July 23, 2014 10:54am PT by Tim Goodman
TCA: The 20 Best Panels
At the heart of the Television Critics Association press tour, which ends on Wednesday with PBS closing the door after 16 days, are the panels. What are they? Well, at their best, a good barometer of an upcoming show. At their worst, a pointless exercise in unrevealing answers, vapidity and the belief that just by existing, magic will happen with a series.
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A good panel is in part lively and entertaining, letting the audience know that even if the pilot for a certain sitcom fell a little flat, the creators and stars are actually quite funny, verbally nimble and creative, meaning there's a real chance for that show. Good panels are also insightful — the creators and producers reveal their working philosophy or beliefs, giving hope that they have the skills to guide a series long-term or that the complicated mythology on which the show is built has a working bible, not just some made-up babel.
Over the course of 16 days, there were roughly 150 panels, some good, some bad, many of them serviceable — in that they may not have dazzled but they got the relevant information into the ether. However, a number of them truly stood out. Now, in fairness, it should be noted that I was sick and missed the first day of PBS sessions (except for the Ken Burns panel, which ranks high here) and this is being published as PBS finishes its closing day.
Here are the 20 that were the best of the best:
1. Jane the Virgin, The CW: Never mind that this pilot is the surprise of the fall; the panel for it was a breakout party for star Gina Rodriguez, who was honest, insightful, adorable and magnetic. It's not often that you see everything come together at once for an actor, but it did that day — and that was something to witness.
2. Gotham, Fox: Executive producers should track down the transcript to this session and study it. This is how you sell a show to critics. Bruno Heller was intelligent and passionate, extremely thoughtful, listened to the questions (not afraid to battle a bit if necessary, but not annoyingly dismissive either). There were a lot of questions about how it was "a Batman show" without Batman, forays into the look and tone, questions about violence and intent, etc. Heller's reasoned answers sold Gotham like no sizzle reel ever could.
3. Paul Lee executive session, ABC: Now you might call this a real long shot. Most executive sessions are high on spin, low on honesty and inherently unsuited for such a list. But ABC delivered one of the most racially diverse television schedules in ages and Lee spoke eloquently about how (and why) the network did it (along with addressing the network's shortcomings last season with at least some frankness). Well done.
4. The Simpsons, FX. D'oh! Who would have thought that a panel about FXX getting all 552 episodes (and counting) of The Simpsons would go beyond just wonkily explaining how the coup could establish FXX and, instead, blow the minds of everybody in the room by showing how the online experience worked? Stephanie Gibbons, president of marketing and on-air promotions at FX, explained one of the most geekily immersive apps and online experiences ever dedicated to a show and turned what could have been a nuts-and-bolts tech seminar into the happiest of days. Seriously, what "Simpsons World" can do is … everything.
5. Ken Burns, PBS. The hardest-working man in television (he's currently working on seven documentaries simultaneously) was here to promote his next big offering — The Roosevelts. As is his custom, Burns brings a level of gravitas, intelligence and passion to press tour that's rarely seen.
6. Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, HBO: Dave Grohl's roman candle passion for music (and his often hilarious storytelling) infused this session about his documentary with unexpected zest. Since I missed PBS, I should point out that Grohl's session was reminiscent of many from PBS where the panel seems decently interesting by the description, then you attend and get unexpectedly moved. An incredible job for HBO by Grohl.
7. Fargo, FX: One of the best and most unexpected gems of the last season outlined what it would do in its next. A surprise panel from the cable channel, and a nice, confident job by creator Noah Hawley.
8. Sleepless in America/American War Generals, National Geographic Channel: These two unscripted series had fascinating panels that stuck in my brain long after they were over. From the devastating effects of lack of sleep to the inside stories of war generals, these two panels offered a lot of information and made me want to watch.
9. The Honourable Woman, Sundance TV: The most basic goal of a TCA panel is to make you want to watch the series. It should build excitement and anticipation. Star Maggie Gyllenhaal lit a torch about this series and she wasn't wrong: I rushed to watch and loved it.
10. Black-ish/Cristela, ABC: After Lee expertly proved that ABC was going to be a frontrunner in diversity, these two shows confirmed it. But they also did two other essential things, with differing outcomes. Black-ish was a textbook successful panel in that it seemed to sway a lot of critics who liked but didn't love the pilot, giving assurances that the show was in good hands, with strong post-pilot potential. That's exactly what a network should pray happens. Cristela proved that ABC was right to see something in star Cristela Alonzo, who is better than the material she's been given. Like Rodriguez from Jane the Virgin, Alonzo could be a breakout star, and her appearance at TCA was triumphant. Unfortunately, it would take a lot of improvement to get the actual show in shape.
11. The Game, Intruders, A Poet In New York, BBC America: Smaller channels can't blow the limited time they are allotted, and BBC America never does. It always has high-interest panels that illuminate intriguing shows. All three of these set the hook.
12. South Park, Hulu. Another surprise panel, which did essentially the same thing that The Simpsons one did: create joy in the room. Matt Stone and Trey Parker were here to explain that Hulu would be the exclusive home to every South Park season. Between this and the Simpsons app, the world will come to a standstill.
13. The Strain, FX. For some reason, networks and some cable channels have moved away from bringing returning series to the press tour, which is a shame. The Strain is new, of course, but it was already on the air by the time TCA started (as were several other FX series). But the idea is to keep fostering interest, and one great way to do that is to have creator Guillermo del Toro just show up and talk. Give this guy his own show. Did you know he has his own museum? A raucous, insightful panel.
14. The Knick, Cinemax: It's hard to go wrong with Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen. But the former talked about why he basically un-retired to do The Knick (which has been picked up for a second season before it's even premiered) and the latter told how he changed his thinking, from The Knick being a one-off series he could do between movies to the main creative thing he's interested in. Revealing stuff all around.
15. The Affair, Showtime: Sometimes an unassuming show expands at a panel and that's what happened here, not just in how the creators talked about the interesting structure of the series but how it's almost purposefully misleading in what it's about. Kind of an eye-opener.
16. A Young Doctor's Notebook and Other Stories, Ovation: Hooray for the little niche channels that can. Daniel Radcliffe was live via satellite to talk about the upcoming second season of this very under-the-radar series that also stars Jon Hamm. If it's not the poster series for "Wow, there's more TV than anyone knows about," what is? Good stories from Radcliffe as well, particularly about him and Hamm in a bathtub.
17. The Flash, The CW: The panel was a success not only in explaining issues of origin — always important with these comic franchises — but also in showing a strong cast and focused direction. Panels like this give faith.
18. The Chair, Starz: The channel called this an "original filmmaking experiment and our first original unscripted series. It documents two first-time directors as they take their shot at adapting their own versions of the same screenplay following the same rules. Both must produce a feature-length film, stick to the same budget and shoot in the same city." Compelling. It went from something I might skip to something I want to follow.
19. The After, Amazon: Part of the appeal was Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, getting back into television (on a new platform) and part of it was how interesting the entire gamut of Amazon content was, with Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios, acquitting himself extremely well. But hell, you can't beat Carter saying the series is heavily influenced by the 99 cantos in Dante's "Inferno." OK, I'm in.
20. Tie: Al Jazeera America News panel; Fox comedy panel; FX casting directors' panel; NBC ratings panel; NBC drama showrunners panel; FX, Fox, Showtime, CBS research panel: Yeah, I like these kinds of panels. More in January, please.