Monday, September 30, 2013

In Which Jenn Grades the New Fall Television Series (And Some Returning Ones)

One would assume that I watch a lot of television given my penchant for talking and tweeting about it. But the fact of the matter is that there are few shows I am truly passionate about (and I talk about those ones a lot), and a lot more that I have yet to see. But I made the effort during the fall 2013 pilot season to watch as many new pilots as possible in order to expand my horizons and potentially gain some new fandoms in the process. So I’ve decided to go all AV Club on you guys and grade each of the pilots I have had the opportunity to watch. You’ll notice that there are some missing on here, either because they have yet to air or because (in the case of Dads, Hostages, Betrayal, We Are Men, etc.) certain series HAVE aired and I have not watched them.

Nevertheless, I hope you will be interested in the new fall shows – and some returning ones – that I have chosen to focus on. Click below the cut to read about which series to watch, which to avoid, and which to give a second chance.

Mom (CBS)

Pilot Grade: D

I like Anna Faris. I really do. I like Allison Janney. I do.

I hated Mom.

In a few short words, the reason WHY I hated the particular series is because of this: every character is terrible. Every. single. one. And I didn’t give this pilot a failing grade because Chuck Lorre and his team make an effort and throw some sort of sentimentality into the twenty-some minute pilot. They have Christy tearfully call her mother on the phone and forgive her for the ways in which she was wronged as a teenager. They try to insert moments of heart, but those were completely buried in the avalanche that was this cycle of terrible, irresponsible character behavior.

Christy blames her mother for her problems and is trying to become a better mother for her children. Christy’s mother, Bonnie, was into drugs and alcohol and raised Christy in a less-than-careful, loving manner. Christy got pregnant as a teenager with her own daughter, and continued down the same slope her mother had paved. Now, Christy’s daughter Violet is following suit down the same exact slope, now three generations deep, and may possibly be pregnant (leading to a potential fourth generation of this destructive madness). And while Christy judges and insults her mother for sleeping with married men, she’s doing the exact same thing, as she is currently hooking up with her (married) boss at the restaurant she works at.

There are no redeeming characters on Mom. Every single character is irresponsible, selfish, and destined to continue repeating the same patterns over and over again, never truly learning lessons. I cringed, watching a scene where these characters interacted because the fact of the matter is that they’ll never truly learn because they don’t really WANT to.

Sleepy Hollow (FOX)

Pilot Grade: B+
“Blood Moon” Grade: A-

I assumed I was going to laugh at Sleepy Hollow’s insane premise and make it my “hate-watch” series of the week. Imagine my surprise, then, when twenty minutes or so into the episode, I was completely and utterly invested in the series.

Sleepy Hollow is a show that goes for broke and it knows it. It’s much better though, I would argue, to be unashamedly crazy in a series than to be boring and forgettable. Boring shows get cancelled. Crazy shows get fandoms.

The cast has fantastic chemistry, the opening credits are gorgeous, the “monster-of-the-week” aspect intrigues me, and the overarching story of the series compels me to view every week. The characters are witty and sassy (seriously, they’re SO sassy, especially Ichabod), but there are moments that will make you squirm and jump.

And I am truly along for the ride with this one.

The Blacklist (NBC)

Pilot Grade: A-

I’ll admit to something: sometimes I watch television shows just because I don’t want to be left out of the Twitter conversations and/or general hype about them. So, it was with this attitude that I watched The Blacklist last week and was very much impressed.

(I’m also making an effort to add at least one drama to my fall television schedule as I realized during Emmy nomination season that I was sorely lacking in them.)

James Spader is fantastic as Raymond “Red” Reddington, a character he plays with quiet intensity and a genuine creepiness that makes you distrust him, but also laugh at his jokes. We know he’s not a good guy, but he’s also not ALWAYS a bad guy. And these qualities are the ones that make villains so intriguing to me and so very complex. Red is a layered character, but the break-out character for me in this series is that of Elizabeth Keen.

I don’t think I’ve watched a pilot recently featuring as strong of a female character as Elizabeth. What Jaime and I discussed via text message during the pilot is what makes The Blacklist so fantastic and Elizabeth extremely dynamic as a character – in most drama series, characters threaten one another. We hold our breaths when they yell and rage out of control. But Elizabeth Keen doesn’t merely threaten Red – she ensures that he understands her message fully by following through with her anger. (In the pilot, she becomes so enraged that she stabs him with a pen. It’s pretty awesome.)

