A few thoughts on fall TV

Senior Television Writer
09.12.11 58 Comments


The 2011-12 broadcast network TV season officially starts a week from today, but as usual, some of the networks are jumping the gun. NBC, CBS and the CW will be premiering a bunch of new and/or returning shows over the next week (in addition to the return of “It’s Always Sunny” and “Archer” to FX). Fienberg, Liane and I will be doing our best to cover as many of these shows as we can, at times offering multiple reviews when our schedules allow, but it’s a bear as usual. After the jump, I have a few thoughts on the season as a whole and on how I’m going to approach it…

First of all, on the surface this does not seem like an especially promising season for new network series. The only pilot I think I genuinely enjoyed from start to finish was FOX’s “New Girl,” and that may just be because I really like Zooey Deschanel. A few others have promise, but for the most part my reactions have fallen into one of three categories:

1)”This show is not very good, and given the subject matter, the execution and the people involved, I don’t imagine it getting any better.” (NOTE: Fienberg has put together a whole gallery of the pilots he figures fit into this category.)

2)”This show is not very good, but the people involved in front of and/or behind the camera give me enough faith that I will give it another shot.”

3)”There are interesting things here, but the pilot gives me little to no idea of what the series will be like.”

As I’ve said before, reviewing a new TV show is not like reviewing a movie or a book. Those are closed entities. This is as much prognostication as analysis: Will this thing I laughed at continue to be funny? Can they fix this thing that doesn’t work? Will I get tired of that gimmick by episode 5? And as a TV series pilot is often the least representative episode of a show(*), trying to make those predictions based off of a 20-40 minute sample is not easy. This year, it seems especially tough.

(*) This can be for a variety of reasons: Because it has to spend all its time establishing the premise, because there was a lot of cast/producer turnover after it was shot, because significantly more money was spent on the pilot than can be spent on a regular episode, because it took the showrunners a while to figure things out, etc., etc.

How, for instance, am I supposed to review NBC’s “Prime Suspect” off of its pilot, which devotes nearly all of its running time to Maria Bello’s character being dumped on by her sexist male colleagues, when showrunner Alexandra Cunningham has said repeatedly that this will not be a major source of conflict going forward? Or, to give another example, I strongly disliked the first 19 or so minutes of CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” (aside from Kat Dennings), yet the last minute or so – after the premise has been established and the two main characters are allowed to interact as people and not as caricatures – works fairly well; absent a second episode, do I assume that the bad 19 minutes are what we’ll get in the future, or the last 1? On occasion, networks will make additional episodes available (I’m told FOX is trying to do that for “New Girl,” which will replace Damon Wayans Jr. as one of the roommates in episode 2), but most of the time they either can’t (because of timing) or don’t want to (because it’ll only confirm opinions of the pilot) send out more.

I say this not to complain, but simply to illustrate why you should be prepared to take many of the reviews we write over the next few weeks with a large grain of salt. Some pilots will prove to be more or less in line with what comes later, but a lot of them won’t. A show I’m lukewarm on now could become one of my favorites in a few months time. (See “Parks and Recreation” or “Life” for examples of this.) I would say that a great pilot could be followed by a bad series (“The Nine” Effect), but there aren’t any pilots this year I would consider great.

So we’ll do our best, and then I’ll revisit things that interest me as time permits. Which brings me to the second issue: what will I be writing about every week?

Covering every show has never been possible, but even my pace of the last couple of years has been tough to maintain, with quality sometimes suffering in the name of quantity. So I’m going to try slightly tweaking my approach going into this season, helped by the fact that even the new shows I find promising (like “New Girl”) don’t necessarily feel well-suited for weekly analysis. In terms of shows I plan to cover, I’m going to divide things into two categories: The Rotation, and Everything Else.

The Rotation: These are the shows I either consider to be among the very best on television, ones I have a sentimental attachment to and/or ones I just think are interesting to write about every week. As of now, looking over the fall schedule those are, alphabetically, “Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Chuck,” “Community,” “Doctor Who,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Sons of Anarchy” and maybe “The Walking Dead.” (We’ll see how I’m feeling after I see some season 2 screeners.)

Those are the shows I will do my best to write about every single week, posting reviews either the night they air (usually if I’ve seen them in advance) or the next morning (if I haven’t).

Everything Else: This includes some things I have written about fairly regularly in the past (“Parenthood,” “Modern Family”), others I’ve touched on less frequently (“Good Wife,” “Always Sunny”), a lot of the new shows, etc. Things will be much faster and looser here. In some cases, if I’ve seen an episode relatively close to when it first aired, I’ll put up a post with maybe a brief opinion and then an invitation for you fine people to discuss the episode. (“Parenthood” seems a good candidate for that.) In a lot of cases, I’ll just check in on occasion if an episode was particularly noteworthy, if I feel I have something to say about a recent run of episodes or a particular storyline, etc. The idea is to be able to touch on as many things as possible as often as possible while still keeping me sane and upright.

Please note that this division in coverage is NOT solely reflective of how I feel about different show’s quality, but about where my particular interests in writing and quirks in my schedule lie. “Modern Family” is a better overall comedy than “HIMYM” right now, for instance, but I find that I have a lot more to say about individual episodes of “HIMYM,” where my “Modern Family” reaction more often boils down to “I thought that episode was funny” or “I didn’t laugh much.” I like “Fringe,” but it airs on a night when I’m simply unable to write about any show I haven’t seen in advance (as opposed to “Chuck,” where I should still be getting screeners for the final season). I often like to marathon multiple “The Good Wife”s rather than watching it on a weekly basis, etc. That I haven’t written about a show in a while, or didn’t write about a particular episode doesn’t mean I hated it, or have turned against it; it just means I didn’t have time for it then, and/or didn’t have anything to say.(**)

(**) And, as always, I’ll ask you not to fill up the comments section about Show A demanding to know where  the review for Show B is. The answer, as always, is that I’ll get to it when I do, or I won’t. If you want to request a review, lodge a complaint, etc., my e-mail remains very easy to remember: sepinwall@hitfix.com 

As always, the plan is to be flexible. One of these new shows might be so brilliant by episode 4 that it’ll demand weekly analysis; ditto a veteran Everything Else show making an unexpected leap, or heading into an area where I want to keep discussing it. And at the same time, I might lose interest in a Rotation show after a while. (If, say, the James Spader era of “The Office” isn’t working after a couple of months.) There will also be cancellations, hiatuses, mid-season debuts, etc., to keep things in flux.

So buckle up, cuz tons of debuts and returns are coming, and there’s going to be a lot – good, bad and ugly – to discuss over the coming weeks.

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