Fall TV 2011: Blah blah blah

September 20, 2011

Is it too early to call the new fall TV season a wash-out?

Having watched the pilots for most of the network shows, I’ve come away with that sick feeling in my stomach you get after eating too many empty calories of something that wasn’t all that tasty to start with.

For starters, let’s officially declare the “Mad Men” wave as DOA. It took this long for the networks to catch up with AMC’s Emmy-winning drama and they still missed the point. ABC’s “Pan Am” and NBC’s “The Playboy Club” want to be retro while mocking retro at the same time. Meanwhile, the writing on both shows is so lazy that you wonder why they bothered.

The reason “Mad Men” is a critical hit and an awards magnet (without actually drawing a true mass audience) is that it’s intelligent enough to challenge the viewer’s assumptions about what a TV drama can be. It’s not audience-friendly in the sense that it doesn’t explain itself or necessarily focus on sympathetic characters. But mostly it’s smart, something that very few major network series seem to be (with rare exceptions like “Lost” and “Modern Family”).

“The Playboy Club,” on the other hand, is not only formulaic – it’s dull. Here’s a show that practically cries out to be on pay-cable: a show about Playboy, for pete’s sake, and there’s no skin. Meanwhile, the characters are cookie-cutter figures out of a soap opera and so, for that matter is the plot.

“Pan Am,” meanwhile, wants us to long for the glamorous days of yesteryear in airline travel. Never mind that today’s audience only knows air travel as the cattle-cars of the sky that it’s become. “Pan Am” wants to celebrate the airlines – and to make us alternately laugh and shudder at what these poor girls were put through in order to keep their jobs. OMG – they had to wear girdles! Do the guys who own Hooters know about this?

The sit-com lineup is worse, starting with the awful “New Girl” starring Zooey Deschanel as the “adorkable” nerdy girl who can’t keep a boyfriend and winds up sharing an apartment with three Neanderthals. Deschanel has a not-undeserved reputation as being exceptionally cute and quirky in the movies she’s in. Most of that has to do with Deschanel herself and the affect she brings to the roles.

But in “New Girl,” Deschanel has to contend with writers who not only require her to be quirky for all of each show – she has to deal with writers whose idea of quirky is so forced and obvious that it drains all interest you might have in Deschanel in the first place.

“Whitney” is no better. The vanity project of comedian Whitney Cummings, it stars the unfunny comic as a character named after herself saying snarky things to everyone around her. There are penis and vagina jokes – ooo, edgy! – but nothing that actually inspires laughter.

Or consider “Up All Night,” which manages to be even worse than Christina Applegate’s last sitcom, “Samantha Who?” Also, a word to the networks: A little bit of Will Arnett goes a looong way. He was funny on “Arrested Development” because the show had a number of funny people among whom they could divide the jokes. But people keep making the mistake of building entire movies or TV shows around him – and Michael Cera – based on that show. Those guys are meant to be comedic garnish, not the main course.

Only two of the network’s shows would seem smart enough to appeal to something other than either teen-chimps or entertainment-deprived shut-ins. One, surprisingly, is a truly compelling remake of a classic British police drama: “Prime Suspect,” with Maria Bello. Things didn’t bode well for this show; after all, the original starred Helen Mirren and was produced under the British model of six- or eight-episode self-contained series.

But this time they’ve gotten it right. Granted, I’ve only seen the first episode, one which apparently condenses the entire first season of the British version into a one-hour program. But the combination of a brisk, snappy Maria Bello and the rest of a tough, gritty New York cast, makes this show crackle.

The other network show worth your time is “Free Agents,” a sitcom that stars Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn as work colleagues who hook up, then try to resist doing so again. He’s a guy who will well up at the drop of a hat over the divorce that suddenly has him living alone. She’s a woman who is still mourning – a year later – the death of her fiancée, drowning her sorrows in wine while mooning over poster-sized photos of him on her wall.

As with all good sitcoms, it’s the writing that truly sings. It’s rarely overstated (except in the case of their other office-mates), with a slightly nasty edge, giving these two exceptional performers room to maneuver without forcing them to mug (i.e., “New Girl”).

There’s a reason that cable dominates the Emmy nominations each year (just as there’s a reason that network shows win a disproportionate slew of awards). The networks are followers, not leaders. Simple as that.

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