Thoughts on the Fall Survivors
October 22nd, 2011
First off, despite the image above, Survivor was actually an early casualty of this fall season.
This fall has been tremendously busy in terms of my “real” job, and the scholarly side of things has been equally complicated by some looming deadlines and a general increase in workload. In order to feel as though I’ve been giving that my full attention, Cultural Learnings has definitely suffered, and as much as that pains me I also think it is very much necessary given the current state of things.
However, this is not to suggest that the behaviors which drove me to blog in the first place have been entirely squashed. I’ve still been keeping up with most of my shows (although I’ve fallen behind on a few, like The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy and How I Met Your Mother), and I’ve still been tweeting about most of them and writing about The Office (and, last night, Strike Back) for The A.V. Club. That being said, I know that there are some things which have been left somewhat more vague, and so I wanted to drop in with a few thoughts and a link to something else I’ve been working on.
First and foremost, I exchanged some emails with my colleague Ryan McGee on the subject of how critics review television comedy, a fitting subject given that I recently took part in an academic conference on the subject of TV comedy (which my colleague Jennifer Smith summarized for Antenna). This is something that he had suggested earlier this Fall, and struck me as a good way to enter into a dialogue without having to carve out the time for a podcast. The conversation spanned over the course of a week or so, and I hope it touched on some issues that can spur on some more conversation.
Ryan has posted Part One of the conversation over at Boob Tube Dude, and I’ll be posting Part Two here at Cultural Learnings on Monday. Please leave any comments you might have, as this is really something that requires a broader discussion than just the two of us to really come to life.
Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies [Part One] – Boob Tube Dude
Next, though, I want to spend at least a bit of time discussing the new shows that have remained programmed into my DVR after premiere week, which proved to be a fairly small (and generically limited) collection. I’ve also thrown in a few thoughts on new series that have yet to premiere, and one that has already premiered but is still relatively new all things considered.
Pan Am – While not perfect, I found myself quite charmed by the series, especially its willingness to allow its female characters to remain the center of attention. There are rough edges here, and the show hasn’t quite discovered its center, but the premise of the show has been loose enough in its deployment that the pieces are being allowed to fall into place. My DVR decided not to record last week’s episode, so I’m a week behind (and will be catching up on Hulu over the weekend), but I’m hopeful that this can pick up a bit in the weeks ahead, as it’s too solid to die simply because ABC has more (worse) shows in the pipeline that could replace it.
Once Upon a Time – I watched the pilot for this over the summer, and my opinion of it hasn’t really changed with time: while the show has an interesting premise, there is nothing here to convince me it can sustain that premise. Kitsis and Horowitz were among the most inconsistent writers on Lost, and I’d argue they were among the least successful at telling the kind of sprawling stories they are setting up here. “Expose” and “Greatest Hits” are series highlights, perhaps, but they’re highlights for their individual contributions. Here, there are two entire worlds and two entire sets of characters, all of which ends up feeling slow and muddled by the time the pilot comes to an end. It sets up mysteries, yes, but it does nothing to suggest that those mysteries will be explored through any means other than Jennifer Morrison skeptically investigating stuff, which I’m struggling to find thrilling. The dual worlds have potential, but that potential is purely theoretical at this stage, and nothing I’ve seen gives me any hope it’ll manifest with any grace or with any speed. I will stick around for a few weeks, though, out of curiosity.
2 Broke Girls – As rough as some of the early episodes of the show have been, I’m definitely in the camp that there is enough here for me to continue watching if only to be able to continue complaining about the parts of the show that offend me. The racial stereotypes are atrocious, and nearly everything about the Diner set location has been atrocious, but Han’s attempts to be cool were a better shade to the character this week, and the introduction of Caroline’s ex-boyfriend offered another avenue into character development (and has me convinced Max is going to hook up with him, while Caroline hooks up with that bartender introduced a few episodes ago who Max sort of has a thing for). Even if the show ends up failing to right itself fully, I think that process will be intriguing, and am along for the ride until it proves wholly irredeemable (or I simply run out of time).
