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Fall TV: Why it's bad, but also what's good
September 13, 2010  | By Theresa Corigliano

The hour drama pilot I just inserted into my DVD player is beyond terrible. It shouldn't be terrible. There are good actors in it, and the creative team is a TV A-team. But bad things happen to dramas and comedies, and that's a big disappointment after you've made yourself comfy on the sofa. How does this happen?

The No. 1 reason why a pilot stinks is: the writing. Period. I look at my notes and see "terrible writing" scribbled so many times. Too often, good actors asked to make silk out of sow dialogue. Painful.

Good writing in a drama is about rhythms. It's about capturing how we talk every day and getting it on the page. Think how Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue turned our heads. Good writing in comedy? Again, it's about the rhythms, characters with heart and truth, and oh yeah -- funny lines. The louder an actor is in a sitcom -- rule of thumb -- the lamer the jokes.

A bad show can get better if writers and producers and actors find that rhythm. But good shows can go south, too, mostly because they can't figure out how to carry the promise of the pilot over two dozen episodes. It's hard to write fast and smart for a whole season. The people who can do it, last.

Here are my gut feelings about the fall TV season. What I've learned in all my years of watching pilots is that no one is completely sure what they're completely sure of. You'll always find network execs who are kings of revisionist history. Meaning: "I always knew CSI was going to work." Funny, I remember a lot more of my colleagues that season who thought Tim Daly in The Fugitive was the money.

Here's a look at some shows with particular promise -- shows you might want to TiVo and actually watch. Some of them may be shows that are so promising, you can't wait to watch them in REAL TIME. How about that?

Nikita (Premiered Sept. 9, CW)

I don't know how many remakes we need of La Femme Nikita, but I still like the premise and I liked this pilot, which stars Maggie Q as the very hot spy/assassin who is out to destroy the secret agency that made her who she is. There's a lot of Alias caliber action, and Q has as much star power as Jennifer Garner had. Danny Cannon, who was brought in by Jerry Bruckheimer to give the original CSI its distinctive film look, delivers again. (Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET)

The Event (Sept. 20, NBC)
and Outlaw (Sept. 15 preview, Sept. 17 premiere, NBC)

The Event is a Lost/Alias/X-Files hybrid, and in the hands of these producers, it is just the right blend of creepy and indecipherable. Jason Ritter is the protagonist -- he's on a cruise with his girlfriend, he's going to propose -- and then suddenly his world tilts to hell. The pilot is too heavy on the flashbacks -- I had to sort through it a few times to stay on track -- but there is no way I'm not tuning in to this to-be-continued. I'm a big fan of Scott Patterson (Luke from Gilmore Girls), and he is one wacked-out future father-in-law in this one -- he scared me silly. Did I want to trade Blair Underwood, playing our first Cuban president, for Jimmy Smits, who's toiling in the subpar (and that's the nicest word I could think of) NBC legal drama Outlaw? Yes, if only because I dearly want to see Smits succeed in something in primetime. There has to be TV life after Victor Sifuentes and Bobby Simone. (The Event, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET; Outlaw Fridays at 10 p.m. ET)


Lone Star (Sept. 20, Fox)

I've heard all the comparisons of this show's star James Wolk to George Clooney, and I think it has more to do with how he holds your attention as a flimflamming con man in cahoots with his father (David Keith). Handsome is as handsome does, unless an actor makes it impossible for you to look away. Wolk has the chops to carry the hour, with support from a very good Jon Voight, summoning his inner JR, which certainly helps. But will this two-timing shyster convince audiences there's something inside him worth championing? Because right now, I'm having a hard time rooting for a guy who doesn't seem to care very much about the lovers and strangers whose lives he's systematically destroying. (Mondays at 9 p.m. ET)

Mike & Molly (Sept. 20, CBS)


If you've seen the promos for Mike & Molly from the producer of Two and a Half Men and Big Bang, you'd have high hopes that it won't just be a series of lame fat jokes, that there won't be the hot sister for fat Molly, who always makes her look small. Which is why I am so bummed that two terrific leads -- Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy (Sookie from Gilmore Girls) -- are stuck in a show from producers who should know better and write better. This is definitely more Men than Bang. Men, save for the fabulous Jon Cryer, has always struck me as one crass joke after another; Bang is my reason for laughing on Monday nights, and this fall, Thursdays. It's a show that never takes the easy way out, and makes geeks great. Come on, guys -- here's hoping you can smooth this out, because you're better than this. (Mondays at 9:30 p.m. ET)

Hawaii Five-0 (Sept. 20, CBS)

[Photo at top] "Ta da da da da DUH, ta da da da DUH!" If you can "name that tune," you might be thinking, "Awww, why do they have to mess with this again?" This is a perfect Friday popcorn show (my equivalent of a beach read). CBS was determined to stick with Alex O'Loughlin (Moonlight, Three Rivers), and this may be the show that works for him. His Dano is Scott Caan, and their chemistry is what makes this show pop. Third character -- Hawaii -- and it has never looked better. Mix this with some nice action and a sense of humor, and there are worse ways to spend an hour. (Mondays at 10 p.m. ET)

Chase (Sept. 20, NBC)

Yes, Chase is another Jerry Bruckheimer drama, which will be scorned by some critics for what that has come to mean -- Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am one-hours with little subtlety and one-dimensional characters who are hard to care about. But Kelli Giddish stars as a smart and focused U.S. marshal who does good work tracking a genuinely scary bad guy, played with real creepiness by Travis Fimmel. I liked Giddish enough to give this a second look . . . but I'm going to need more substance than surface touches like cowboy boots and Texas filming locations. (Mondays at 10 p.m. ET)

