Monday, September 30, 2013

Fall TV Scorecard: Week 2

*The following grades refer ONLY to premiere episodes. In addition to a letter grade, I will also suggest — based on what the episode suggests for the season to come — that you “Subscribe” on Hulu, “Keep your eye on” for the odd episode here and there or “Kill and Bury,” which should be self-explanatory.



The Blacklist

James Spader is Raymond "Red" Reddington, a former Navy Man turned "Concierge Criminal" who tops the FBI's most wanted list. One morning he inexplicably turns himself in to the authorities, offering to help track down the world's nastiest criminals in exchange for a little hospitality and the chance to work with a hand-picked rookie Elizabteh Keen, played by Megan Boone.

What motivated Red to abandon his life of crime and help the authorities? What is his connection to Elizabeth? What's up with Elizabeth's husband? Those are among the many mysteries promised in NBC's newest, shiniest thriller, which is probably the most cinematic piece of broadcast television I've seen since Lost.

Blacklist will either evolve into a rote case-of-the-week procedural that never delivers on its promises, or it will be a pulpy treat of international intrigue and mystery. It's too early to tell, but for the time being Spader is clearly having a ball, and it's infectious to watch.

Grade: A-
Class: Subscribe



Hostages

The night before Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) is scheduled to operate on the president of the United States, she and her family are taken hostage in their home by a team of mercenaries led by Dylan McDermott, who is also a whatever-it-takes FBI agents with a daughter and hospitalized wife. Sanders is given a simple choice, either kill the president during surgery, or they kill her family.

Hostages is touted as a 15-episode story, rather than the beginnings of a new series, but it probably would've been better off as a late-summer feature film starring B-list talent. For a show about a conspiracy to kill a U.S. President, Hostages delivers the most boring 44-minutes I've ever seen. The central premise doesn't manifest for 25 minutes -- instead we see a laborious amount of setup establishing that each family member has a dark secret that DRAMA will probably be revisited at some point -- and just when you think something might happen at the end, nope, nothing, nothing at all.

Grade: C
Class: Kill and Bury



Mom

Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory, has become the reigning champion of creating derivative comedies that score ratings gold for CBS. While the quality of his latest, Mom, is on par with those previous entries -- qualitatively falling somewhere between 2.5 and TBBT -- the tone of the show is an awkward mishmash of dramatic plots violently buried beneath the thunder of a laugh track.

Anna Farris stars as the titular mom, she's 6 months sober and working to heal the broken relationship between herself and her two children. Her mother, played by the always-game Allyson Janney is two years sober and working to repair her relationship with Anna Farris. Oh, and Farris' teenager daughter is apparently pregnant and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

So it's a multi-camera sitcom about intergenerational social ills? HILARIOUS! The pilot isn't so much filled with jokes as it is commentary on the failures of modern society (sample: "My mother taught me how to beat a cavity search and still feel like a lady") that would be more at home in a two-hour docu-drama on Lifetime than the light-hearted stuffing on CBS' Monday comedy block. I still don't know why it's funny but at least the in-studio audience (who sound like they're being paid by the chuckle) let me know when I'm supposed to laugh.

Grade: D
Class: Kill and Bury



How I Met Your Mother

The long-awaited Mother has arrived and she's...actually quite charming. I'll admit I bristled at the reports that HIMYM's final season would unfold in the 55-hour leadup to Barney and Robin's wedding, but having now seen the premiere my fears are assuaged. Showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have not confined themselves to a jail cell, but are using the same time-jumps we've grown accustomed to give us just enough peaks at Ted and the Mother's future bliss to satisfy fans without sacrificing the show's central premise. And, with a long weekend wedding promising a host of cameos from past characters (Ranjit!) it looks like we fans may just get the happy ending we've been waiting for.

Grade: A-
Class: Subscribe



Castle

After six seasons, the team over at Castle pretty much have their formula set in stone. While that stays true, the writers have at least given themselves something of a challenge now that Beckett is living in D.C. working for the FBI on classified cases Castle can't help her with.

Last season's cliffhanger ending is dealt with quickly and satisfactorily before a quick two-month time jump. Castle is struggling with the long-distance nature of his relationship with Beckett and naturally inserts himself into Beckett's latest case. Typical shenanigans ensue.

The show is as charming as ever but it's beginning to show signs of age. Now that CasKet are officially a couple, I think it might be time to focus on one good season and send our heroes off with a thank you and goodnight.

Grade: B
Class: Keep and Eye On



Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

Things with "Marvel" on the poster tend to be liquid gold, so it's natural that the superhero machine's foray into television is the buzziest new entry of the fall season. Starring a resurrected Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and a rag-tag team of special agent misfits, this show is about the decidedly human arm of the organization that helps The Avengers save the world.

So far that buzz appears to be satisfactorily met, with the first-hour laying the groundwork for what could be a winning formula. Joss Whedon's signature blend of action and wit is ever-present (as is his pension for recycling actors, like Firefly's Ron Glass), the set pieces are grand, the gadgetry is eye-popping and the sexual tension between our requisite will-they-won't-they-couple is present, even if Brett Dalton has a face like a block of wood.

The first half of the pilot is considerably better than the last, which rushes to wrap-up the freak of the week plot introduced in the opening seconds. And if you haven't seen the preceding Marvel films, particularly The Avengers and Iron Man 3, you may be lost by one or two things in the pilot, but I don't see that as being a serious problem or one that will persist beyond the first episode.