Hart of Dixie – Yes, the central premise of this show is still a stretch, and there is something about the small town shortcuts in the pilot which continues to problematize the series. However, I’m in the Rachel Bilson demo on a number of levels, and I find her winning in ways that have coalesced nicely as the show finds a better sense of purpose in a gradual integration of Zoe into the Bluebell community. The show is relying on archetypes and other familiar tropes of the genre in its basic storytelling, but simple is smart with a first season, and I sort of like the idea that the show could eventually develop into something closer to a Gilmore Girls after a season built around overcoming this initial conflict. Compared to some of the other shows I’ve continued to watch, I find it really easy to just sit down and enjoy, a nice break from a busy start to the week.
Terra Nova – While I would never argue that Terra Nova has realized its potential, I am somewhat perplexed by the frustration being aimed at the series. It’s boring, perhaps, but it’s boring in ways that make a lot of sense for a family-oriented drama still sketching out its characters. This is the show that they were always making, regardless of whatever gestures they made towards Lost or other serialized dramas, and a lot of the negative responses I’m seeing to the series have been angry at what the show is rather than the show’s ability to be a good show within the confines of its chosen generic DNA (which, yes, involves fewer dinosaurs than they wanted you to believe early on). Now, mind you, the show is still failing to be a compelling family drama series with dinosaurs, and it should be held accountable for that, but what I’ve seen thus far has not precluded an improvement once the show irons out some kinks. It’s dull, maybe, but it’s not dull in ways that couldn’t be fixed in upcoming episodes.
Last Man Standing – Okay, this is actually a lie given that I didn’t set my DVR to record the third episode and don’t plan on recording the fourth, but let me go on the record as saying that I don’t think this show is entirely terrible. The pilot relies on some problematic rhetoric surrounding masculinity, and I am completely on board in terms of its approach to issues of sexuality and ethnicity, but the core of the show is a father and husband struggling with a new period in his life marked by a grandson and a shifting work environment. There is something universal there, and it’s something that I believe the show could settle into exploring without the need to so blatantly scrawl the character’s politics onto the screen with such broad comic material. Whereas I found nothing redeemable about Man Up!, which lacked both purpose and structure, Last Man Standing has potential to develop into something solidly entertaining for a demographic other than my own, which is not (to my mind) a terrible thing for the state of television even if the show isn’t there yet.
Suburgatory – As much as I like this show, I do think that this week’s episode showed signs of either caution or uncertainty. I thought the second episode was a really confident piece of work, nicely picking up on what was a solid pilot, but this week’s just didn’t bother to tell a story. It was too isolated, losing track of basic comic rhythms and replacing them with plots that had no inherent comic value. Jane Levy was great on Shameless and is perhaps even better here, and Jeremy Sisto is fitting into the comic mode quite nicely, but there’s a point at which the show will need to find a purpose beyond sketching out the same basic relationships over and over again.
Revenge – Like Hart of Dixie, this one is cleared off the DVR quite quickly once it’s recorded, as there is just something very easy about the show. Even in this early stage, Revenge seems confident in what it wants to be about (REVENGE) and what kind of storylines it thinks will best help facilitate that. Some nice balancing of procedural structure with serial elements culminated with this week’s episode, an episode in which Emily’s quest for revenge was taken up by someone else entirely, offering a compelling intersection of Emily and Victoria’s methods which speaks to the complexity of their relationship with Emily’s father and the whole situation the show keeps flashing back to. I don’t know if I’m quite to the point where I’m invested in mysteries or love triangles, but they have been well-executed to this point, and I’m more invested now than I was when the show started (which is the best thing you could ask for at this point).
Person of Interest – For various reasons that I won’t get into, I watched the Person of Interest pilot three times before it aired, and I have to admit that I still thought it was kind of terrible by the end of it all. The show just isn’t compelling to watch, especially when it boils down to two dudes on the phone talking while poorly developed characters do things that are more interesting but that we can only see through other characters’ eyes (and have every detail repeated to us fifteen times because we’re apparently idiots). However, as much as I want to break into Warner Bros. in order to cut out all of the entirely unnecessary ADR dialogue (I swear Caviezel and Emerson must live in an ADR Booth at this point), the show has convinced me it could be salvaged provided they kill/graduate Caviezel at the end of the season and allow the show to tell seasonal arcs with its main lead. The idea of the investigation into Caviezel’s character lasting multiple seasons seems far-fetched, and his back story just isn’t compelling or mysterious enough to carry the show. A swap would give the show a different edge, drum up some suspense, and still allow for solid guest stars (like Linda Cardellini) to elevate things. I haven’t caught this week’s episode yet, but I’ll keep recording if only to see if the show starts ironing out some of its issues (yes, another pet project).
