Category Archives: TCA

Genre Boxing: CBS’ Madam Secretary and Battle Creek

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At their core, Madam Secretary—the first new CBS series of the series, debuting on Sunday night—and Battle Creek fit into fairly standard genre boxes.

Madam Secretary is a workplace drama that happens to be set in the State Department, while Battle Creek is a police procedural that happens to be set in a small city instead of a big one. Those inflections are important, certainly, but neither show indicates a significant departure from the generic center.

This is typical of CBS dramas: even The Good Wife, the broadcast drama most often mentioned in conversations about the battle against cable, relies heavily on both workplace drama and legal procedural to plot its episodic and serial storylines. But Madam Secretary and Battle Creek are not as similar to each other when we consider what efforts have been taken beyond those generic centers, where Madam Secretary is much more invested in the lure of the serial in mapping out its story.

Without going too deep into spoilers, Madam Secretary isn’t about Elizabeth McCord being appointed to the position of Secretary of State under normal circumstances; the previous Secretary of State has died, which means she’s inheriting the staff and all of the drama that comes with it. Some of this is workplace awkwardness: Elizabeth did not hire these people, and is an unseasoned politician. However, some of this is also the fact the Secretary of State died under mysterious circumstances, laying the groundwork for a larger conspiracy storyline reverberating throughout the season.

When I asked showrunner Barbara Hall about this, she said “I thought it might be an extra conflict or challenge for her to step into a situation where the person she’s replacing might have actually been involved in something that’s untoward and that the tentacles of that may affect her for a long time. So it’s just another element that it’s hard enough for her to step into this job, but know she’s stepped into it and she’s got unravel some seeds that were planted before she got there.”

She also admitted that some of this instinct came from her previous job working in cable. Madam Secretary already has three elements at play: the day-to-day workplace drama, the family drama about McCord’s husband and two teenage children (who will all be adjusting to political life), and the political drama about the global politics the Secretary of State must face. The show—which is a sturdy procedural with strong perofrmances—doesn’t feel like it really needs a fourth element, but Hall admits that she “had just worked on Homeland the year before, and I had gotten accustomed to getting into these international stories and finding there’s always an extra element when you start lifting up these rocks and looking under what’s going on in terms of the national diplomacy.” Hall also revealed plans to delve into McCord’s past with the CIA, another remnant of her time on Homeland, and something that a more basic version of this show wouldn’t explore.

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These are also elements that aren’t present on Battle Creek, by comparison. In this case, although creator Vince Gilligan—who is stepping aside to let showrunner David Shore take over—is known for his heavily serialized work on Breaking Bad, this script is over a decade old, and it bears the marks of its age in its lack of serial pretensions. It’s a simple setup, about a local detective and a newly-arrived FBI agent who butt heads as they confront the criminal element in Battle Creek, Michigan. And that’s really the show, honestly. There are shades of dark pasts for both Agnew (Dean Winters) and Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), but the pilot doesn’t lean too heavily on them. There’s simply an ongoing conflict between their philosophies, which will play out as they need to work together to ensure they can do their job and keep Battle Creek safe.

It’s as classic a police procedural as you’re going to see. The setting is its biggest point of differentiation, with everything else focused on execution as opposed to a groundbreaking new premise, a deep mythology, or another “additive” to set the show apart. Speaking to the series’ willingness to engage with comedy, producer David Shore argues “the humor…comes from the fact that it is different from other cop shows. It is the center of a small town. We want to tell small town versions of big-city stories…We want to play with what you’ve seen on TV—you think you know what’s coming, and then we do it completely differently because it’s Battle Creek.” And yet this difference isn’t articulated in the pilot beyond subtle character beats, at least compared to Madam Secretary’s insistence that there’s more to this story than meets the eye with its mythology. It’s one of the reasons why Battle Creek—despite being a “better” show than Stalker or Scorpion (the latter of which I think is solid)—probably isn’t on the fall schedule: whereas Madam Secretary is an obvious thematic fit with The Good Wife, Battle Creek isn’t an obvious fit for anything, even if it could conceivably fit with a large number of shows on CBS’ lineup. It bears the mark of the fact it was developed over a decade ago, and the fact that it seemed even then to be conspicuously constructed as a throwback to a simpler kind of cop show.

It’s a sign of confidence that CBS would launch in the fall with Madam Secretary, but it’s equally a sign of confidence that Battle Creek made an appearance at Summer Press Tour as a key lynchpin of CBS’ 2014-15 lineup despite having no airdate. CBS is leaving a lot of drama to midseason this year, but we live in an era where that’s not necessarily a bad sign.

