Fall Premieres 2014: CBS

September 23, 2014
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AntennaFallCBS2-1Arguably the last remaining broadcast network that cares about total viewers (and thus the “broad” part of the equation), CBS enters this year with some fairly typical pilots after taking a bigger swing last season: none of them are out of the ordinary, safely contained within CBS’ “procedurals with a slight twist and multi-camera sitcoms” strategy we’ve come to know and largely elide in broader conversations of television quality. They also have the benefit of a month of NFL football on Thursdays, which means the health of the network—particularly on Mondays, where they struggled with comedy last year—won’t really be determined until they start swimming without the shoulder pad life preserver.



MADAM SECRETARY [Premiered Sept 21, 2014]

Tea Leoni stars as a CIA Analyst turned university professor who’s called into service following the tragic death of the previous Secretary of State.


Taylor Cole Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

There’s an interesting dynamic happening on television right now where representations of “female empowerment” are becoming ever-tied to politics and to place. Not since the days of Wonder Woman and Murphy Brown have shows with female leads been so discursively tied to Washington, D.C.: Homeland, Veep, The Blacklist, House of Cards, and Scandal (maybe even The Americans?). If one believes “the trolls,” then optimistically, this trend suggests Hollywood wants more women in politics and more women in positions of power, mostly, trolls argue, because of Hillary Clinton. Indeed, in a cursory “study” online, many commenters suggest Madam Secretary is oozing with deference to Clinton, but is it? With the exception of The Americans, most of these protagonists’ actual political views are clouded, or purposefully eliminated from the shows’ premise and we are left wondering, “Republican? Or Democrat?”

Pessimistically, Madam Secretary is a “lean-in” drama where powerful women learn to “juggle it all” and a corrective to female politicians who got it wrong. It actually seems diametrically opposed to a Clinton reading, given how often the show does intentionally evacuate Elizabeth McCord’s (Téa Leoni) political views (PhD/professors of history are usually pretty apolitical, right?). Meanwhile, a lot of the cultural politics the show allows Leoni to perform are heavily normed for a CBS audience, meaning there are some not-great moments with regard to race and gender.

Political criticisms aside, it’s hard for me not to love Leoni, generally. And I think she’s smartly cast in the role. Mostly, it’s that Leoni doesn’t overdo it. McCord is confident and cool; she’s a professor; there’s potential for a long and dark history as an agent; she points out gender a lot; and I’m pretty sure she has a gay male secretary, and an anarchist gay son. I do cringe at the thought that they’re going to Clinton-ify McCord’s husband though, to keep the family portion of the show equally dramatic (“Why no more weeknight sex? Am I too masculine?” she asks). Whether it’s that he’ll become a cheater or a foreign spy, OR GAY, he already gives me anxiety. Either way, if CBS would stop messing with its schedule for the sake of football, I absolutely think Madam Secretary will be picked up, and I’m game to keep watching.

As an aside, I wish shows like The Talk would stop selling their appearances to fictional series, given how they always get thrown under the bus as “media [women] focusing on the wrong thing” – in this case, fashion.


Matt Sienkiewicz, Boston College

It is night in Damascus.  Well, dusk.  The point is that it is dark.  Not so dark that the scene must be lit, but pretty dark.  Dark enough to make it clear that Damascus is Dark.

And it is day in Virginia.  Actually, it’s better than just day.  It’s the best part of the day.  The part after work and after class but before it gets dark.  The part when responsibilities have been addressed but before possibilities have been retired.  When it’s still light.

This is the opening crosscut of Madam Secretary and, given time zone differences, there is some narrative plausibility to it.  However, the show’s shorthand is meant to portray much more than temporal relations.

Damascus is a mosque and a cell where two Americans have been kidnapped— idealistic boys on a vacation gone bad, entrapped by vicious Arabs.  This makes sense.  How else would American teens find themselves caught up in a Middle Eastern war?