Grimm – I have nothing to say about Grimm. The pilot, at least the version I saw this summer, was enormously dull, dark to the point of obscuring any sort of interest. There’s an attempt at a mythology here, but it doesn’t really make much sense, and it’s all a thinly veiled excuse to tell supernatural stories. However, instead of taking itself less seriously and allowing its thin presence to pop, Grimm really is grim about its genre, and any efforts at humor feel swallowed by the dourness of it all. This reads like an attempt to see how many words I can come up with as a synonym for dull, but I’d honestly say that that game would be more interesting than this show. There’s just nothing here to recommend.
[I may stop in with some thoughts on the returning shows that I haven’t been writing about next week, but no promises!]
6 responses to “Cultural Check-In: Thoughts on the Fall Survivors”
Honestly, I’m afraid that by the time Revenge gets to climax of this arc (the end of the season? The end of the show?) I’ll be rooting for Victoria. I feel bad for everything Amanda went through, but Emily? She needs to crack open a little bit (hopefully without losing her ruthlessness), because I haven’t been able to empathize with her yet. On the other hand, Madeleine Stowe is so amazing at displaying Victoria’s different layers and conflicting feelings, that I can’t help but love her despite her drive to destroy every threat in her path (including little innocent children).
Great to see you back at Cultural Learnings, even if it is just for a short burst of writing. The only show that’s caught my eye this year has been Homeland, which repeatedly takes old tropes and twists them just enough to keep me guessing.
Have you ever written a post about how you ended up pursuing a degree in MCS? I’m currently stumbling towards an MFA in Creative Writing but have always been intrigued by focusing on more critical analysis.
Ha, I forgot about Homeland in my focus on networks – best new show of the fall, easy.
And I don’t think I’ve written about it explicitly, no.
There have actually been four episodes of Suburgatory, so while I agree that this latest was the worst, I don’t think a 75% success rate is anything to get worried about.
I was really hoping you would mention Prime Suspect. The pilot irritated me with the lazy, rampant sexism, but I enjoyed it enough to keep watching and have been glad I did. Now the other cops don’t like her because she’s kind of an asshole (instead of merely because she’s a woman intruding on their boys club), but they still get along well enough, and the show has done a great job of showing them all interacting while doing their jobs. The third episode had a great sequence where Maria Bello, kirk Acevedo, and one other detective all took turns trying to run from one location to another, and back, in 25 minutes to try to crack a suspect’s alibi. That the series took the time to show them each taking a turn and ribbing each other for their silly running posture or just general out-of-shapeness was a nice touch. I’m sad it’s doing so poorly, but I’ll enjoy it while it’s here.
I have been pleasantly surprised this fall, I have only sampled a handfull but the hit to miss ration has been spectacular. One genuinly close to great (Homeland), a couple I really really like (Suburgatory, OUAT), a couple I enjoy and find interesting (Revenge, Boss) and just the one I have sort of soured on (Pan Am), the last couple of eps from Pan Am have been less than good and I am getting dangerously close to dropping it.
I also watched an ep and a half of Secret Circle and enough said about that.
I’m keeping up with most of these shows also and I think your evaluations are spot on. Terra Nova is dull but I’ve not given up on the potential of its setting, and 2 Broke Girls is atrocious in many ways but the more recent episodes have convinced me that there might be something in this show (even though it is sexist, racist populist drivel in many ways) the writers just have to be more subtle. Are you not watching “Up All Night”? I would say with some confidence that it’s the best new comedy. The latest episode, Birth, was probably my favourite episode of the TV season thus far.
Also, American Horror Story. I know you’re focusing on networks here, but I would love to hear your thoughts on that considering that there is so much great and so much terrible about it all at once.