It’s that time of year again. Beloved shows are back on air and new shows are vying to find their way into our viewing schedule (and our hearts). The premiere period seems to be pretty tight this year and a lot of shows have started or are starting again within a couple of weeks of each other. It was a bit tricky for me to decide when was the best time to write these mini-reviews. I asked myself “Should I wait for more episodes so that I can give new shows more of a chance?” It’s the kind of question that only tv fanatics would probably ask themselves. Oh well, guilty as charged.
There are a whole bunch of new shows this year that piqued my interest, so let’s start there.
A sitcom about an African-American family trying to hang on to their culture and heritage is not something that I would typically be interested in. Anthony Anderson and Tracy Ellis star as the parents to a middle class family who feel varying degrees of comfort around their kids (and themselves) not acting as “black” as they should be. These kinds of issues were fodder for sitcoms even 30 years ago when The Cosby Show tread similar ground. On that show it wasn’t the main focus, and Cosby managed to tell the story of a family that everyone could relate to, regardless of ethnicity. I found Black-ish to be a bit too strident about the issue of its title and so despite some funny scenes (one has Anderson and son trying to enact a traditional African rite-of-passage with hilarious lack of success) this show has ironically painted itself into an “urban” or ethnic subgenre (which is exactly what happened to Anderson’s character at the ad agency where he works). Hopefully this will help African-American viewers with their cultural dialogue, but as a Chinese-Canadian, these issues are less interesting to me and I’ve already had enough of this show.
Mysteries of Laura
From the premise, this show already seemed kind of lame. The elevator pitch might be: “Imagine if Columbo had been a mother of two young boys.” I gave it a chance because I always enjoyed Debra Messing from her work on Will & Grace. She plays the title character, a skilled NYPD detective who solves cases while trying to manage her sons (not to mention their father, her ex). When a tossed apartment turned out to be the work of her kids rather than criminals (which was the joke of that scene), I understood the level of sophistication this show was going to have. Despite an uneven tone (it’s not easy shifting from PTA jokes to a hard-boiled detective grilling a suspect), the first episode did win me over a bit with a couple of good twists. Plus, Castle is one of my favourite shows and it’s given me an appreciation for police dramedies. Unfortunately, after watching the second episode, my interested petered out. The level of this show was just too unsophisticated. I mean, whenever any new evidence or theory comes up during the investigation-of-the-week, Laura’s partner has to spell it out for us (and sometime there’s even a flashback shot in case we didn’t make the connections ourselves). Given how many other cop shows I’m not watching, the family-friendly angle is not much of an inducement for me to watch this one either.
A to Z
This is another sitcom that is perhaps not sustainable for an entire series (despite the fact that its gimmick — each episode is brought to us by a letter of the alphabet — seems to be just right for a season’s worth of episodes). Two actors who previously played side characters: Ben Feldman (one of the angels from Drop Dead Diva) and Cristin Milioti (who played the eventual Mother on How I Met Your Mother) meet cute (and apparently the voiceover tells us that there’s a certain end date to their relationship as well). So far that’s the entire gist of the show. Taking a cue from HIMYM, there is a little bit of theatrical structure (i.e. they may play with perspective or flashbacks) but beyond that, it’s just your regular, serviceable, rom-com sitcom. Every season there’s a couple of these that come and go like falling leaves.
Red Band Society
The elevator pitch for this series could either be: “Glee plus hospital, minus music”; or “The Breakfast Club set in a long-term care ward for teens”. After the first episode, where a couple of new kids (one a self-reliant boy who sneaks his way in to finagle leg amputation surgery; the other a blonde mean-girl cheerleader who ironically needs a heart transplant) join the gang and (kind of) bond with the other kids. Medical drama is typically a great way to bring out the important issues. Themes of life, death, and happiness play such a big part. This is one of the few attempts to use a medical backdrop to bring those serious themes to a teen show. I admired that idea and also the acting was not bad, especially with Octavia Spencer (who I think is great) playing the “no-nonsense black woman” as nurse. (They also won me over by quoting from the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry IV — one of my favourite speeches.) Sadly, by the second episode, the premise was not really living up to its promise. The “band of brothers” from episode one reverted to a bunch of mostly self-centred teens who spend the first half of the episode rebelling and trying to prove how “typical” they can be, until the end of the episode when the music plays and everyone comes to terms with the lessons they learned. I don’t feel like this show is going to be as fresh as it could have been.
Another show that seems derivative, Forever stars Ioan Gruffudd as a man who literally cannot die. He’s “cursed” so that every time he dies, he emerges alive and naked in the Hudson River. Apparently he’s been living this way for a couple hundred years (and he has the flashbacks to prove it). Now he works as a medical examiner (since it’s a good outlet for his understandable fascination with death) and helps a beautiful detective (played by Alana de la Garza) solve murders. This reminds me a lot of a show called New Amsterdam which was also set in NYC where Game of Thrones‘s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau played an immortal detective. On top of that, Gruffudd’s character of Dr. Henry Morgan is very intuitive and makes lots of deductions based on clues that he sees (and no one else does). This has clear echoes to a certain consulting detective who has no less than two active TV series and a film franchise going on, not to mention a number of other Holmes-esque analytical geniuses who have had their own crime-solving shows as well in recent years. I have to give credit to Gruffudd, who plays Morgan as a lot more likeable than any of the other Sherlocks. One other thing that bothers me about the series is how Morgan seems to die every episode. I get that it’s OK since he’s immortal, but it’s a bit unreal that he should be killed each week just because he can be. Though the “sci-fi” or fantasy overtones of this show are relatively light, the part that will keep a genre fan like myself interested is that Morgan gets a call from a mysterious stalker claiming to also be an immortal like himself (and who may have caused an accident that killed many innocents just to flush Morgan out).