Virginia is a college campus and the White House, where a professor teaches religion but isn’t religious (Tim Daly) and where a woman decides when to shoot and when to pay off the bad, Dark guys (Tea Leone).  She’s a hawk with heart, a flattering idealization of our last Secretary of State and the candidate she plans on being in a few months.

It’s really not so different from the story you’ll see on the news.  Except in this one, the captive Americans make it home.


Chuck Tyron, Fayetteville State University

Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, as played by Téa Leoni in the new CBS series, Madam Secretary, is a blunt outsider unwilling to conform to the Washington status quo. As President Conrad (Keith Carradine) tells her twice during the pilot (in case we missed it the first time), McCord is so far outside the box, she doesn’t even know it’s there. McCord’s outsider status—she is a political science professor who is literally shoveling shit, mucking her horse stable, when she gets a call from the White House—has been used to disavow the idea that the show is based on former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. But, given that the show was reportedly conceived when showrunner Barbara Hall was watching the Benghazi hearings, such denials are not fully convincing. Still, it’s worth asking how the show is engaging with the idea of Washington and the political culture it embodies.

Some answers: First, the show offers a geopolitics-lite, crisis-of-the-week exploration of foreign policy, in this case, a hostage crisis in Syria, in which two idealistic brothers are kidnapped while attempting to combat global terrorism. Second, Madam Secretary tacks toward West Wing territory in its attempt to craft a workplace drama that just so happens to be set in the nation’s capital. Finally, McCord, who has three children, is tasked with the challenge of balancing motherhood with her demanding job. In the pilot, her status as a mother actually informs her ability to empathize with the parents of the hostages. It’s a delicate balancing act, and Madam Secretary still seems to be finding its footing, but in bringing together so many complex questions, it’s a show that will no doubt keep my attention.



SCORPION [Premiered Sept 22, 2014]

Based on a real-life genius who has done work with the government, it’s a high-octane—seriously, there’s a big car setpiece—procedural about a gang of anti-social geniuses who work alongside Homeland Security to solve high-tech problems while learning how to survive when life stops being high-tech and starts being real.


Eleanor Patterson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Scorpion is a show about an Irish genius named Walter O’Brien we first meet when he hacks NASA as an 8 year old. Somehow he grows up to be an ethnically ambiguous American without an Irish accent, played by the talented Elyes Gabal. Gabal himself has been publicly ambiguous about his own ethnicity, and successful leveraging the malleability of his looks to play characters across a wide range of racial identities. Which makes me think he could do an Irish accent if the producers cared at all about continuity. But they do not. So just be impressed by the fact that Walter O’Brien is one of the five smartest people alive. He actually just programmed your brain from two miles away. This show has everything a ridiculously contrived cyber-action show should have. Fast cars. Computer programming. Nerds who engage in a constant barrage of witty (or is it annoying?) banter. Robert Patrick as a menacing federal agent, so let the antagonistic pissing fights between two manly men commence. O’Brien may be a nerd genius, but he is still a tough-talking, know-it-all driven by masculine values, such as saving people, and protecting single mothers. Like the one played by Katherine McPhee and her permanent smirk. Is that Ernie Hudson? Ok, maybe watching this pilot was worth it to see him for five seconds. Or maybe not… If I learned anything from Person of Interest, it is that narrative implausibility, bad acting, and contrived dialogue never stopped CBS’ from ordering a full season. 


Kristina Busse, Independent Scholar

Everyone has their own nitpicks about accuracy and where they can’t suspend their disbelief: many lawyers dislike law shows just like many doctors refuse to watch medical shows. For some weird reason, I have issues with genius depictions. One part is that we’ve had an overdose of slightly socially awkward leads with high IQ; another is that the writers tend to be much dumber than the people they depict, which can be a problem. Seriously, my teen can answer the question as to how many months have 28 days!