I love the chemistry already between these two characters and I love not truly knowing what Red’s motives are or whether or not he’s going to turn on the team at any moment. That’s what’s keeping me interested and that is what makes for an engaging series.

Brooklyn 99 (FOX)

Pilot Grade: B
“The Tagger” Grade: A-

I love Mike Schur and I think Andy Samberg is pretty great, so I decided to check out Brooklyn 99 because it was a show that combined both of those aforementioned people. The commercials for the series left me hesitant, however, as I was worried that the show would become too engulfed in “joke for jokes’ sake” and sacrifice any potential heart in the process. The pilot episode was funny, with a flickering moment of heart that was sincere enough to make me believe that the series is capable of including these moments without feeling off-putting.

“The Tagger” was an improvement on the pilot episode, garnering more laughs from me and allowing me to understand both Jake and Captain Holt better fundamentally as characters. I love their interactions together, but I’m also truly impressed that Brooklyn 99 has a solid supporting cast. (Currently Gina is my favorite character on this series and perhaps ever.)

Brooklyn 99 is a series that has a lot of promise (a trite phrase I find myself using quite frequently), so I really hope it continues to deliver!

Trophy Wife (ABC)

Pilot Grade: B

Trophy Wife is unfortunately named, but a rather cute (yes, I said cute) series with humor and direction and a well of potential for shenanigans to ensue. It stars Malin Akerman, and though this is the one series that gave me my favorite quote of the pilot season thus far (“You’re not even a real adult! Your car is full of garbage and shoes”), it still has to find its footing a bit more until it makes it onto my must-watch list of network comedies.

The series has an immensely talented cast, and the characters that each actor or actress portrays are brought to life because of this talent. There’s this weird, wacky, crazy vibe that is evidenced in the pilot (actually, the entire family, including the two ex-wives and Kate, Pete’s current wife book-ends the episode with their chaos and it’s quite wonderful), but it’s a LOVING atmosphere. Jackie cares about Bert and Diane cares a lot about Warren. Additionally, Kate genuinely loves and accepts the children that are placed into her life after she marries Pete. She doesn’t just put up with them – she actually WANTS to be a part of their lives. She sticks up for Hillary, even though the teenager doesn’t even LIKE her new step-mom. Kate loves Pete and she got an insta-family with him. There’s a lot of potential for this series (especially pairing characters with others for storylines), and I definitely hope that they utilize Natalie Morales, too, because she’s fantastic.

Trophy Wife may not be at the top of my to-watch list, but I certainly hope ABC gives it a chance to stick around.

Back in the Game (ABC)

Pilot Grade: A

I don’t really like baseball, but I like James Caan and Maggie Lawson so it was, rather begrudgingly and so that I could check it off my spreadsheet, that I opened up Hulu and watched the premiere of Back in the Game.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I not only enjoyed the episode’s premiere but actually LOVED it. The pilot had everything that a wonderful comedy pilot should: it’s chock-full of humor (wonderful introductions to supporting characters are made, and the main cast – especially the child who plays Danny – is fantastic as well) and contains such a great bit of heart that I just HAD to add Back in the Game to my to-watch list.

The story isn’t revolutionary by any means, and the series will likely take the path that a lot of movies do when they deal with an “underdog” storyline but I think Back in the Game is an example of how to make a formula work in a series’ favor. If the characters are compelling enough, if there are stakes, and if there is an emotional core to the episode and series in general, a formulaic sitcom can be successful and worth our time.

It seems to me that Back in the Game will be this sitcom for ABC. Or at least I hope it will.

The Goldbergs (ABC)

Pilot Grade: F

I hated The Goldbergs.

(In case you couldn’t gather that by the grade I gave the pilot.)

The show, I realize, was based on a real-life family (the creator’s family, actually), which should endear me to the series. Instead, I feel even more confident in my decision to avoid the show altogether. The pilot episode features yelling. A lot of yelling. Actually, 99% of the lines delivered by the actors in this episode were yelled rather than spoken. None of the characters is particularly compelling or endearing, to be frank.