Madam Secretary debuts at 8:30/7:30c/8:00p on Sunday September 21, while Battle Creek debuts sometime in early 2015.

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Sharknado 2 at TCA: Legitimating the Sharknado

Sharknado2In the past few weeks, I’ve been highly skeptical regarding Sharknado 2: The Second One.

In truth, I have no strong emotional investment in Sharknado 2. I watched the first Sharknado a good week or so after it first aired, and so I missed the social media fever and ended up finding the film itself…dull. Sharknado is not a particularly engaging film—even by B-Movie (or C-Movie or whatever we’re calling it) standards—when it is removed from the context of the Twitter commentary generated around it. And yet you wouldn’t know that given how Syfy has fully committed to Sharknado as an ongoing franchise, diving into licensing opportunities and treating this as a huge cultural phenomenon based entirely on social media fever despite a fundamental lack of evidence anyone other than people on Twitter care about Sharknado (which didn’t make it a failure, but does keep it from being a definitive mainstream hit).

It’s specifically reminded me of the release of Snakes on a Plane: the online fan base that emerged around the film convinced New Line to add new footage and push the film for an R rating, but then the film was a huge box office disappointment, and even failed to generate any significant cult following on DVD. It was a cult film in reverse: rather than struggling to find an audience then building a community of people unearthing a forgotten gem, the cult audience latched onto the film quickly but built a set of expectations that the film couldn’t live up to, and that killed that cult audience potential before it could develop into a long-term commodity. I’ve been convinced for weeks that all of the money Syfy is spending to push Sharknado as something more than a slightly more resonant movie-of-the-week has the risk of throwing good money after a bad movie that won’t sustain this level of franchise-building.

And yet when I arrived poolside at the Beverly Hilton hotel for Syfy’s Sharknado 2 screening event as part of NBC Universal’s TCA presentation, I began to feel somewhat differently. The notion of Syfy bringing one of its monster movies to a press tour was absurd before Sharknado, and yet it felt perfectly natural for the critics to be gathering together to laugh their way through Ian Ziering and Tara Reid’s latest encounter with shark-related weather events. Themed as a drive-in theater, complete with popcorn and car-themed couches and drive-in-style speakers, it was not just “Sharknado at Press Tour”: it was Sharknado as a marquee event, one that brings the channel the very legitimacy this type of movie kept them from achieving in the past.

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Event Series at TCA: Dig and Ascension add fuel to the “WTF is an Event Series?” fire

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The label “event series” has always been a confounding one, more a branding exercise than an actual entity from a production perspective. One does not actually make an “event series”: you make a television series or a miniseries, the former of which is open-ended and could return for more seasons and the latter of which is close-ended and will not.

At today’s NBC Universal press tour day, both USA Network’s Dig and Syfy’s Ascension were labeled as event series, and they have a lot in common otherwise: they’re both six episodes, and they’re both so early in production that there was no episodes available to critics in advance. This created a vacuum of sorts, but out of that vacuum came the news that both Dig and Ascension are hedging their bets on their potential for subsequent seasons, neither willing to accept the notion of a close-ended miniseries end of the event series spectrum.

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NBC at TCA: Searching for the Nuts and Bolts of A to Z

AToZOf NBC’s comedy pilots, A to Z feels the most complete. This isn’t to say that none of their other comedy pilots were good—I liked Marry Me, for example—but rather that A to Z has a clear premise and announces its intentions in very plain terms. It is the story of a relationship between two characters, told from A to Z, that will span a set amount of time and reach a meaningful point of conclusion by the end of its first season.

For some pilots, press tour is about critics looking for answers because the show is purposefully vague, or because—as discussed in a separate piece—there are changes going on behind-the-scenes. In the case of A to Z, though, the critics in the room have questions about details that are offered by the pilot, which is structured to the point where critics have enough information to have specific lines of inquiry that the pilot itself forces into the conversation.

While both Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman got questions about their chemistry as the romantic couple at the heart of the series, as well as questions about their notable fates in their previous projects (How I Met Your Mother and Mad Men, respectively), a lot of questions were directed to creator Ben Queen and producers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. How will the show balance its “relationship comedy”—they avoided “romantic comedy” as a term—with its workplace structure? How will the season be structured relative to their relationship? And how do you intend to have a series run for multiple seasons if you’re setting such a clear timeframe for the story of this relationship to unfold in? (I should admit at this point that two of these questions were mine, so it’s possible I’m more invested in the structure of the series than your average person.)

