Fall Premieres 2014: FOX

September 19, 2014
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FOXAntennaComing off of a deflating season and the firing of Kevin Reilly, Fox is in the very definition of a rebuilding year. With American Idol fading, Fox can no longer rely on the Spring to make up for Fall’s losses, placing a heavy burden on a range of new series that were developed by the previous regime. The logic behind an American remake of an English-language British drama was difficult enough before, but Gracepoint—along with Mulaney and Red Band Society—will face even higher standards when the people making decisions lack investment. Their only hope is if audiences invest quickly, something that seems increasingly rare in the broadcast model (and which already failed to happen with early-launching Utopia), but which may be possible with the specter of Batman involved.


UTOPIA [Premiered Sept 7, 2014]

What happens when Fox sends 15 strangers to live on their own without rules? What kind of society will they form? What kind of lives will they lead? What role with religion or government play? And will anyone actually be interested in the answers to these questions? Only time will tell.


Taylor Cole Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The excitement of television’s fall pilot season for me isn’t so much in the promise of new programming as it is in the delicious display of defeat. Television runs on a combustion engine of hope and failure, and as a competitive person, I’m most sated when my TV screen is dripping with tears of disappointment and failed possibility. Although it premiered last week, I’ve particularly enjoyed watching Fox’s Utopia bloodied by critics and free-falling ratings because of its constant pontificating and self-congratulatory marketing. It’s not “reality,” they boast, it’s an “experiment!”

If you want to watch an uncomfortable, sweaty “pilot” and you want it to drag across two hours, find Fox’s Utopia online. While I might’ve thought Utopia would be Survivor with live-cams (since footage from camp cameras livestreams online), “competition” does not seem to be an actual strategy of the series, so ultimately there are no stakes. That’s a difficult direction to turn when coming off two hours of football before the premiere. And whereas other reality series take great care to make their “characters” initially charming and relatable in anticipation of drama, Utopia neglects its character development totally in favor of flashy dramatics, with scenes about alcohol abuse and sexual harassment foregrounded to a background of nude Yoga survivalist preppers. Post-plot Hollywood, it turns out, also applies to reality TV.

Halfway through the insufferable first episode, it was clear I was losing the “Where’s Waldo” of redeemable characters because none of the “pioneers” of Utopia, as they are called, seem to resonate. But the marketing of the series as an “experiment” and not “reality” is perhaps most ridiculous of all given how obviously the variables are controlled. Ultimately, before writing this review I watched part of the most recent episode but had to stop because watching fifteen awful people kick the bloodied corpse of the show felt, even to me, too inhumane.



RED BAND SOCIETY [Premiered Sept 17, 2014]

Octavia Spencer leads an ensemble cast of those who live and work in an extended youth hospital wing, where the diagnosis is hormones, pathos, and self-discovery as chronic illness mixes with adolescence.


Elizabeth Ellcessor, Indiana University

Red Band Society is an odd mix of hospital drama, high school comedy, and magical realism, all set in a lovely, airy hospital ward (partially filmed at Atlanta’s High Gallery). It brings together a Breakfast Club of teen tropes, and seems to aim for the issue-driven soapiness and intergenerational ensemble casts often found on ABC Family’s teen dramedies, from Huge to Switched at Birth and The Fosters. The most unusual element – perhaps reflective of this program’s Spanish origins – is the narration by Charlie, a boy in a coma who can communicate with others when they are unconscious.

This element of the fantastic is indicative of a need to take this show as something other than a realistic representation of chronic illness; a suspension of disbelief is called for regarding the hospital, finances, and families, and other patients seen here. If realism is not the goal, then Red Band Society could take really interesting risks, telling its stories in ways that do more than beg for audience pity or attempt to inspire us with the kids’ perseverance.

Based on one episode, though, I have to withhold judgment. Red Band Society could all too easily become a Glee imitator, squandering its chance to do something different.


Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’ve rarely seen a show that suggests so little unity in the writing room. At times, the comedy is crisp, as when two characters joke about freezing a soon-to-be-amputated leg and bringing it out a year later like a wedding cake. But then we get a whole spate of jokes about a kid in a coma farting. At times, the show achieves a subtle, uncontrived poignancy. But then, stinkier than any fart joke are the spate of bullshit Hallmark Card philosophizing from our narrator-in-a-coma: “The most important part of you that needs to survive is you,” “How do you tell the girl who needs a heart that she never really had one to begin with?”, “life is full of black holes, and the only person who can pull you out is you,” “your body isn’t you, your soul is you, and they can never cut into your soul,” “everyone thinks when you go to a hospital, life stops. It’s just the opposite, life starts,” and so forth. It’s odd when you find yourself thinking, “I wish that kid in a coma would shut up.” And at a broad level, there’s an element of the show that’s starkly original for American TV, dealing with a very tricky subject (kids that are chronically ill). But elsewhere it’s a hackneyed pastiche that is more interested in peddling the same old junk than in doing anything new or interesting. Ultimately, the writers need a retreat where they could – after the trust falls, group songs, and ritual firing of whoever amongst them has been writing the boy in the coma’s and the cheerleader’s dialogue – work out as a group what they really want to do. Till then, I’m skeptical, and would rate this as “meh TV.”


Kyra Hunting, University of Kentucky

Red Band Society seems designed to fill the hole that Fox has in its schedule as Glee limps to a close. Like Glee, in its better days, Red Band Society has a strong mixture of sweetness, sensitivity, and snark (a formula that has served the network well in shows like Raising Hope) and I found myself both laughing and tearing up  over the course of the episode. The premise of the series led me entering worried that it was going to be too maudlin or depressing to be enjoyable but the tone was surprisingly, almost inappropriately light.  The series did a lot of effective work in a short time, creating a number of distinct and likable characters and a well crafted, if not wholly believable world. Like Glee, however, the series also has some potential problems. It skirts the very edge of being too soapy, its very dependent on the core group of patients some of whom must realistically get better or pass away over time (just ask Ryan Murphy how well simply cycling new kids in works), and it has an overrepresentation of white, pretty and middle class  – not to diminish Octavia Spencer’s excellent work in the pilot. While I feel like the series itself has a great deal of promise, Fox placing it up against the two hour finale of a popular reality show, an illogical lead-in, and its first week ratings has left me with Lonestar flashbacks…so perhaps worrying about its distant future is a little insane.



GOTHAM [Premiered Sept 22, 2014]

It’s a basic police corruption procedural starring Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue, but the city they’re patrolling will grow up to be Batman’s Gotham. In the meantime, your favorite caped crusader and his villain buddies—Penguin! Riddler! Catwoman! The gang’s all here!—are still living through what will eventually become their origin stories.


William Proctor, University of Bournemouth

As a fan of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s sublime Gotham Central, I was looking forward to this with a passion that should embarrass a forty-year old adult male. In my mind, I was thinking of a police procedural designed with a sinister edge – dark, brooding, atmospheric. Think The Wire but substitute Baltimore for Gotham City. In fact, with Warner Bros corporately owning both DC Comics and HBO, that is precisely what I wanted. Hell, get David Simon on board with The Wire alumni, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and so forth. Why not use Brubaker and Rucka, both fan favourites and seminal authors?

From this perspective, it is little wonder I was sorely disappointed with Gotham’s opening gambit. Only nine years after Nolan’s reboot, the sine non qua of the Batman myth — the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne — was a lacklustre, emotionless affair. Of course, the Bat’s origin story has been told and retold multiple times, but the essence still has a kind of primitive, affective power that Gotham did not manage to convey with any emotional, or melodramatic, substance. New character, Fish Mooney (played by Jada Pinkett-Smith) was a truly poor decision, poorly written and ham-fisted. Some of the character dialogue was simply awful, an unacceptable aural assault and an offence to the material. And don’t get me started on Oswald Cobblepot, a nascent Penguin in waiting.

Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon was a saving grace and Harvey Bullock certainly looks the part, if not in character, then certainly in appearance and demeanour. I won’t be switching off anytime soon — as a bat-fan, I simply won’t be able to help myself.

To be honest, I much prefer DC’s other TV series, Arrow; and The Flash pilot was a spandex romp. But I never thought the Emerald Archer or the Scarlet Speedster could trounce the Dark Knight.


Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona

Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Michael Lark’s comic series Gotham Central combined the careful realism of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels with the fantasy of comic book superheroes and villains. The juxtaposition of these seemingly irreconcilable elements led to one of the most exciting superhero series of the last twenty years. A potential television adaptation might suggest the supreme weirdness of Jimmy McNulty from The Wire investigating a homicide committed by Mr. Freeze or Two-Face. But of course, we were never going to get that. Instead we get a typical phony cop drama riddled with clichés and absurd, grand gestures – like when a police detective admits to the total corruption of his department to a little kid, and everyone (including the boy’s legal guardian) decides to keep it on the DL, because Batman.

There are a number of very fine actors in the show, although they mostly act like they’re characters in a network drama. This has got to change. Batman ain’t walking through that door, so Gotham’s lead characters had better begin to seem remotely like actual people with inner lives, if the show is going to survive. Gotham will never be The Wire or Homicide in tone, but Justified would be a nice middle-ground — heightened without being too cartoonish. And the sooner they get away from Bruce Wayne, the better, although I suppose that’s too much to ask.


Jennifer Smith, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The best part of Gotham Central, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s critically-acclaimed and fan-beloved 2003-2006 comic book series, was its appealing mundanity in a market oversaturated with superhero action.  Though Gotham-based supervillains were usually involved in the crimes to be solved, Batman himself was little more than a nuisance, and ultimately the focus was on police officers trying to do normal cop jobs in a world that readers knew was full of epic battles between heroes and villains happening just outside the panel borders.

The world of TV is not the world of Big Two comics, though, so it seems fitting in some ways that Gotham is trying to be the reverse of Gotham Central: a superhero drama floating in a sea of police procedurals.  The proto-supervillains that dot the landscape of the pilot, heavy-handed as their introductions are, are as much the “difference” for Gotham as their stripped-down menace was for Gotham Central.

In some cases, this difference works – the cameo from the Riddler as the procedural’s requisite nerdy lab tech was especially inspired – but ultimately there just isn’t enough difference here.  Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon is essentially the same character he played on Southland, and while Donal Logue is great as the gruff, morally-ambiguous Harvey Bullock, he’s still a stock archetype (albeit one that Bullock already is in the comics).  In most scenes, strong acting is dulled by a cliché script and some truly odd camera choices (including head-on shots of a running Gordon that make him look like a salmon swimming upstream).  I may be in the minority here, but the number of DC cameos in the pilot doesn’t feel, to me, like a problem; if deployed properly, they may be the show’s saving grace.


Jenna Stoeber, University of Wisconsin-Madison

As a long-time DC comics fan, and a fan even of Gotham Central, the source material, I had very low expectations for this show. This may be part of the reason why I genuinely enjoyed watching it. The episode is well-paced and sets up a lot of potential storylines and villains without biting off more than it can chew in 50 minutes. The action is satisfying, and the production values are beautifully cinematic. This isn’t to say that there weren’t some questionable stylistic choices, such as some disruptive shaky-cam running close-ups and the fact that Gotham is almost entirely composed of rooftops.

The heroes are far outnumbered by the villains, which would potentially be very interesting- except that Ben McKenzie’s performance as lead James Gordon is so bland, it’s hard to watch. His main character trait so far seems to be “being moral,” an already boring choice that is highlighted by the interesting and well-acting characters surrounding him. This is especially visible in the interesting and entertaining characters Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin (Robin Taylor). Both performances represent the best the Batman mythos has to offer — charismatic and deranged characters taking great joy in doing horrible things. Plus, the writers have set themselves up for some satisfying Fish-Penguin wordplay down the road.

Fans of the comics may be pleased to see familiar characters such as Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones) and Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena). However, fans are equally likely to be disappointed that Allen and Montoya, originally the main characters in the comics, have been shuffled to the side in favor of another stoic straight white male lead. If it can maintain a good ratio of boring-Gordon to interesting-everybody else, I foresee Gotham gaining a strong following (myself included).



GRACEPOINT [Premiered Oct 2, 2014]

If you haven’t seen Broadchurch, this tells the story of a Northern California town racked with tragedy following a young boy’s death, and the detectives and family members caught up in the pursuing investigation. For those who have seen Broadchurch, it’s an often shot-for-shot adaptation of that U.K. series, although they’re promising a different ending.