I did not laugh once throughout the entire twenty-some minute pilot. I cringed instead. I didn’t even chuckle or smile. I was irritated with the selfishness of the characters, with their grating voices and demeanors, and was grateful to see the credits. I usually try to find the bright spot in a sitcom, no matter how terrible, but… sorry guys. I’m coming up empty on this one.

All I can say is this: I hope, for the sake of the actors’ voices, that there is less yelling, should the series continue to exist.

The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC)

Pilot Grade: D
“Neighbor” Grade: C-

Sometimes people tell you that you should watch a television series or a movie. They hype up their recommendation so much, needling you about finally sitting down to view it because they’re convinced that once you do, you’ll love it as much as THEY do.

I feel NBC tried to do the same thing to me with The Michael J. Fox Show. They’ve already picked up the series for an entire season, so there’s no worry – for those of you who enjoy it – that it will be cancelled anytime soon. As for me? Well, you can see the grades that I gave to the pilot and subsequent episode above. I’m not too crazy about it.

The truth is that if a generic, unknown actor were to be playing the part of Mike Henry, the show would have been can-can-cancelled quickly: the episode plots are full of clichés, the two episodes I’ve viewed aren’t particularly funny, and there are more stock characters than you can shake a stick at (the slacker college dropout, the sarcastic sister-in-law, the idolizing new girl on the job, etc.). Nothing about the series feels original.

… Except for the fact that it has the beloved Michael J. Fox starring in it.

That, I am convinced, and the fact that NBC can use their own scripted series to promote their New York headquarters (now that 30 Rock is gone, I guess they’re looking for a show to fill that void) is the only reason the series has been accepted. Because I was not impressed with the humor and heart of the series’ first two episodes (I barely chuckled throughout the forty minutes I spent viewing both).

Nevertheless, The Michael J. Fox Show WILL continue to air so I’m hoping that, for its sake, it becomes more inventive and takes some risks rather than sticking to the same tried and trite sitcom clichés that have sunk so many great shows before it.

The Crazy Ones (CBS)

Pilot Grade: A

The Crazy Ones was the ONE pilot I was looking forward do before it premiered and it did not disappoint me. I think that, without becoming too wordy, what I truly enjoyed about this series was that it had both a strong lead cast (in Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar), but also a STELLAR supporting cast (James Wolk, Hamish Linklater, Amanda Setton). I sincerely laughed at the pilot, but not just because Robin Williams is… well, Robin Williams.

I laughed because of the supporting cast, because of the chemistry and rapport between the actors, and also because of guest-star and queen Kelly Clarkson. A pilot that garners laughter is important, but a comedy that manages to grab the hearts of its viewers is integral. The Crazy Ones doesn’t oversentimentalize the relationship between Simon and Sydney. They are polar opposites, with Williams’ comedic shtick free to roam as the executive of an advertising agency. But what is beautiful is that Gellar’s Sydney visibly softens and mellows Simon. He loves her and the pilot doesn’t hesitate to let us know that. It doesn’t beat us over the head with the reminder but instead, gently tugs at our hearts when Simon says, of Syndey: “You’re my net, you know. You always appear.”

If the goal was for me to become sold on the series through that line… well, consider me hooked. The Crazy Ones is a crazy comedy, no doubt. When you put Robin Williams at front and center and let him run rapid, chaos is to be anticipated sometimes. But the reality is that this series is grounded – it knows that it’s wacky and fun, but it also understands that cartoon voices and adventurous sub-plots aren’t all it is about. It’s about family and heart and understanding.

And THAT is precisely why I’m sticking around.

(Plus… you know. James Wolk.)

Welcome to the Family (NBC)

Pilot Grade: D

Sometimes you really just want to enjoy a series because you’re a fan of one of its stars. I realy like Mike O’Malley. He’s one of the few redeeming elements left about Glee. He was on Yes, Dear for ages and amused me with his antics.

But I just can’t enjoy Welcome to the Family.

This is a series that presents to us, cliché sicom characters (actually, O’Malley isn’t portraying a slacker but he and his on-screen wife appear to be less than dilligent in their parenting) in a cliché sitcom situation (oh noes, a teenager is pregnant!) with cliché sitcom obstacles (oh noes, the families hate each other!) that just doesn’t work. It’s a trite plot with jokes that fall flat because there’s no originality to back them up.