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NBC at TCA: Press Tour and Post-Pilot Changes

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When NBC launches its fall lineups, its shows have the potential to be very different from the shows that were originally sold to advertisers and sent to critics when they were picked up in May.

This is not uncommon. It also doesn’t mean that the shows in question were outright terrible to begin with. But the reality of creating a pilot and the reality of mapping out a season of television are often at odds with one another, and in other cases new producers are brought in to take over a series and have different perspectives on where the series should be heading. At the same time, though, the public nature of this retooling inevitably places those pilots in a different category than those pilots that go through no such “public” changes. When Alexi Hawley departs State of Affairs as a showrunner, or Liz Brixius steps in to take over Bad Judge, or Constantine trades out its female lead for another female character entirely, it creates a different conversation than for shows with more subtle post-pilot changes that would logically occur when a writer’s room is in place and the experience on the pilot has revealed spaces for subtle inflection.

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The Draw of the Docuseries: Showtime at Winter TCA 2014

Speaking to the brand appeal of Showtime’s programming during his executive session, David Nevins emphasized his channel’s appeal to adults…who can afford Showtime.

We are no longer at the point where we can claim that “no one” is watching Showtime: having grown considerably throughout the run of recently-ended hit Dexter, the channel can now boast series—specifically Homeland—reaching upwards of seven million viewers for each episode. Much of that has to do with the rise in non-linear platforms—DVR, OnDemand, etc.—that are more convenient for viewers than various repeats, but it also shows a channel growing its subscriber base. That said, Showtime is still in a small percentage of American homes overall, such that we need to distinguish the brand appeal based on who is spending the money necessary to access the channel on a monthly basis.

Those distinctions are fairly unimportant when it comes to series like Episodes (now airing its third season) or Penny Dreadful (premiering May 11th), the two original series for which Showtime presented panels during their Winter Press Tour half-day. The truth is that if people can’t afford access to watch Episodes or Penny Dreadful, it is unlikely that they will be missing out on anything particularly “important.” Episodes is entering its third season with a fourth already ordered based on the series’ co-production model with the U.K. and its cost-efficient production (which will film primarily in the U.K., and which takes advantage of scripts being written in advance to block out production in specific sets/locations). Penny Dreadful is the new psychosexual horror series from John Logan, starring a motley crew of public domain monsters and continuing what I’ve dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” that continues to find traction among audiences with a greater horror tolerance than I contain. Both shows will have their audiences, but both fit comfortably into the kinds of shows that are either available elsewhere or which fit comfortably into existing genres; in other words, they’re not the kind of shows that we would lament being stuck behind the premium cable paywall, in the same way we might think about shows that appeal to minority audiences or feature representations not present elsewhere on the television dial.

It’s different with Years of Living Dangerously (debuting April 13th). First announced to critics at the channel’s summer press tour event, this celebrity-correspondent-led docuseries is about educating audiences on the human toll of climate change. It seeks to take science surrounding climate change and give it a human face, both in the celebrity correspondents—who the panel emphasized will be more effective at communicating these messages than scientists themselves—and in the people whose lives are being impacted by climate change that the series will follow. Presenting the series for critics alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ian Somerhalder, producers were adamant that this was the kind of documentary that could lead to real global change, which landed at Showtime because producer Jerry Weintraub insisted that if you wanted eyeballs, television was the way to go.

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The Apolitical Position: 24, Gang Related, and Resisting Politicization

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Frank Micelotta / FOX

No one on the panel for Fox’s 24: Live Another Day seemed surprised to be questions about politics: 24 was a lightning rod for criticism of its politics, and those politics have become no less controversial four years after the show concluded its eighth season in 2010. Their answer was measured and purposeful, acknowledging the political world they’re working with and promising to reflect contemporary issues such as drone strikes; they also argued, however, that theirs is not a political show. Jack Bauer, they said, is an apolitical hero.

This is not true, but it’s not surprising that the producers would argue this is the case. It’s the classic evocation of encoding/decoding logic, in which the people who create television claim no political intent, leaving any political implications to the whims of the audiences who take the series and run with it. However, it is one thing to say that there is no specific political intent, and another to claim that a series is apolitical. By creating a series that clearly touches on and engages with politics, 24’s producers created a political hero—although interpretations of those politics vary, and I’d agree the show never presented them as explicitly “Political” in the sense of Republican/Democrat, the issues at stake cannot be made apolitical through sheer will. I would accept that 24: Live Another Day does not come loaded with a specific political message, but the idea that a show so steeped in the politics of terror could be apolitical is definitive proof that those who make television will run from the idea of politics as quickly as possible.

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