Audiences, be careful what network television executives think you’re wishing for.
That’s how you got “The Jay Leno Show.” There were dozens of factors that led NBC to panic, give Jay Leno a five-night-a-week primetime platform and then to have to dynamite and rebuilt its entire lineup less than six months later. But the major justification that NBC gave to critics and audiences alike was that the network had polls saying audiences wanted comedy at 10 p.m.
It turned out that either NBC polling was wrong (doubtful) or that audiences weren’t so desperate for comedy at 10 p.m. that they’d watch *any* comedy at 10 p.m. (much more likely).
The same thing is the case with scripted programming in the summer. I’m absolutely positive you could do polling in which audiences complain either that there’s nothing on in the summer or that what’s on in the summer is weighed too heavily towards less-than-exceptional reality programming. [That polling leaves aside the truth that thanks to HBO, AMC, FX, TNT, TBS, Showtime and more, there’s actually a ton of scripted programming airing in the summer these days, so much so that the regular lull that used to hit this job in the middle of June no longer exists.]
The respectable (but really, really unremarkable) performances by established shows like “Lie to Me” and “Flashpoint” already this summer somewhat proves that point.
What viewers don’t want in the summer is horrible scripted programming, the pointless and wasteful airing of shows which would never be picked up in a normal development cycle but have the advantage of being cheaper than most legitimate scripted programs and therefore are worth throwing up against the wall even though recent history has suggested that almost none of them will stick. [That audiences aren’t even acknowledging shows like “The Good Guys,” which is pretty good, and “Persons Unknown,” which is flawed but not dreadful, confuses matters a bit, I’ll confess.]
ABC is premiering two new dramas on Sunday (June 20) night. One, “The Gates,” probably fits into that “Persons Unknown” category where there’s enough substance that I’ll give it another couple episodes, just out of curiosity. The other, “Scoundrels,” is the sort of lazy mess that ABC would never even contemplate airing in the actual TV season, but which somehow becomes acceptable between June and August.
My review of “The Gates” will be coming along later tonight.
For now, a few thoughts on “Scoundrels” after the break…
“Scoundrels” is based on the format “Outrageous Fortune,” which hails from New Zealand. Presumably, the American version doesn’t want to be linked to the 1987 Bette Midler/Shelly Long vehicle of the same name, but the new title is weak and barely relevant.
The series focuses on The Wests, a family of criminals. I don’t know if the original version was also this wishy-washy when it comes to the crimes committed by the central clan, but American creators Lyn Green and Richard Levine have created the least nefarious crime family in the history of film and television. Not only are the Wests not scoundrels, they’re barely even curs. What horrible crimes have these people been committing? Are they the world’s first jaywalking syndicate or something?
When family patriarch Wolf (David James Elliott) is sentenced to a lengthy prison term — he must have jaywalked *and* driven while talking on his cell phone — matriarch Cheryl (Virginia Madsen) decides that the time is right to get out of the crime business and make her family legit. Only crosswalks for the Wests!!!
The family includes Heather (Leven Rambin), a wannabe model, Hope (Vanessa Marano), a wannabe filmmaker, and identical twins Logan and Cal (Patrick John Flueger). Logan’s recently passed the bar, while Cal is a nefarious slacker, possibly the worst criminal the family has to offer. There’s also an old grandfather with Alzheimer’s.
Keeping an eye on the family is Sergeant Mack (Carlos Bernard), a dogged detective who has hitched his star to skulking in the corner and glowering at the Wests. He’s determined to end their enterprise forever, for reasons that aren’t completely clear.
The first criticism that must be leveled against “Scoundrels” is that it looks dirt cheap. Every shot is flat, overlit and suffers from bland production design. It’s hard to tell if the Wests are actually good at the whole crime thing, because I couldn’t tell if they’re living well or just in a shoddy pre-fab house in the Valley. From what I can tell, tackiness actually appears to be part of the “Scoundrels” aesthetic, but there’s a difference between stylized tackiness and the thing itself. “Scoundrels” has the production values of a multi-camera sitcom transferred to the realm of a one-hour dramedy-thing.
Actually, while I took pains to include the “dra” part of “dramedy,” “Scoundrels” makes almost no claims at drama. It’s an hour-long attempted comedy, complete with poorly integrated cut-away punchlines, broad and utterly racist ethnic caricatures and performances that mug in the direction of laughter without ever hitting the mark.
Madsen is the only cast member who isn’t pandering, who may in fact be playing this situation seriously. I don’t know if that’s the way the character is written, if Madsen is aiming for humor and failing or if the Oscar nominated actress and show’s creative team were on a different page from Day One. I watched Madsen trying to retain her dignity and the effect is similar to seeing the human actors in old animation-live-action hybrids like “Song of the South” or “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” where they seemed to always be looking past or through the cartoon characters they were supposed to be interacting with. Madsen’s barely interacting with her “Scoundrels” co-stars, but who can blame her?
This isn’t Madsen’s first time playing the wife of a criminal mastermind in a network series, not that anybody remembers the mature, somewhat nuanced, slickly made CBS dud “Smith.” Madsen didn’t have much to do in Smith, but there was a genuine dynamic between her character and Ray Liotta’s exploring the sacrifices a woman would make if she were caught between a man she loved and a life she didn’t want any part of.
Elliott, a last minute addition to the cast, appears not to have had time to develop a full character, so he settled on one trait: Smugness. Although we’re introduced to Elliott and Madsen’s characters in bed together, they have no chemistry and the relationship that we’re shown it unappealing to the extreme.
The daughters, played by Rambin and Marano, are the pilot’s best characters, or at least the most convincingly played. The two actresses don’t look like sisters, but there’s a sarcastic sniping between the two of them that’s not obnoxious.
The least convincing characters are the two played by Flueger. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Flueger before — his credits include the feature “Brothers” and USA’s “The 4400” — but as a first exposure, this is dismal. He doesn’t even appear to be enjoying the acting exercise of playing these opposite brothers, or maybe he’s just embarrassed by the weave and glue-on goatee he’s wearing as Cal. The Cal get-up is inexcusably bad and Flueger is determined to live down to it.
Do you love jokes about Alzheimer’s? Do you have an insatiable amusement when it comes to Asians and the apparently hilarious last name of “Hong”? Are you excited for a pilot in which it takes 44 minutes to establish the thin premise of the series, which probably could have been done in a five minute pre-credit sequence? In that case, perhaps you’ll tolerate “Scoundrels.”
As for me? Yes, I’d love quality scripted programming in the summer. I’d watch quality scripted programming in the summer. But thinking that something as bad as “Scoundrels” is superior to “Wipeout” or “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” just because the bad dialogue was written in FinalDraft document somewhere is just folly.
“Scoundrels” premieres on Sunday, June 20 on ABC at 9 p.m. ET.