Of all the distractions that have kept me from writing - a protracted illness, a promotion at work, life in general - none has been quite has captivating the past few days as the news from TV pilot season. Though many things change in these modern media times (it's a theme for me, just now), the major networks and their pilot development system has, oddly, not changed all that much. From January to about April, Hollywood busily prepares experimental episodes of dozens of new TV shows, and the networks study and test them while deciding which TV shows live or die for next season's schedule. The biggest change from when I was a kid is that gossip about the pilot process is way more visible now than it ever was, and the "early line" on next season's hot new shows starts... yesterday. Thanks mostly, to Deadline Hollywood and their TV editor Nellie Andreeva (if you still don't know about Nikki Finke and Nellie et al and you care at all about Film or Television as a business, just hang your head in shame), we get more news these days about the TV pilots than ever, and this past week has been fast and furious as up fronts (the period when Network TV still sells most of their advertising for the coming year) start next week, with new schedules revealed and the general public surprised, happy or saddened with news of their favorite shows. These days, people who really care already know, and the "save my show" campaigns either already happened or generally, it's too late.
In any case, now is a nice moment to recap some of the past TV season as it winds to a close, and we know a lot about who's going, whose staying (and even some of what's coming, though I won't comment on them yet. Mostly). So here are some farewells and some celebrations and some... why did that come back?
First, the farewells:
- GCB. Based on the novel Good Christian Bitches, ABC been's auditioning this Texas soap for a spot on the fall schedule (presumably, to replace Desperate Housewives, which finally limped to its close). The show focused on Brooke, whose perfect seeming marriage ended at the start of the show with the death of her philandering, embezzling husband, and her return to the wealthy Dallas enclave where her mother Gigi still lives. Their lives revolved around the local baptist church, full of Texas money and sudsy storylines. The show wasn't perfect - a little too much camp, a lot of bitchy arch dialogue, and some preposterous plotting - but for the show it was aiming to replace, it seemed like a pretty good start. Sadly, ABC has decided to go in other directions (let's save our hope for 666 Park Avenue and Nashville, especially), leaving Leslie Bibb still looking for the star vehicle she really deserves.... not to mention poor Kristen Chenoweth, who may never find another role so tailored to her talents.
- Ringer. Hopes were high when the former Queen of the WB and the first big anchor for the new CW (when they merged with UPN) was coming back in a new series. But the least convincing thing in this good twin/bad twin mixup was the lead herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who looked wan and uncomfortable from the get-go (and from what I hear, never got better. I just gave up after three epsidoes last fall). Perplexingly complex, and not in that good way where you care to figure it out, Ringer never found an audience, and I think most fans just want to fondly remember the best days of Buffy when Gellar and Joss Whedon were firing on all cylinders (and, to be fair, you could argue that we remember Buffy herself better than Gellar actually was. I know, sacrilege). In any case, I suspect Gellar's own judgment about her next best role doesn't take into account that she'd be better in a more active, dynamic, and physically demanding part - say a tough talking cop or such. Locked into the role of wealthy man's plaything brings out a kind of passivity in Gellar's performing that was really hard to take.
- The Secret Circle. The most mystifying of duds, as this witchy poo bit of business followed The Vampire Diaries (built in audience), was created by Kevin Williamson (both Dawson's and TVD), and was based on a book by the creator of Vampire Diaries (i.e., Williamson already knew how to work the source material). And the premise seemed promising - teen witches, sexy derring do, hints of danger and big dark secrets... and then, nothing. Recasting the hot teen blonde boy after 4 episodes was a sign of buyer's remorse at the CW (the kid was wooden... but who isn't in that casting pool?), and the show never found a satisfying tone. But that's just the beginning of bizarre misfires all around (especially making the lead girl generally less likable with every episode), and especially perplexing when The Vampire Diaries seemed completely immune to any of these plotting disasters (providing a gasp filled, near perfect finale to boot). But then, that's Williamson for ya - he shoots for the rafters and when it's good (those shows, Scream), it's brilliant, and when it flops (later seasons of Dawson, Scream 4), it really fails. Here's hoping his next venture works better...
- Harry's Law. I don't care - and if you're under 55, you probably don't either - but here's another example of network still not believing that older audiences, especially older women, are worth courting, even in large numbers. Harry's Law was actually NBC's second largest drama series in terms of audience, yet they seemd to think nothing of tossing it, while courting not fourth place, but fifth, among major networks (that's right.. on some nights, even Univision beats them). All because Harry's Law was next to nothing in 18-49, but huge in older audiences. We are on the cusp of a moment when senior viewing is bound to matter more (baby boomers in their golden years... anyone?), but apparently, not enough for a legal procedural led by an older female actress who's wildly popular within her age cohort. Which probably means another Emmy for Kathy Bates, and a lot of angry bloggers.