The teenagers are eye-roll-worthy (I can’t even be bothered to look up the character’s name, but the teenage girl grates my nerves) and the show attempts to deliver some heart, albeit rather unsuccessfully. I will commend the show on providing an end-of-episode twist but that’s about the only positive aspect I can muster up and find about Welcome to the Family.

Sorry, Mike O’Malley. I have never said this and will never say it again: you should have stuck with Glee.

Returning Series:

How I Met Your Mother (CBS)

“The Locket” Grade: A-
“Coming Back” Grade: B

In the kick-off of its final season (this series has been around so long, you guys), Ted Mosby tells a final story about the weekend of Barney and Robin’s wedding, culminating in (we hope) the tale of how he FINALLY met The Mother. We know, from last season, that The Mother is headed to Farhampton for the wedding as well, and the ninth season kicks off with her meeting Lily on a train as they embark on their journey there.

(Lily/The Mother BFF OTP shipper, right here, by the way.)

“The Locket” was a pretty flawless episode in terms of storytelling, considering that the writers have a feat in front of them when they approached this season. Not many series (or perhaps any that I know of) have taken the risk in taking an entire season to cover the span of one weekend. But season nine begins with a lot of promise, as Lily confronts Ted about his (still) feelings for Robin. (CAN’T WE JUST LET THIS ONE GO ALREADY GUYS?) Meanwhile, Lily makes a friend in The Mother on the train to Farhampton and The Mother hears about Ted for the first time. Marshall gets kicked off a plane and has to embark on a road trip with his seat neighbor Daphne. Robin and Barney, meanwhile, find out that there’s a small possibility they may be related.

(Yeah, THAT happened.)

In terms of storytelling and pacing, I enjoyed “The Locket” more than “Coming Back.” But I enjoyed the humor and heart much more in the second episode than I did the premiere. The Barney/Robin storyline was stronger and the Ted story made me clutch my hand over my heart. As my good friend Kim noted, however, How I Met Your Mother has an incredible task this season in creating tension and conflict with substance. “The Locket” proved that the writers can make conflict out of nothing (Barney and Robin potentially being related? Seriously?), but that they SHOULDN’T because that’s unwise. Conversely, “Coming Back” was an example of how the writers can take this season’s limited real-time and make it feel extended, with important issues surfacing before the wedding and genuine character development rather than conflict for conflict’s sake.

As we begin the long march down the aisle in Farhampton, I just hope we continue to head toward character development and plot resolution. Also, a happy ending would be nice. Just saying.

New Girl (FOX)

“All In” Grade: B+
“Nerd” Grade: A-

I reviewed “All In” and “Nerd” recently, so I’ll spare you the long-winded details about my feelings toward this season of New Girl thus far. I truly enjoyed the season premiere, though the editing did make the episode feel a little bit cluttered and a tad rushed. Nevertheless, the New Girl cast and crew pulled off a spectacular opening episode as only they knew how. My real joy, however, was the second episode of this season – “Nerd.” If the second episode is an indicator of what is to come this season, I will be thrilled.

What I love more than Nick/Jess as a romantic pairing is this: their friendship. I love watching them encounter shenanigans. I love it when Nick tries to give people advice, when Jess acts a little silly, and when Winston and Schmidt get their own stories. I love that the heart of this series will never be in the romances – it’ll always be the characters that supersede the “ships.” And though I would love to see Nick and Jess be a couple forever, I know that it’s likely not in the cards since this is a television series, so I’m enjoying the ride while I can. And truly, the writers have managed to write both characters as being in a romantic relationship with one another while still being true to the individual characters themselves.

See, other shows… it IS possible to write a primary romantic pairing on your sitcom and still manage to make the series funny!

The Mindy Project (FOX)

“All My Problems Solved Forever…” Grade: A-
“The Other Dr. L” Grade: B+

The Mindy Project is my one fall network comedy which I extended a second chance to. I wasn’t fond of Mindy Lahiri during the first few episodes. I found her to be selfish and rather irritating. But somewhere around mid-season, I began to pick up the show again and found myself laughing at the episodes, as well as enjoying Mindy as a character. Much like the writers and producers did with Jess in New Girl, I feel like the creative forces behind The Mindy Project recognized that they could – and should – tone down the eccentricies that made Mindy unlikable to viewers.

