6:00am PT by Tim Goodman
TCA Journal No. 5: Which Series are Generating Buzz
Chief Television Critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journals throughout the Television Critics Association summer press tour, bringing insight, analysis, counter-spin and some snark to the nearly three-week industry presentation.
It's hard to pin down buzz, beyond the obvious that critics are talking about a show and are generally looking forward to more episodes. But it's also about standing out in a very crowded pack, piquing interest, sparking hope. That alone is worth more these days than it ever has, because godspeed to any series that manages to rise even slightly above its teeming rivals.
While the television Renaissance continues, the hard truth for those who create the content is that getting noticed even for superior and impressive fare is insanely hard to do. And that's frustrating.
While buzz has been in short supply for a lot of the fall network series — a lot critics seem to struggle just to recall what they've seen before coming to the press tour, which is not a good sign — a number of series across the spectrum from cable to streaming have managed to pop, whether that's from a full pilot or an intriguing trailer. You can consider these following series, in no particular order, preseason winners on some level:
• Westworld and Vinyl, HBO: Probably the two biggest buzz shows (so far) won't even be here until 2016, but HBO got tongues wagging with two extended trailers (that haven't been shown in public) at TCA. The reimagining of Westworld by Jonathan Nolan into a series was one of those immediate "how many episodes can you have as quickly as possible" moments that are so rare. In the same executive session, HBO head Michael Lombardo also showed Vinyl, a star-studded rock-and-rolling look at the music industry from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter. A trailer with a fraction of the content went public on Tuesday, and if people are flipping out about that tiny trailer, just wait.
• Ash vs. Evil Dead, Starz. The trailer has been out for a while now and the panel here did not disappoint, with star Bruce Campbell owning the stage. The combination of horror and comedy and, well, lots of blood looked intriguing.
• Into the Badlands, AMC: The bloody, high-octane extended trailer for Into the Badlands was a kick-ass combination of martial arts and very, very dangerous knives. It had a retro, dystopian feel that kept people talking.
• The Muppets, ABC: Kind of hard to go wrong here. But it really is a perfect marriage of franchise and network.
• Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The CW: Look who's at it again? Though it's not fully done and getting more episodes will be key, the fact that critics are talking about it and eager for those episodes is reminiscent of the resurgent channel's Jane the Virgin breakout. The good times keep rolling at The CW.
• Flesh and Bone, Starz: Another series that makes you not want to let your kids take ballet, but one that looked like it had enough grit and promise to keep an eye out for (and a TCA panel that helped).
• Supergirl, CBS: It will have to work without other genre series around it, but fans have found these shows elsewhere so maybe it's no big trick. It might seem to fit better on sister network The CW, but CBS is certainly in the discussion on this one.
• Walt Disney 'American Experience,' PBS: While Sherlock and Downton Abbey are locks to get noticed, PBS often has its work cut out in other areas. The channel says Disney had no say in the content, and even with worries about how hard the creators will be on Disney's flaws, both the sizzle reel and interview session made this a must watch.
• Quantico, ABC and Scream Queens, Fox: These two are grouped together because they represent the split-room phenomenon where a lot of people like them for what they are — fun, well-done and entertaining — while others find them rote and tedious. Given the massive amount of new programming, just being argued about is a good thing. Fox arrives Thursday, so Scream Queens' buzz could rise or fall based on the panel.
• The Man in the High Castle, Amazon: This is an intriguing case of buzz. The pilot has been done and up on Amazon for a while (generating heat when it premiered), but the series has gotten a fresh round of attention now that Amazon picked it up and presented a panel here. In fact, this alternative history take based on the Philip K. Dick book had a lot of people newly excited.
• American Epic, PBS: It's not coming until January of 2016, and on paper it might seem dry: The documentary focuses on how a "portable recording machine" allowed, for the first time, regional music to be recorded, documented and heard everywhere or, as executive producer Robert Redford said, "It was the first time America heard itself." T Bone Burnett and Jack White have assembled a bunch of disparate musicians to record together, like Nas, Taj Mahal, the Avett Brothers, Elton John, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and others, and the resulting product looks fascinating.
• Blindspot, NBC: Sometimes when networks have upcoming shows that are despised, buzz for other content gets tamped down. But Blindspot, about a mysterious woman whose memories have been erased and her body covered in new, clue-ridden tattoos, has stood out as extremely intriguing. A panel for the show, as NBC closes out TCA on Aug. 13, is much-anticipated because there are a lot of questions about what direction the show will take. But for getting noticed — mission accomplished.
• Narcos, Netflix: It will be here soon enough (Aug. 28) but the Pablo Escobar drug cartel series showcased superb acting and a different approach to the material (meaning, it's not some "U.S. saves the day" thing) and a very informative panel with all the players here at TCA got it a lot more attention than it might have had without being here.
• Red Oaks, Amazon: Another pilot that's been available on the Amazon site for a while, the comedy, from David Gordon Green and Steven Soderbergh, is set at a country club in the 1980s, and is getting renewed interest from having a panel here (Paul Reiser, Richard Kind, Jennifer Grey, etc.) with a better explanation of where it's going.
• Grinder, Fox: The comedy about a famous TV lawyer (Rob Lowe) and his not-famous but actual lawyer brother (Fred Savage) is one of the few broadcast comedies that really got noticed (whereas the genre was a strong point last year). It's a good sign that interest hasn't flagged, and actually increased, after the Fox panel on Thursday.
• The Last Kingdom, BBC America: It got a little lost on a very busy (and early) cable day on press tour, including being sandwiched between the popular Doctor Who panel and a very brief clip of Luther (too short to judge, but the room has been very favorable to Luther and Idris Elba in the past). This tale of "the birth of England" with Vikings, pagans, Christians and more has that Game of Thrones vibe.
• Transparent, Amazon: Yes, we got an extended clip from season two of the Golden Globe-winning (and Emmy-favorite) show that put an exclamation point on the new influence of streaming services. And you know what? Not surprisingly, it delivered — looking intriguing and different and like it smartly advances the story. No letdown here.
• The Leftovers, HBO: Another different take on the buzz phenomenon, since some reviewers either passed entirely or didn't take to the first season. There was chatter about getting on board after last season (sometimes, just like you, we have to play catch-up), and for those of us who did love the first season, wholesale changes (primarily location) and some big surprises sparked renewed interest that maybe this show will get its due next season.
• And finally, Stephen Colbert, CBS: We won't have him in front of us until Aug. 10, but late night's new major player is always creating interest. CBS may not have a bigger slam dunk for the fall.
So there you have it, the current status of the elusive buzz — hard to come by, easy to lose over time — from critics and TV reporters from all around the country and Canada, stuck in a hotel talking about TV. We'll see which shows hold, increase or lose their buzz before the season starts or, just as interesting, which ones manage to finally break into the conversation.
(As of press time, no copies of Showtime's Billions or FX's Bastard Executioner or a full episode of Fox's Minority Report had been available or seen.)