- Pan Am (and The Playboy Club and Awake and Missing and The River and Alcatraz...). A number of high profile, big budget drama series came and went with surprising speed, with Pan Am being among the most high profile and prominent duds. both Pan Am and the shorter lived Playboy Club tried to get some ziz out of the same neo-sixties vibe that's apparently made Mad Men a hit, but both shows kind of underlined what Mad Men struggles with (and better): that roles for women in the sixties were professionally limiting, highly decorative, and probably caused the Women's Movement. Personally, I thought the Playboy Club explored these tensions better than the others, but of course... they're still Playboy Bunnies and the sexism was especially built in. Pan Am pretty much gave up from the start, trying to lace the obviously dull roles of glorified waitresses with a preposterous Cold War spy story that was more annoying than interesting. But the amazing thing about Pan Am was the obvious enormous expense of it all, recreating Eeno Saarinen's famed Pan Am terminal at JFK, the planes, the foreign locales (and in period)... the question of "and, why?" never entirely went away. Obviously, networks feel that the expense is worth it when shows pan out and become hits... but this season seemed especially loaded with expensive boondoggles (period dramas, pricey - yet untried - talent like Ashley Judd, elaborately scripted fantasy) of questionable long term prospect. And next season, though somewhat reined in, does seem like few execs learned much from their mistakes (though ABC apparently passed on Shonda Rimes expensive, elaborate soap Gilded Lilys, set in the Gilded Age).
And, on a happier note, I'm glad to see that these are coming back:
- The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural. The CW renewed a raft of its current successes - not just these two horror/fantasy shows, but also Nikita, Gossip Girl and 90210 - suggesting that they've found a way to make shows that may fly uder conventional radar, but attract rabid followings nonetheless (If GG can't be called a hit, it's remarkable that its made Blake Lively a fashion and media star, just as one example). Supernatural seemed to have played its big story arc out in six seasons, and the seventh has been touch and go, but as long as the actors are game, I'm happy to stick with it; while the Vampire Diaries has shown remarkable fluidity writing itself into corners and then imaginatively breaking through them. Add in another interesting fantasy show next season along with the prequel to Sex and the City (the Carrie Diaries), and the CW seems poised to remain the network that gets the young viewer.
- Scandal. I was dubious about yet another Shonda Rimes exercise with a commanding female lead in the world of male power (in this case, politics and Washington wheeling and dealing), but steady underplaying and some effective but uderstated writing have convinced me that Scandal is the real thing - a solid, fairly unique premise that lets talented people shine in a layered ensemble (all that, and it manages to avoid seeming like a pale carbon of, say, The Good Wife). Kerry Washington does, as it turns out, make a captivating series lead, and an interracial affair with the President turns out to be way hotter and more plausible than one might think. Densely plotted, and you have to pay attention... but Rimes gets things about TV plotting that others only dream to know, making it easy to keep things straight and stay interested. What mystifies me is why the other two Shondaland shows - Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice - both of which seem creatively spent, will limp along next year while other, interesting shows fall away (can you sense my GCB bitterness?).
- Don't Trust the B- in Apt. 23. Comedy's an ugly business these days, full of asinine guys and insulting humor (and yet, I still love me some Archer)... which, somehow is what makes this show about a crass, unlikable woman in the lead all the more offbeat and appealing. Pairing a nice, innocent lamb in the city with a manipulative, selfish but brilliant ne'er do well is hardly new, but nothing on the B- feels stale. And then there's the genius of having James van der Beek play... James van der Beek, shallow and dopey has-been from Dawson's Creek. The byplay between the three leads is smart and refreshing, and the plots, thus far, have been brilliant combinations of sly and sick. If they can keep up the pace set in the first five, the creators are geniuses. If it manages to be merely funny and fresh week to week, I'll take it.
- Community (and Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock and even Up All Night). It's been a long time coming, but my best friend managed to convince me that Community is way funnier and smarter than I realized (though the computer fantasy room is a cheap and easy write-around of doing some of the hard work). And even though I don't watch it, I know Parks and Recreation is good work. That they both survived predictions of cancellation is heartening, as is the fact that 30 Rock, however imperfectly, will have 13 episodes to wrap up their run as well next year. And, just as heartening, someone saw fit to give the promising cast and premise of Up All NIght a chance to get it together, too (it's Maya Rudolph's quasi-Oprah that really has me interested in what they can do). All these shows suggest that good comedy can be more than cheap insults and white guys being just jerks. And that deserves to survive, doesn't it?
- The Good Wife. Naturally. CBS may be renewing a raft of dubious nonsense (all those CSeyes, the twin NCISesses, that awful show with Tom Selleck as the head of the NYPD, never mind what passes for comedy there), but they are also renewing what's fast become the jewel of network prime time, an intelligent interesting show with a lot of fascinating characters you care about and follow week to week. That's what television, I think, is supposed to be. And, at least, the one show that proves how to do it well these days is still there.