Second Look: How Some Freshman Shows Are Getting It Done -- Or Not
A random sample of comedies and dramas reveal some hits, some misses and some necessary fine-tuning for continued success.
It's been a mixed bag of hits, misses and on-the-bubble shows when it comes to this television season's freshman crop. Here's a look at how a select sampling of them have succeeded -- or not -- and what can be done to improve themselves creatively and increase their chances of survival.
The Blacklist (NBC): This was the fall drama that really got most everything right, from star to concept to the network promotion being spot on. Already a hit for NBC, the James Spader-led series is an excellent, entertaining hour and is self-aware enough to know that Spader is the catalyst, and the more screen time he gets the better.
What it did right: Spader.
What it can improve: At some point, a one-person show is just that. The Blacklist needs to do a better job of spreading stories to the rest of the cast and making us actually care about them. The show has certainly tried, but it always seems a bit thin. Still, hard to argue with how much fun it is.
Sleepy Hollow (Fox): Here's a series that rather impressively improved as it went on from episode to episode. I noted in my initial review that Sleepy Hollow was a lot more fun to watch the weirder and more out there it got. When it tries to be grounded, there isn't as much traction.
What it did right: When it flipped sensibilities and didn't worry about boundaries, the entertainment level spiked. The trajectory of its season saw a lot more loopiness, which made me applaud the effort.
What it can improve: Sleepy Hollow did a fair enough job explaining the mythology buried in the story, but more work can be done there as well.
Hostages (CBS): If the network gives this show a second season, it will most likely be with a different cast and concept. But I can't imagine CBS will want to try this experiment again. With roughly five million loyal viewers, that was much, much too low for anything on CBS. And Hostages just wasn't really a CBS show in that it was an open-ended, 15-episode "thriller" that required commitment. Clearly, the CBS audience prefers procedurals. And in this case, you can't blame them.
What it did right: Hostages started great -- the pilot as compelling as any this fall, with Dylan McDermott playing an FBI agent blackmailing a surgeon (Toni Collette) into killing the president during surgery or her own family would be killed.
What it can improve: But from the second episode, Hostages got bogged down in complication. Threats weren't exactly carried out, and it became a plodding, boring bit of inertia. Those who hung around got a pay off for their loyalty, but this was a premise that worked on paper, not on screen.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC): This Marvel concept was supposed to be ABC's big fall knockout punch, but it seems expectations were probably (and maybe unfairly) too high. The show will surely get a second season because it began to find itself roughly at the halfway point -- longer than anyone probably wanted, but better to find a sense of purpose than not.
What it got right: For a show that wasn't going to be able to rely on all the marquee superheroes that fans would have loved to see drop by, S.H.I.E.L.D. had to teach its audience that there were still cool "threats" out there, with normal humans showing traces of having "a gift" that, if not controlled, could become "a weapon" if they fell into the wrong hands. Later efforts at this improved significantly and, technically, what the series got right was finding the right tone after early stumbles. It's not perfect, but it can still be an intriguing hour.
What it can improve: Early on, S.H.I.E.L.D. spent too much time -- slow time -- introducing its characters (only Fitz/Simmons and Coulson seemed fully formed). Too much time on the Skye character in particular bogged down the forward motion and there was -- and still is -- a little too much blandness to the writing.
Super Fun Night (ABC): An argument could be made that the reason America didn't fall in love and buy into this show (as they had previously shown a real love for star Rebel Wilson), nor into the higher-profile Michael J. Fox Show (on NBC and now pulled from the schedule but not technically canceled), is that the humor was, intended or not, built around laughing at the characters, not with them. That's uncomfortable for everyone. ABC hasn't yet decided what to do with Super Fun Night, but it definitely needs an overhaul to go forward.
What it got right: Casting Rebel Wilson.
What it can improve: Give fans a reason to applaud her successes, not watch her fail and humiliate herself. Also, the concept was paper thin to begin with -- was it friends who stay in but secretly wish they should go out, or was it Wilson in the workplace, perhaps finding love? Reboot or give up.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox): It's hard to call this hit a surprise since the pilot was dead-on funny, but sometimes that's not enough (and as a police comedy, a notoriously difficult genre, there were obstacles to its success). But Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been impressively hilarious week-to-week and is one of the most complete, fully-formed freshman series in ages.
What it got right: Everything, basically. But most importantly, the tone. To offset Andy Samberg's wackiness with Andre Braugher's no-flinch seriousness was a fantastic idea well-executed. And the series immediately identified the ensemble cast as a series of potential laughs whenever needed, then has fleshed that cast out as the season went.
What it can improve: Don't change anything.
Intelligence (CBS): Competing with The Blacklist and ABC's veteran Castle hasn't been easy for Intelligence, but really, the show has no one to blame but itself. Think of Chuck but without the laughs -- Josh Holloway plays a man "with a supercomputer microchip in his brain." Unfortunately, it's not as cool or compelling as it sounds.
What it got right: Holloway is a good choice for a leading man, mixing charm, sarcasm and annoyance. Plus, the concept could be intriguing if it's well-defined.
What it can improve: In the early episodes, Intelligence just seemed hokey. Not only was Holloway plugged into the "information grid" and able to theoretically use technology to get into and out of jams successfully, but he could also visualize scenarios in his brain (the visuals frozen on screen as he walked around them) and make profiler-like observations. It was too much, clumsily-executed and stopped the action dead in its track. If the show sticks to him being deployed to various problem spots, focusing on a defined set of skills, it would play better. Right now, too much and too hokey.
Rake (Fox). Greg Kinnear is a good investment for a leading man and Fox probably wanted another of TV's most favorite archetypes -- the flawed, mostly annoying but ultimately skilled or charming man who saves the day despite said flaws. But in Rake, Kinnear's degenerate lawyer character never leaves you wanting to like him or have him succeed.
What it got right: Kinnear.
What it can improve: Giving the audience a rooting interest. The show goes out of its way to make Kinnear the gambling-addicted, heavy-drinking, womanizing and conniving louse, but spends almost no time redeeming him. And along the way, there's not many laughs to keep that behavior interesting. The series, if it's not too late already, needs to expand quickly to the supporting cast, but could ultimately be suffering from viewer fatigue at these sorts of characters.