Grade: B+
Class: Subscribe



The Goldbergs

Take HIMYM, Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years, put it in a blender on high and then pour it out on top of a screaming Jeff Garlin and you have The Goldberbs, a comedy about a quirky family navigating the 1980s and told from the perspective of the youngest son, who's adult-alter ego Patton Oswalt narrates via voice over.

Perhaps it was the low expectations bred by the promos but I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the pilot. It's more of a riff on the 80s than a family comedy, which IMO is a good call because the 80s were ridiculous and family comedies typically aren't that funny (I know there's people out there who enjoy Raising Hope and The Middle, I just don't know why). At some point the writers may run out of roller rink and slinky jokes to tell, at which point The Goldbergs will have to deal with awkward teen pregnancy and drug abuse plotlines. I hope I'm wrong, but at least the pilot made me laugh.

Grade: B+
Class: Keep and Eye On



Trophy Wife

Malin Akermin is Kate, the cute blonde who – for reasons I can't explain – meets and marries an older man (Bradley Whitford) who is twice-divorced and a father of three. It's not that the show is particularly bad, or woefully un-funny, but Trophy Wife carries a sense of utter pointlessness. I can't imagine what audience is asking for a show like this, or what niche ABC thinks they're serving that isn't already watching the much-better Modern Family.

Speaking of Modern Family, watching Trophy Wife made me realize exactly what makes MF work. Yes, the Pritchett-Delgado clan is one of the best ensembles ever put together, but that includes the child actors. If Luke, Manny and Lilly weren't able to deliver a line, their characters would be the cloying dead weight that drags the whole ship down.

That, in essence, is Trophy Wife's problem. The four adult actors are likeable enough, but every time one of the children spoke I found myself eyeing the magazine on my coffee table. I would suggest a remedy, but I don't think Disney-owned ABC would be interested in my modest proposal.

Grade: C+
Class: Kill and Bury



Lukcy 7

Lucky 7 is about a group of convenience store employees who win the lottery. I would write a synopsis of each character's plot, but this show simply isn't worth the time that would take. Looking beyond the shoddy acting and plot pacing, there is absolutely nothing compelling about anyone on screen. By the end of the episode, I honestly didn't care if the characters lived or died. As far as I'm concerned, a Sharknado struck the city the second the closing credits rolled, wiping out everyone and everything.

Grade: D-
Class: Kill and Bury



Modern Family 

In probably the least surprising "twist" of the new fall premieres, Mitch and Cam respond to the recent SCOTUS decision on Prop 8 by...getting engaged (duh!). Here's hoping co-creator Steve Levitan makes good and his offer to let Anne Romney officiate the ceremony. It's not like Mitt has a political future she could damage, plus it would be ratings gold.  All in all, a solid but hardly earth-shattering episode for the recent Emmy winner.

Grade: B+
Class: Subscribe



Back in the Game

The uber-charming Maggie Lawson is all-but-unknown to anyone who doesn't watch Psych on USA, which is a shame since I doubt that this half-hour little league baseball comedy is the vehicle that will launch her into the mainstream. The pilot, which sees Lawson's down on her luck single mother move back in with her surly father (James Caan) and take over coaching duties of her son's band-of-misfit team, suffers no grave sins but instead is largely innocuous, faint praise in the "Golden Age of Television."

The table-scraps baseball team (called "The Angles" due to a typo on their jerseys) could make for some good family-friendly fodder and for now they've avoided the typical child-actor curse of being comedy anathema (see: Trophy Wife). I don't have high hopes, but who knows, I've been wrong before.

Grade: B-
Class: Keep an Eye On



The Michael J. Fox Show

MJF has to be one of the most likeable men alive, so it's hard to find fault with his return to television in the eponymous multi-camera NBC sitcom about a TV news anchor with Parkinson's disease. The comedy isn't particularly groundbreaking but it, for the most part, lands, thanks in large part to the talent of Fox, Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt and The Wire's Wendell Pierce. Your typical dumb-husband-sage-wife trope is present, but it never quite sinks to the depths of a Tim Allen/Raymond retread.

After being burned by NBC's recent attempts at relaunching it's Thursday comedy block (Whitney and Guys With Kids, anyone?) it's comforting to see the peacock sticking with a winning formula, even if it is a formula we see a lot.

Grade: B
Class: Keep an Eye On



The Crazy Ones

I've never been particularly fond of Robin Williams' brand of humor, especially when you consider what we know him to be capable of as a dramatic actor (see: Dead Poet's Society, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, etc.). BUT I'm also not a fan of the CBS multi-camera sitcom machine and was intrigued that the Eye was venturing into laugh-track free, single camera comedy.

But much like McKayla, I am not impressed. Despite a healthy bench of supporting players (including The Newsroom's Hamish Linklater and Mad Men's James Wolk) this father-daughter workplace comedy about an eccentric advertising genius just doesn't sell. We're supposed to believe that behind the outbursts and facial contortions, William's character is a brilliant marketing mind, but where Mad Men's Don Draper gave us "It's Toasted" and that haunting pitch for the Kodak Carousel, William's lightbulb idea is a shot-for-shot remake of a bad McDonald's commercial from the 70s, featuring a jingle to be sung by -- fingers crossed -- Kelly Clarkson.

This is what happens when a network known for its geriatric audiences tries to be hip. Pass.

Grade: C
Class: Kill and Bury

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