Critic's Notebook: 12 Shows That Helped Themselves (and 5 That Didn't) at TCA

Why 'Handmaid's Tale,' 'The Chi' and 'Black Lightning' should come out of the Television Critics Association's winter press tour optimistic, but 'Roseanne' might have something new to feel grouchy about.
Courtesy of ABC/Adam Rose
The reunited cast of 'Roseanne'

The Television Critics Association's winter press tour wrapped its 14-day run Wednesday in Pasadena, and the roomful of 200-plus critics and reporters asked questions through more than 135 panels (the exact numbers begin to blur) for series, limited series, TV movies, reality series, docuseries, musical specials and a dozen brave executives.

If you're reading this article at all, coverage of the press tour likely filled your Twitter feeds and media newsletters for the past two weeks, and interviews from the tour will fill countless features for months to come. But beyond that, the press tour is often at its most valuable when it's getting new shows on our collective radar.

What follows is a rundown of some of the shows that benefited from their TCA experience this month and a few shows that probably didn't.

Twelve shows that helped themselves

HBO's 2 Dope Queens | A little joy goes a long way, and Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson brought a lot of joy to the Langham stage to pitch their series of HBO specials to a room of critics with variable awareness of their popular podcast. Treating their panel like a podcast episode, the duo told stories, made jokes and kept the energy almost impossibly high for 25 minutes, which included by-name shout-outs to each critic who asked a question. Make that "a little expert pandering goes a long way." Well-played, Jessica and Phoebe.

The CW's Black Lightning, FX's Pose and Showtime's The Chi | These three shows could have taken up three slots on this list, but I'm cheating and combining them as three passionate celebrations of inclusivity and the power of having your voice heard and seeing yourself represented on the big and small screen. Creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (Black Lightning), Steven Canals (with Ryan Murphy on Pose) and Lena Waithe (The Chi) all epitomize the progress that TV is making in pushing into wholly unexplored and deeply personal spaces; each of the three panels was inspirational, and the shows all appear to be promising. Bring it on.

E!'s Citizen Rose | Some wariness set in when Rose McGowan preceded her panel with a taped clip urging us to be respectful and not to specifically mention a certain disgraced Hollywood figure by name, but once she took the stage, McGowan was raw, honest and immediate. At a press tour of #MeToo questions for stars and executives big and small, this was the defining panel of the two weeks. Does that mean McGowan's show is going to be any good? Gracious no. I haven't seen a frame of the series. But consider me curious.

CBS' Instinct | It's a common TCA press tour phenomenon, the panel that's better than the TV show being touted. No January panel illustrated the phenomenon better than CBS' rather generic procedural Instinct, most notable for featuring Alan Cumming as the first gay male crime-fighting lead on a broadcast show (or something like that). The pilot of Instinct is neither good nor bad. It just exists. But Cumming as a TCA stage presence is a magnificent thing. He was quippy, lively and brought out a live dynamic with co-star Bojana Novakovic that isn't in the pilot. This panel bought Instinct at least a second episode for me.

YouTube's Impulse | The pilot for YouTube Red's Jumper-adjacent new action drama is decent, with some good action beats courtesy of director Doug Liman. It also features an act of sexual violence as an instigating event, the kind of thing that could feel really exploitative if it's poorly considered. Liman wisely ceded the floor to Lauren LeFranc, who explained effectively how the assault and its consequences will be treated throughout the first season without cheapening it. I had doubts. I was sold.

Hulu's Handmaid's Tale | Nothing is more tenuous than the position of a show that arrived in a supernova of hype in its first season as it heads into its second. Showrunner Bruce Miller, exec producer Warren Littlefield and especially star Elisabeth Moss were convincing in trying to reassure critics that a lot of thought has been put into a second season of a show that is leaving its Margaret Atwood source material behind, but still retains spiritual connection to Atwood's world and worldview.

Lifetime's This Time Next Year | Here's part of why the press tour is a good thing, because normally a sentimental Lifetime reality show about people trying to change their lives over the course of a year, even a show hosted by Cat Deeley, wouldn't have been in my wheelhouse. After a half-hour with Deeley and the inspirational subjects of the show made me unironically interested. Keep an eye out for the Kriegs, a couple whose struggle with infertility is handled with tears and an amazing quantity of tears. By this time next year, they may have their own TV show.

FX's Atlanta | No available screeners? No problem. Donald Glover led the way by comparing the acclaimed comedy's second season to an episode of Tiny Toons and what followed was a clever and challenging panel in which Glover and brother Stephen tried explaining how high expectations influenced and challenged the new run of Atlanta episodes.

Showtime's Our Cartoon President | Even as a neurotic liberal, I don't need another show mimicking and mocking the current occupant of the White House. I can respect the genius of Anthony Atamanuik's Trump impression and yet be unable to deal. I've never loved the animated Trump appearances on The Late Show. What I enjoy, though, is watching Stephen Colbert work off-the-cuff, where he's really at his best. Colbert's riffing on the show's strange animation process and approach to the circus that is the White House made me open to the possibilities of yet another "Donald Trump is a Dangerous Boob" comedy. 

PBS' Live From Lincoln Center — Sutton Foster in Concert | Every press tour, PBS brings out a musical act for an evening performance and few have been better than Sutton Foster's nine-song set, including numbers from several of her Tony-nominated roles and duets with a couple friends, followed by a lively panel on which Foster remained peppy and expressive just seconds after completing her set. Foster's special, along with hourlong Lincoln Center sets by Andrew Rannells, Leslie Odom Jr. and Stephanie J. Block (subject of a marvelous PBS TCA performance last winter) will premiere in the spring on the pubcaster.

Five shows that didn't help themselves

ABC's Roseanne | Critics spent 20 minutes trying to get Roseanne Barr to explain her character's support of President Trump, then when she finally got around to doing so, the tone was sour and angry, perhaps blunting some of the impact of the appealing episodes of the reboot. Realistically, critics aren't strangers to confrontational encounters with Barr and that hasn't stopped the original series from being considered a classic, so this won't have much impact.

Paramount TV's Yellowstone | This was just a bad combination of factors. First, the network formerly known as Spike TV didn't get us screeners, making questions a guessing game. Then star Kevin Costner became self-conscious about talking too much and began deferring to co-stars who clearly had no desire to talk. Finally, writer-director Taylor Sheridan, clearly an immensely talented guy with big ideas for his first TV project behind the camera, is a man of few words.

Nat Geo's Genius | The sheer amount of defensiveness coming from the panel for the second season of Nat Geo's Genius franchise was peculiar. The panelists seemed perplexed by suggestions leading the franchise with two European males from somewhat similar timeframes might offer a reductive idea of what "genius" means. They were also indignant about questions regarding Pablo Picasso's treatment of women and how that would be handled in the miniseries.

Syfy's Krypton | Syfy's Superman prequel was announced in 2014, shot its pilot in late 2016 and after the press tour panel this month, I still have zero clue what the show is, because there's still no pilot available to show critics. Exec producer David Goyer is good at talking in circles, but other than being told by several colleagues that it's Caprica only for Superman, I remain unsure why this is a show I would want to watch and have no feeling for the characters, tone or style.

NBC's Super Bowl LII | For whatever reasons, networks remain convinced that TCA members have only limited interest in sports, so the panel for NBC's coverage of the upcoming Super Bowl proceeded after a 15- or 20-minute filibuster of speeches and clips. Once the panel began, Al Michaels told some charming stories and all was well. But it took too long to get there. If ratings for the Super Bowl are way down this year, I'm assuming it's because of this panel. (Or possibly a matchup between Jacksonville and Minnesota.)

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