Detroit 187 (Sept. 21, ABC)
and Ride-Along (midseason, Fox)


I want to talk about Detroit 187 and Ride-Along side by side. Detroit 187 is terrific (see aforementioned Hill Street and NYPD Blue references). As far as I'm concerned, Michael Imperioli can do no wrong. He wipes out Christopher Soprano in this new cop drama the first time he appears on screen -- cocky Mafioso is replaced by shop-worn cynical cop who's got the goods. No partner will satisfy him, but his new one intrigues him. And any show with James McDaniel, Lt. Fancy from Blue had me at the credits. (Where has he been?) I am glad they nixed the camera-in-the-back-seat conceit in the original pilot (since refilmed) -- they didn't need it. (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET, ABC)

Everything that is right about 187 is what's wrong with Ride-Along. I don't believe these Chicago cops for one minute, which is surprising since Shawn Ryan -- the man who made characters so real in The Shield, it hurt to watch them -- created this show. It's all swagger and bluster and mock toughness and bad dialogue and scenes you've seen before. Watching these two dramas back–to-back only helped to magnify what worked in one and what didn't in the other.

Raising Hope (Sept. 21, Fox)


This is the kind of comedy with a very high wince factor, meaning I was laughing and wincing at the same time, and hating myself for laughing at all, because the wincing should have won out. The actual sweet moments that manage to peek through may not be enough to get an audience to stick around -- especially if they can't reconcile the somewhat disturbingly addled grandma character Cloris Leachman plays. (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET)

Running Wilde (Sept. 21, Fox)

I didn't laugh once, so I thought I'd watch it again when I got the reworked version. Let's just jump ahead to "strike three." Will Arnett's rich narcissist is not lovable or funny, and the plot -- Keri Russell as an eco-activist we're supposed to believe wants to live with this ass -- is so ridiculous that the only way it could work is if it were really funny. I will give Fox one thing: I see why they paired it with Raising Hope.(Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET)

Undercovers (Sept. 22, NBC)

Or, as J.J. Abrams should have called this: Mission: Implausible. But then again, we shouldn't have to think too hard about escapist spy dramas that star the exceptionally pretty Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in a prettily shot pilot. Their husband-and-wife duo get out of every sticky situation without breaking a sweat and always remaining too sexy for their clothes, or lack thereof. This is Alias: Light. In that Abrams drama, I never really understood what was actually happening to Jennifer Garner's Sydney, but the twists and turns were tense enough to keep me worried about her. There are no such worries here. And props to NBC for some much-needed diversity in prime-time. (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET)

Better with You (Sept. 22, ABC)

This is about the older sister who isn't married because "it's a life choice" (right) and the younger sister who's beating her to the commitment punch by marrying a dude she just met who's gotten her pregnant. Add scary-odd parents who freak them all out by never reacting as expected, and what you have is a likeable cast who made me laugh. I'm hoping Better with You can do that more than once. (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET)


The Whole Truth (Sept. 22, ABC)

This drama stars Rob Morrow, who, borrowing from his Quiz Show persona, wiseguys his way through this legal drama. In the original pilot, I didn't for one minute buy Joely Richardson as a tough and tactical prosecutor who went to law school with defender Morrow. She has since been replaced by the gritty and appealing Maura Tierney. But this show's "look at law from both sides now" has been done -- and better. (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET)

My Generation (Sept. 23, ABC)

A documentary crew catches up with high school buddies 10 years later, who, for some inexplicable reason, are still intertwined. The myriad players are more types than characters, which makes them unlikable in both decades. Most of their problems could have been resolved if they had only gotten out more and tried to meet people they didn't take to prom. The creators manage to work in every major headline we've lived through since 2000 -- and that, plus the docu style, comes off as contrived and annoying. I fell asleep both times I watched it. (Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET)

$#*! My Dad Says (Sept. 23, CBS)

There's a blog called Shit My Dad Says, which the Eye Network has turned into a comedy, but obviously cannot call Shit My Dad Says. In the notes that accompany the pilot, CBS tells you that $#*! My Dad Says should be pronounced Bleep My Dad Says. OK, whatever. William Shatner is the dad, there is the older whipped son and his overbearing wife, and then there's the good kid, who really doesn't relate to his dad but is willing to try. In the original pilot, Shatner didn't click; the older son/icky wife yelled their lines, and the younger son, who played the comedy for real, actually had some nice moments with Shatner. So naturally, that character has been recast, which sums up my major problem with this one. Maybe everybody else could just lower their voices? (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET)

Outsourced (Sept. 23, NBC)


NBC might think this show is not racist because, the network says, it makes fun of white people and Indians equally. I don't know anyone in this economy who finds outsourcing funny, but maybe the frustration of people who work in and must respond to the call center will touch a comedy nerve. I honestly don't know what to think. It made me uncomfortable because no matter how the creative team behind this justifies the humor, we're being asked to laugh at the workers, not with them. (Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET)

Blue Bloods (Sept. 24, CBS)

I still love Tom Selleck. He acquitted himself well on the Jesse Stone movies, and his Magnum is a TV icon. His latest, Blue Bloods, is a family-of-cops saga. Good actors, love me my cop shows -- but the writing here is the problem. Seen it, heard it all before -- but I hold out hope as CBS tweaks away to make it work. (Fridays at 10 p.m. ET)




Tausif Khan said:

Why do people like Jon Cryer?

Comment posted on September 15, 2010 11:47 AM

JG said:

Mix this with some nice action and a sense of humor, and there are worse ways to spend an hour.

Yeah. Like reading a tv review column by you.
Guess what genius Hawaii Five-O is a bonafide hit while the tv shows you chose were canned in record time.

Comment posted on November 21, 2010 12:07 PM
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