Scorpion has that problem times four. And the fact that main character Walter O’Brien (why yes, he’s Irish!) feels the need to tell us their combined IQ tells us more about the showrunners and their idea of intelligence than about very smart people or how their minds work. Add to that the hardass military figure (even though I never get tired of seeing Robert Patrick play THAT GUY), and you have the making of nothing but cliches. Oh, let’s not forget the genius ASD kid (and that may be another axe to grind, but I really wish we’d get to see one without the other some times) and his brilliant gentle and kind soul of a single waitressing mom. I guess they needed to fill the women’s quota and a female math genius might be too much to ask for.

Which brings me to my last petty complaint: I know there are many mathematicians who love numbers and do math quickly in their head. But, frankly, neither are those skills synonymous nor is the latter all that important these days unless we run out of computers and calculators and phones. Math is so much more, so much more interesting and beautiful and challenging than calculating, and to restrict Sylvester Dodd to that is just sad to me.

Having said that, even though the plot was ludicrous, there was enough in the show to make me wanna give it a couple of episodes to possibly get a sense of itself beyond procedural paint by numbers. The four geniuses have different skills, and while we didn’t get to see them distinguish themselves much beyond Walter, I hope that will happen soon. The dynamics among the team have the potential to be interesting as does the weird parental vibe between Gallo and O’Brien. The visuals and pacing of the pilot were fun, and you can definitely tell the Fast and Furious pedigree here. But the show needs to shape up quickly or it’ll either be cancelled or linger in procedural purgatory—then again, it is CBS!



NCIS: NEW ORLEANS [Premiered Sept 23, 2014 @ 9/8]

In this second spinoff from the highest-rated drama on television, and the first to be shot outside of Los Angeles, Scott Bakula stars as yet another specialist in Navy-related crimes, this time in the Big Easy: The Land of Mardi Gras and generous filming incentives.


Kristina Busse, Independent Scholar 

I should start with two caveats. First, I am a fan of NCIS and watched the first five or six seasons fairly religiously. I like the familiarity of procedural with their recognizable characters and their repetitive plot lines with small twists. Second, I went to school in New Orleans and have been living on the gulf coast for more than two decades now. That makes me both an eager viewer of shows set in NOLA and hypercritical of every small detail. When I signed up for reviewing the show, I caught up on the two episodes that introduced the New Orleans field office on the original NCIS last spring, and I pretty much hated all of it. Bakula’s accent was dreadful, and the constant name dropping of restaurants and foods was annoying. Luckily the producers must have heard and understood that criticism, because both issues have been addressed. Bakula sounds much better, and the Southern and New Orleans references are fewer and more muted.

Personally, I loved the apartment search and what location can say about a person in the city. Likewise, the Abita beer sign and the Andouille sausage are a tad less in your face than the lecture Monday Red Beans and Rice was. I’m hoping this trend will continue as the show writers get more embedded in New Orleans and don’t feel the need to try so hard. The constant refrain of how NOLA is special and does things its own way could become bothersome but it’s justified both by the fact that many New Orleanians do indeed feel that way and that Brody as the outsider/ newcomer trying to get a feel for the city. We’ll have to see how it’ll fare in the long run. The racial dynamics in this city are unusual and really important, and the all too obvious red herring of gang banger territory wars was weak, but political corruption may certainly become an interesting throughline—and Steven Weber was sufficiently smarmy, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him pop up again.

As for the show itself, you have to like this type of show. But if you do, you will probably enjoy NCIS: NOLA quite a bit. I did and am looking forward to getting to know these characters, not because I expect hidden depth but because they seem like good people. I’m looking forward to familiar locations and interesting murders, all nicely packaged and solved in an hour, or two. I could say my standards are pretty low if that’s all it takes, but I fear out of the four new procedurals I’m looking at for Antenna, this may be the only one to stay on my viewing schedule. And that may be due to Bakula and CCH Pounder, or it may be due to the slick and experienced (and familiar) NCIS franchise, or it may just be because I get back to NOLA much too rarely and miss it something fierce.


Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona

NCIS: Los Angeles took the hyperbolic road wherein a team led by a Cold War-era spy deals with catastrophic threats to the nation. NCIS: NOLA stays closer to the original formula – a team of investigators investigating localized murder. Efforts to signify the iconic location are strained: southern drawls, casual attire, descriptions of NOLA neighborhoods, pressure from local politics. This NCIS is so laid back that the office has a full kitchen where the chief rustles up breakfast. The team leader is so NOLA that he sits in with a band on the piano.

Even for a pilot, character introductions were awkward at best and annoying at worst (the M.E.’s lab assistant, really?). And how is it that NCIS in NOLA is an all white office with African American victims, thugs, gangbangers, and … oh yes, the medical examiner. Who doesn’t love CCH Pounder? On The Shield, she brought gravitas and a moral center to the high testosterone precinct. On NCIS: New Orleans, she appears to be doing the same, but more softly feminine. Her M.E. has some style. She wears large earrings with her scrubs and expansive caps (one blue with a pattern of night sky of stars and nebulae, one golden) cover the hair piled high on her head. Her wardrobe is the highlight of the show. I wish she were the team leader.


Kyra Hunting, University of Kentucky 

NCIS: New Orleans is an interesting exercise in formula, if not altogether interesting in and of itself. It’s patterns and rhythms are close enough to the original NCIS that at times I forgot I was watching a “new” show. This could be considered a strength, after all NCIS is pleasurable for a great number of viewers, and its comfortable rhythms in a new context could certainly serve those viewers well. However, the series lacked the original’s distinctness of characters. Characters like Abby and Tony were so dramatically specific that they were in danger of being cartoons. NCIS: New Orleans’ characters are very much the opposite. Bakula played his character well but his character was all too close to Gibbs, swap in cooking for boat making and you are halfway there. His team members, Christopher and Merri, were even less distinct. Christopher was essentially an accent in search of a character and Merri’s defining feature of wanting privacy left her largely a question mark. Even the generally engaging CCH Pounder’s character, Dr. Wade, was mostly legible as a well-worn “type” – which only served to underline the series’ problem with race. The majority of African American characters were associated with crime, with the exception of Ms. Pounder and the very much underused James McDaniel (who I found myself wishing was a permanent part of the cast).  It seemed like the episode was positing New Orleans as the strongest character, making the race problem even more problematic, with an excess of “specific” geographic and culinary references. And while New Orleans may well be my favorite place in the country, it simply did not work. Instead of seeming location specific it was like we were playing a game of New Orleans references bingo. By the time Merri finally dropped a reference to beignets it had become a parody of location specificity. Nonetheless, this is a formula that has proven successful in the past and if the writers begin to understand that specificity is best achieved through detail and not lists, and the characters become more fully formed over time, there is no good reason to believe that the well-established audience for the franchise won’t sign on.



STALKER [Premiered Oct 1, 2014 @ 10/9]

Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott star in this sensationalist drama from Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, The Following), which focused on a stalking prevention unit of the LAPD where each member of the team has their own history—either as victim or perpetrator—with the crime in question.


Kristina Busse, Independent Scholar

The opening scene of Stalker shows us a young woman coming home in the dark on a mostly deserted street. The phone rings, and she visibly recoils when she realizes who is calling her. The camera focuses on her face, her fears and anxieties. As she hurries toward her apartment, she is caught by a masked man who assaults her and covers her in gasoline. She escapes into her car but ultimately we see the flaming car rolling backwards down the hill and, just as she thinks she may have survived, the car explodes. These first 2½ minutes of the show were frankly enough to make me turn it off. Many crime shows begin with a nameless victim, but the detailed suffering, the lovingly lingering camera shots on her scared face, gave me the first indication that this show wasn’t for me.