Melissa Click, University of Missouri

One year after Breaking Bad’s series finale, Anna Gunn’s back on television, again in a role where she’s paired with an overbearing man. As Detective Ellie Miller, she returns from vacation to her small seaside California town. On her first day back, she learns that the promotion she was expecting to receive has been given to Emmett Carver (David Tennant). Much of the remainder of the pilot involves the tension between Ellie, who is intimately connected to the townspeople of Gracepoint, and Emmett, who is both cold and a know-it-all, as they begin to solve the murder of twelve-year-old Danny Solano.

Gracepoint is a remake of BBC’s Broadchurch, and its close adaptation has led some to question whether it was necessary to rework the series for an American audience—and it’s certainly odd that British actor Tennant is reprising his role with an American accent. But for those who haven’t seen Broadchurch, Gracepoint offers a tangled mystery; by the end of the pilot, there are many characters who know something about Danny’s death, and the episode leaves you wanting to know more about Emmett Carver, who has a secret in his past. FOX promises the American series will diverge from the British original in the sixth or seventh episode; let’s hope for a stronger role for Gunn.


Paul Booth, DePaul University

I desperately did not want to write about Broadchurch in my review of Gracepoint. I wanted to look at the American remake with fresh eyes, to examine its mysteries and cast of suspicious characters as if I’d never seen the original British version. I knew it would be tough because Gracepoint has the same lead actor (David Tennant), the same writer/creator (Chris Chibnall), the same director (James Strong), and virtually all the characters look the same as their Broadchurch counterparts. But I was determined to try all the same, to allow the show to cut its own path.

Gracepoint, however, is so similar it became impossible to avoid the comparison. To be fair, I have heard that it will (perhaps) have a different ending than the original. Watching the first episode, I couldn’t help but view some characters with more suspicion than others, and so if this is the case I eagerly await its resolution. But right now it’s not so much a remake as it is a reenactment. British drama has a history of theatrical retellings. But Chibnall is no Shakespeare, and Gracepoint is, ultimately, no Broadchurch. Lacking the creepiness of the original, it substitutes atmosphere with color saturation, tension with superficiality.

Conversely, however, I now await Faithberg, the Canadian remake, in which Tennant squints at the other Mounties on horseback and gravely intones, “There will be no hiding place for Danny’s killer. We will catch whoever did this, eh?”


Nora Patterson, University of Wisconsin – Madison

FOX has remade the ITV show Broadchurch. There are some differences, but Gracepoint has some uncanny similarities. Same storyline, some almost shot-for-shot recreations, and of course, David Tennant as the lead detective investigating the death of a young boy in a small coastal town. Why has FOX remade this show? Perhaps they assume most Americans have never heard of Broadchurch, or know who David Tennant is. And they are probably right. Tennant pulls off a pretty a convincing American accent, and it might fool viewers who do not recognize the trademark British sorrowfulness in his eyes. The women in this show cry. A lot. Yay emotions. Is that Nick Nolte? Is he drunk? Or is he doing a really horrible fisherman accent? Both?! Despite this, Gracepoint is beautifully shot, complete with cinematic views of ocean bluffs and eerie music. Gracepoint also reminds me of The Killing, and it is not just Tom Butler. This is a slow-burning murder mystery, adapted from a European original, in which male and female police partners must work together to solve the case. Also like The Killing, Gracepoint explores the family and friends’ responses, slowly revealing the secrets of a tightknit community. Intercut with moody b-roll of the ocean. These similarities bring up a larger question for me, and that is “why is our cultural fascinated with the bodies of dead kids right now?” I don’t know. I think future media scholars will be able to clearly map out the ideological dimensions of this trend, much in the same way we can look back at Roseanne, Murphy Brown or Grace Under Fire and see them as cultural responses to postfeminist discourses. Until then, I guess our job is to try and believe David Tennant is American and hope Anna Gunn will get a hold of her emotions.



MULANEY [Premiered Oct 5, 2014]

Based on the standup of star/producer John Mulaney, it’s a throwback multi-camera sitcom about a comedy writer working for a difficult boss (Martin Short) and living life with his roommates.


