I don’t want to come down too hard on ABC for its new summer dramas “Scoundrels” and “The Gates,” which premiere Sunday at 9 and 10 p.m., respectively. I’m a fan of scripted TV, and have been arguing for years that the broadcast networks were making a mistake filling their summer schedules with nothing but reality shows and letting cable channels like USA and TNT dominate the summer scripted market. And if faced with a choice between the two rookie dramas or more time watching people fall on their faces on “Wipeout” or Chris Harrison talk about people’s journeys, I’d go with the dramas.
But where, say, Fox is airing summer dramas it actually believes in (both “The Good Guys” and “Lie to Me” are also on the fall schedule), “Scoundrels” and “The Gates” (and the cop drama “Rookie Blue,” which debuts next Thursday) are cheap, dull filler programming ABC seems to be running so the network can claim it’s at least making an effort at non-reality summer TV.
“Scoundrels” is a remake of the popular New Zealand series “Outrageous Fortune,” about the Wests, a family of criminals struggling to go straight after the father (here played by David James Elliott from “JAG”) gets a long prison sentence for a minor charge. Virginia Madsen is the mom trying to hold things together for her four kids: an aspiring model (Leven Rambin), a high schooler who dabbles in blackmail (Vanessa Marano), and a pair of twins (both played by Patrick John Flueger), one an upstanding first-year lawyer and the other a dim-witted petty thief.
“Scoundrels” has a few problems from the outset. The first is that the Wests barely come across as criminals. The dad gets locked up in the opening scene, and while the mom runs a pawn shop that doubles as a fence for stolen goods, the bad twin is the only one making much of an effort at law-breaking, and he’s too stupid to do it right. (The blackmailing daughter just wants an excuse to ditch school without getting in trouble.) The premise that the Wests are having a hard time living as law-abiding citizens doesn’t work if they’re not too far removed from the Dunphys on “Modern Family.”
The second is that the show aspires to simultaneously be a wacky comedy and a more heartfelt drama with real stakes, and not only is the comedy forced (one scene tries to treat a failed date rape as a joke), but the two tones don’t mesh at all. Madsen has unfortunately returned to doing mediocre, low-profile projects like this after that brief post-“Sideways” period when A-list Hollywood remembered that she existed, and she does what she can to sell the emotional side of things, but she’s not especially funny and the show as a whole is flat when it clearly wants to bubble over.
“The Gates,” meanwhile, was filmed on the cheap in Shreveport, with a cast of vaguely familiar journeyman actors like Frank Grillo, Rhona Mitra and Chandra West. If one of these shows is going to be a hit, it’s this one, if only because it deals with vampires and other matters supernatural, and in this era of “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “Vampire Diaries,” fangs and blood-sucking may be the single easiest way to guarantee viewership.
(Frankly, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more struggling shows try using vamps to stave off cancellation. If “Better Off Ted” had revealed that Veronica was an actual vampire instead of just an emotional one, it would absolutely still be on the air, and probably no less funny.)
The series takes place inside a posh gated community apparently designed to keep its more monstrous residents safe and secret from the outside world, and also from the locals who have no idea their next door neighbors would like to feast on them. Among the ignorant is new police chief Nick Monohan (Grillo), and much of the series is shown from the point of view of Nick and his family as they begin to realize that (dun dun dun!) all is not as it seems in this perfect little suburb.
Telling much of the story from that perspective seems like a way of hedging bets for people who might prefer their soap operas to be fang-free, but that’s short-sighted and stupid. If you like shows about vampires and such, then you want to see as much of them as possible, and not have to suffer through boring, more earthbound domestic drama and police procedurals. And if you don’t, you’re going to tune out the second blood gets spilled. I don’t like “True Blood” or “Vampire Diaries,” but those shows wisely give the people what they want, where (at least in the pilot episode) “The Gates” is hedging its bets.
In the fall, when my viewing schedule is much busier, I tend to give new shows at least a couple of weeks before completely dismissing them. My DVR isn’t nearly as cluttered right now, but I still doubt I’ll be back for episode two of either “Scoundrels” or “The Gates.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org