Nominally, Stalker is about a Special Threat Assessment Unit, run by the wonderful Maggie Q, that tries to track stalkers and prevent escalation. And yet the show can’t seem to make up its mind what side it wants to be on: half the stalkers in this episode are constituted by our heroes, and the camera seems more invested in doing the stalking than in exposing its horrors. Of the four cases of stalking we encounter, two are clearly criminal and the stalkers meant to be scary and deranged. But the other two cases of stalking seem to try for moral ambiguity. Maggie Q scares off a stalker by stalking him in return and threatening him. Much more unsettling, new guy Dylan McDermott stalks his ex-partner and their child in two scenes that all but bookend the show. And while he is not necessarily portrayed as a likable character, we (1) get to know him throughout the episode, (2) he clearly is the point of view character in the two stalking scenes, and (3) the episode ends with him staring at an image of his child (which he clearly obtained through a telephoto lens).

I wasn’t too excited about the premise, but it might have been different enough from the run of the mill procedural to keep my interest. Instead, it felt like I was watching the opening moves of a slasher film pretending to square up to a cautionary and moralistic tale. Just like the scene after the credits, what is said and what is done don’t coincide: while Maggie Q describes the horrors and dangers of stalking to a university class, McDermott performs said stalking. The sound tells us to be appalled yet the images ask us to stalk with McDermott and, later, to feel with him. When Williamson wrote and produced voyeuristic sexualized murder in the Scream trilogy, he did so with self-awareness and irony. Here, it felt more like just another entry of gendered exploitation in a long line of film and television cases that use the camera as their main tool. Or, as my student described it this morning, “Stalker was, like, the perfect example of the male gaze!”


Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona 

Lt. Beth Davis (Maggie Q) explains to a sparsely populated lecture hall that over six million people are stalked.  This should provide fodder for seasons of episodic drama.  In Stalker’s long-form arcs, character backstories and serial storylines will unfold.

With some structure and style, Stalker demonstrates that no one is safe anywhere.  The episode has torture porn bookends.  At the beginning, a woman is screaming, burnt alive.  At the end, a woman is screaming, nearly set afire.  In between, detectives profile stalkers and their social (media) and psychological motivations.

References about stalking in popular culture relieve the dark storyline:  Detective Jack Larsen (Dylan McDermott) recites a list of stalker movies.  Beth fakes her backstory by recounting the plot of Fatal Attraction (1987).  Jack wisecracks that he joined the team hoping to meet Scarlett Johansson.

To develop the relationship between Beth and Jack, the episode riffs on the male gaze and feminism.  Jack’s male gaze is motivated by the cut of Beth’s blouses (which are casual rather than deliberately seductive).  Later he wonders, “Why do you wear sexy things if you don’t want men to notice.”  Beth’s response:  “For how I feel in them.  I dress for myself.”  She is comfortable in her body.  He is trying to figure out his masculinity against her femininity.

By episode end, it is confirmed that Jack is a stalker and Beth has a stalker.  Will sympathy be generated for Jack’s stalking?  His yearning for his son is presented with an edginess that is not entirely comforting.  Maggie Q, overlooked for Emmy adulation as Nikita (CW, 2010-2013), engages her martial artistry to suppress a creepy stalker.  Apparently entranced with her domination, he switches victims to become Beth’s stalker as the soundtrack sings, “I don’t belong here I don’t belong here.”


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2 Responses to “ Fall Premieres 2014: CBS ”

  1. Madam Secretary Review | Matt Sienkiewicz, PhD on September 24, 2014 at 6:49 AM

    […] On Antenna:  /2014/09/23/fall-premieres-2014-cbs/ […]

  2. Greeney28 on September 24, 2014 at 12:39 PM

    So, the husband on Madam Secretary totally evil, right? All he had to say was, “hey buddy,” and I thought, “Dang, I knew Tim Daly was just too cute to be true.” Let me be clear–I really, really, really hope the show is not headed in this direction. If the fantasy element will be her ability to solve complex global issues within one episode, then can the family life part be more mundane? Then again, I completely cringed when she walked up to her husband IN FRONT OF STUDENTS and kissed him, so realism may not be a big thing with these writers.

    There’s a lot that is hard to accept in this show–a president who believes he can do actual good in the world, for one thing–but I guess those who want to believe that our politicians can be good folk might dig it. I’ll be watching it as a sort of fairy tale.