a joke so audaciously broad and bizarre.

But despite every expectation on my part, Animal Practice is not awful. It is premature to dismiss a pilot for the above reasons. The 22-minute format prevents deep characterization in ensembles and despite hacky writing, the acting behind the weakest characters made me optimistic. By the end, I even forgot Mad TV long enough to enjoy Bobby Lee’s performance.

As a statement of purpose, Animal Practice demonstrates further promise. In parodying the shaky hand-held cinematography and chaotic visual clutter of medical dramas, its visual sophistication surprises. The fact that nonhuman actors account for much of the mise-en-scene’s commotion makes it that much more impressive. Quality work from comically talented but relatively unknown guests Matt Walsh and Jessica Makinson also brightened the pilot. Walsh in particular provided my only laugh-out-loud when he reacted to Dr. Rizzo. Setting the program in an animal hospital likely signals a rotating cast of guest stars and if these two are an indication of those to come, this could be the show’s brightest element. Animal Practice is not likely to replace the medical comedy hole left by Scrubs, but I look forward to watching it develop.

Chicago Fire (Premiered 10/10/2012)

After a firehouse loses one of its own, it sets off a chain reaction of professional conflict and personal struggle for a group of Chicago firefighters and paramedics. Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer, and Eamonn Walker star in a Dick Wolf drama in the Dick Wolf mould, on the network that still believes America wants another Dick Wolf drama. [Myles McNutt]

Bill Kirkpatrick – Denison University

The most apt tweet I saw about NBC’s Chicago Fire: “It’s almost as good as Law & Order SVU—ALMOST!!”

Translation: if SVU is your kind of television, you might actually come close to enjoying Chicago Fire.  It has the same high production values, the same signifiers of what Hollywood imagines as “grittiness,” and the same pacing:  the mindless soft/loud/soft/loud dynamics of a bad Nirvana knock-off.

Similarly, if SVU is your go-to example of unrealistic plotting, cheap emotional manipulation, and objectifying titillation, Chicago Fire will again deliver. A key difference: SVU at least has Richard Belzer and Ice-T going for it, though in fairness the pilot is too early to judge how interesting the characters on Chicago Fire might become.   Early returns are not, however, encouraging.

Still, credit NBC for constructing a tonally cohesive Wednesday night block.  The show has already signaled its intention to become a firehouse E.R. with more beefcake, or yes, an SVU without the crime-solving narrative to hold viewers’ attention. It might become competent at that, but you probably have better things to do with your Wednesday night.

Myles McNutt – University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fighting fires isn’t the same as fighting criminals. Criminals have personalities, motives, and dynamic goals that can change over the course of an episode. Fires, meanwhile, are acts of nature without any clear motive. They have victims, in the same ways that criminals do, but the long term viability of those victims ends when they’re wheeled into the hospital and the paramedics’ job is over.

Chicago Fire understands this, which is why its group of firefighters and paramedics are defined by infighting, personal struggle, and recent tragedy. The speed at which these issues are established is easily Chicago Fire’s biggest problem: rather than feeling like we’re joining an existing firehouse in medias res, it feels like we’re joining a procedural in its opening episode. That’s bad.

This is largely because Chicago Fire isn’t really a procedural, to the degree we might think of a crime procedural or a medical procedural. While the structure of the show will be around fires- and medical emergencies-of-the-week, the aforementioned lack of dynamic perpetrators—a gunshot suspect and a hit-and-run suspect are largely irrelevant to the series—means that the dynamism is found in its characters on our side of the fight.

Unfortunately, what Chicago Fire lacks is a clear character hook in its first episode. So focused on giving each character a personal struggle (a recent breakup, a recent death, a potential lawsuit, etc.), there’s no individual character who breaks out from their pre-established identity. It’s no coincidence that the leader of the rescue squad has to rescue the head of the truck squad who he’s feuding with; in fact, despite the unpredictable nature of fire, there’s no coincidence in the episode at all.

None of this suggests that Chicago Fire would remain this predictable in the future, but none of it points to the show evolving into something more than workmanlike (and even that depends on the episode). There may not be a show about firefighters on television right now, but there are plenty of shows about messed up people fighting the good fight in a messed up world, and Chicago Fire does little to evolve beyond that. Rahm Emanuel’s cameo at the end of the episode suggests that this takes place in our world, but it needs to abandon its intensely televisual setup quickly to keep that from seeming like failed aspiration.


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