And that is when the show migrated from my “avoid” list to a “try to keep up with this” list. If the season premiere and its second episode were indicative of the rest of the season, I am anticipating The Mindy Project inching its way up in my list of favorite network sitcoms. The first episode back was funny, with a smidge of heart and soul, and while I enjoyed “The Other Dr. L” a tad less than the premiere, it was – by my judgment – quite a solid start to the second season. I’m ready to see how each of these characters, especially Mindy, grow throughout the season. My only concern with The Mindy Project is that the guest star list might grow a tad excessive and overrun the series regulars. But if they are able to balance new or guest characters with Mindy, Danny, Morgan (who is one of the best parts of this show), and Jeremy, then I am perfectly content.

The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

“The Hofstadter Insufficiency” Grade: A-

I’m one of the few Community fans who also enjoys The Big Bang Theory, so I’m here to tell you that I caught up with the season premiere (though the second episode wasn’t On Demand so I have yet to watch it) and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was hilarious, but also contained some wonderful little bits of heart. Characters hurt one another in this episode (Penny hurts Sheldon’s feelings while Bernadette and Amy get into a tiff), but they recognize their errors by the episode’s end. Raj is fantastic and loveable and yet still ultimately RAJ as he deals with having his heart broken by his ex-girlfriend.

Sheldon/Penny stories are my favorite though, and I love when they have the opportunity to share an episode. In the season premiere, both are missing Leonard and Penny decides to distract herself by swapping secrets with Sheldon. When Sheldon’s secret seems – to us and to Penny – absurd and simple, Penny dismisses him and the secret. But then, something remarkable happens (that exhibits some sort of growth in Sheldon): Sheldon expresses that he’s hurt. Though the secret may have appeared insignificant and silly to Penny, it was significant to HIM. Penny is touched and we, as the audience, are as well. So she apologizes and the two hug it out.

Elsewhere, Bernadette and Amy get a chance to connect without Penny and realize that that they are able to pick up men without her assistance. However, after a few drinks, Bernadette lets it slip that she believes Amy could do better than Sheldon. Suddenly, the women are at odds and eventually apologize to each other for their offending remarks.

The Big Bang Theory gets knocked around quite a bit. It is a broad comedy, but that does not mean that it is somehow less than other series. I enjoy The Big Bang Theory in a different way than I enjoy New Girl or Community or Doctor Who, but I enjoy it no less and look forward to where this season will progress.

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

“London (Parts 1 and 2)” Grade: A+

Everything about the Parks and Recreation season premiere was flawless.

This show has quickly become one of my absolute favorite sitcoms because of how amazing each character on the series is, how heartfelt the messages are, and how hilarious the shenanigans are that ensue because of the characters. But what I always have loved about Parks and Rec as a series is something Sage wisely once said during a podcast: it is the comedy of optimism. The characters are bonded together by work – by something that could easily turn them into boring or bitter characters – and they actually make one another better; they care DEEPLY about each other. It’s never more evident than in the character of Leslie Knope.

Leslie loves her friends. She will do anything for them. She is there for Ron and Diane on her their wedding day. She sends him on an amazing adventure in Europe – to the scotch distillery that makes his favorite scotch – and leaves him with a heartfelt poem. She cares so deeply about the town of Pawnee that it hurts her when they don’t love or like her back. But the characters around her – Ann, Chris, Ben, Andy, April, Jerry, Tom, Donna, etc. – all know how much they owe to Leslie.

That’s why I started getting weepy when April read the letter she sent aloud to Leslie. It’s easy to view April as uncaring or unfeeling. But April truly loves Leslie more than she allows others to see. We hate to see her hurt because she does so much for those around her.

And when the people she loves most are present in her life and help her in unexpected ways, we weep. Every aspect about “London” was focused on friendship and love. Every aspect of Parks and Recreation is focused on the same, and I am looking forward to the rest of this season as the show continues to explore these elements.

So there you have it: I’ve detailed out some of the best and worst elements of this season’s new and returning television series. What are some of your can’t-miss shows? Do you agree or disagree with any of my list? Hit up the comments and let me know your thoughts! And, as always, have a wonderful week. :)


Post a Comment