Nicholas Benson, University of Wisconsin – Madison

From the very first scene of Fox’s new show Mulaney it’s hard to figure out what the creators are going for. It opens with comedian John Mulaney performing a stand up set that resembles the opening to Seinfeld. However, unlike Seinfeld, this routine is not being performed in a night club, but instead on the actual set of the show. Is this a dream sequence? Is John Mulaney in character? We don’t know, and apparently it doesn’t matter because it plays no role in the rest of the show.

After the opening credit sequence (which is well done as far as they go, I suppose) the voice of Ice-T assures us that, “Mulaney is filmed in front of a live studio audience.” This is punctuated with a fairly aggressive, “…okay?” as if we just wasted his time.

Why do we need the studio audience to be so apparent? Are we supposed to see this as a throwback to a form of comedy that actually never went away and is still fairly popular (Last Man Standing, Mike and Molly, The Big Bang Theory…)? Or, is it mocking that genre and its structure much like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has already done very successfully? I couldn’t figure it out, and perhaps I wouldn’t have cared if at any point the show was actually funny. As it stands, it just felt like a half-baked SNL skit that was allowed to go on for 20 minutes. I’d like to give Mulaney the benefit of the doubt and say if it gets a few more episodes it could find its footing, but I’m not sure it deserves that.


Evan Elkins, University of Wisconsin – Madison

As a fan of John Mulaney’s stand-up, I couldn’t help but compare bits like a visit to the doctor’s office and a discussion of a turned-over wheelchair to their monologue versions. Adapting stand-up material isn’t unusual for a sitcom, of course, but the execution seemed particularly clunky here. Maybe this is because I just listened to New in Town a couple months ago and it’s fresh in my mind, or maybe it’s because there are several moments where Mulaney simply tells a joke from his act to another character, who then laughs at it. I imagine this will get a little smoother and less awkward over time, and I wonder how it will read to viewers unfamiliar with his act. Since this will be the majority of viewers, perhaps this won’t be an issue at all. At the very least, the show could be an illuminating case study in comedy mechanics and formats–how does a joke change when adapted from stand-up to sitcom?

As for whether it’s any good, I had been warned ahead of time that it was not. And that’s mostly true. There are a few laughs (a bit of misdirection after a “7 Hours Later” ellipsis, a small moment where Nasim Pedrad distractedly says “hi” to a cardboard cutout, a two-second cameo by Dean Cain), and I have enough goodwill for Mulaney, Pedrad, Martin Short, and Elliott Gould that I hope it gets better.

As for the great Martin Short, he delivers an inspired, manic energy that the rest of the show lacks. If I keep watching, it will be because of him.


Phil Scepanski, Vassar College

Despite overwhelming critical discourse to the contrary, I have written semi-positive reviews of show like Animal Practice and Bad Judge for Antenna. I try, to the best of my ability, to approach new shows with a sense of generosity. I didn’t think I needed that kind of charity for Mulaney.

I am a big fan of John Mulaney from his stand-up specials and recurring role as David St. Geegland, the co-host of “Too Much Tuna,” on Kroll Show. So I was feeling especially generous to the comic as well as consistently funny co-stars Nasim Pedrad (SNL) and Martin Short as I sat down to watch the premiere of Mulaney.

The show would’ve been better had I never heard of any of them.

What pushed this show from simply not-all-that-funny to depressing was my sense of disappointment. There is a unique feeling that comes from watching the life drained from something you love. Did you grow up a fan of the 1967 version of The Producers? Did you see the 2005 version? Then you know what I’m talking about.

I love John Mulaney’s 2012 special New In Town. Much of the show’s gags borrow from this routine – but without the timing, expressivity, or playful shame with which the comic delivers his material. I am not against 3-camera sitcoms, but I am not a huge fan of the 3-jokes-per-page writing style that often often accompanies them. The style’s droning rhythm and telescoped delivery grows especially apparent when contrasted against the comic’s more dynamic stand up delivery. In a sense then, the decision to go Seinfeld and include stand up in the show acts as a sad reminder of how much better this show could be if better executed.

Is there a possibility that this show could find a voice once it runs out of stand-up material from which to draw? Maybe. The one bit that showed any promise, where another comic writes and finds success with a anti-comic non-joke of “problem bitch,” strayed from these routines. As it stands, Mulaney can’t run out of source material fast enough.


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