This is probably one of the more hyped new shows of the season. Despite the recent overdose of super-heroes on the big and small screens, someone decided to make a prequel of sorts to the tale of Batman. Set in the titular metropolis of Gotham, the show actually kicks off with the very famous murders of Martha and Thomas Wayne, the parents of Bruce Wayne. We all know that these two killings will lead Bruce to become the Dark Knight, but it surprised me to realize that we don’t know much about the actual investigation into their murders. That’s where Gotham comes in, introducing James Gordon (played by Ben Mackenzie) — a white knight in the darkness. He would eventually become Commissioner Gordon but for now he gets in a heap of trouble with the Gotham underground when he starts digging into the case. At first I was ready to dismiss the show for its gratuitous cameos: a tweenage female catburgler is a silent witness to the Waynes’ murders; a riddle-writing forensic technician; a young daughter of a runaway thug is a bit too interested in plants. The one appearance that actually came off quite well was Oswald Cobblepot as one of the new underlings to Fish Mooney (played by Jada Pinkett Smith), a lieutenant in Carmine Falcone’s criminal organization. It’s very interesting to see The Penguin’s origins (and especially how he crosses paths with Gordon) in this prequel universe. The film-noir trappings are laid on a bit thick, but this show has a lot of potential to stand on its own (despite its super-heroic baggage).
I really enjoy shows and movies about geniuses (who are almost always socially inept). It’s like they have their own kind of super-power. Despite all the “based on real cases” messages that appear on the credits of this show, the story of Walter O’Brien (a genius hacker who was arrested as a child for breaking into NASA computers) and his gang of super-intelligent misfits seems pretty far-fetched. When air-traffic-control software is attacked by a virus and many in-flight planes are going to crash, Homeland Security finds them and gets them to help solve the problem. That’s great, and I could totally buy that if the show didn’t have these super-nerds physically breaking into secure data facilities, driving Maseratis under low-flying planes, and doing all manner of super-spy stuff as well. To me that raised the bogus factor up by a lot. OK, that being said, if I could suspend disbelief (just as I do when watching any spy-fi), I actually kind of enjoyed the show. I’m interested to see what problems/cases these guys solve next. (The title of the show, however, is way too motorcycle-gang cool and needs to go.)
I confess that I almost gave up on this show midway through the pilot episode. If it had not been a free download from iTunes I probably would have skipped to another show. I’m not a fan of US politics, so a show that features Tea Leoni as a retired CIA operative chosen by the POTUS as secretary of state after the previous secretary was killed, was not the most interesting premise to me. Add to that the problem that her family issues were going to be a focus of the show as well, and you’ve almost completely lost me. However, once again, spy-fi saves the day when evidence of a conspiracy is found and her old colleague from the CIA shows up at her home with some secret info. Suddenly the politics of the situation have a dark, sensational undercurrent. I’m not saying that I won’t still be bored with the admittedly well-crafted scenes of Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord working foreign affairs magic, but at least I finished the first episode.
How To Get Away With Murder
I don’t watch Scandal, and I definitely don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, so my exposure to the work of super-producer Shonda Rhimes is pretty close to zero. However, I was intrigued by this series both because it’s a lawyer show (I love those) and because it’s fronted by the always-amazing Viola Davis (Remember her from The Help?). Davis stars as Professor Annalise Keating, who can run both a successful, high-profile law firm as well as teach a class on criminal law at the university. The class is a big part of her life, and of the show, as she selects a handful of students each year to join her firm. The featured students include Wes Gibbins (played by Alfred Enoch, from the Harry Potter films) among others. The show is a lawyer show with arguments and evidence in a case, but it definitely focuses a lot more on the salacious and twisty plots and the people involved. Also, cut into the overall story are a series of flash-forwards to those same featured students trying to figure out what to do with a dead body that had been murdered. The title of the series is apparently not a joke. While there were two things going for this show, there are also two things against it. One, every scene seems to be shot in dim lighting — that bothers me. Two, I like my lawyer shows more brainy than soapy. Granted, many of the David Kelly shows, such as The Practice, had their fair share of sensational plot twists (so much so that you could not turn the channel until the credits rolled for fear of missing a huge reveal). We’ll have to cross our fingers about how the rest of this series will shake out.
Last (and maybe least) is a new sitcom starring former Dr. Who companion Karen Gillan (she played Amy Pond) as Eliza Dooley (the name is such an obvious allusion that I can’t even…) a shallow pharmaceutical sales rep suffers a social and emotional meltdown while trapped on a plane with all her coworkers. Realizing that her Facebook friends were not true friends, and that her obsession with social media is misguided, Eliza enlists the aid of a buttoned-down colleague of hers (played by John Cho) to help with a personality transformation. (I guess if they are following the blueprint of My Fair Lady, the two should also get together in the end.) On one hand, I love Gillan, and Cho is the guy who I would most want to play me if there was ever a movie about my life. On the other, despite its waving the inner-beauty banner, this show still seems vapid and trivial. I’m really rather torn on this one.
So, as I tally it, the new shows this season have not done so well. There are still a few more in the wings, including CW’s The Flash, and the mid-season series Constantine that seem potentially pretty cool, but I have to call this season as pretty “meh” for new shows. Let’s see how good the returning shows are instead …