Hollywood Reporter TV Critics Debate: 'Romanoffs,' 'Conners' and Other Fall Standouts and Stumbles

Daniel Fienberg and Tim Goodman lament broadcast mediocrities, celebrate under-the-radar cable/streaming gems and ponder whether stars really matter on the small screen.
ABC/Eric McCandless; Justina Mintz/Amazon Studios;Anne Marie Fox/HBO
From left: 'The Conners,' 'The Romanoffs' and 'Camping'

Daniel Fienberg: Unless you're the person entrusted with tabulating ratings for The Alec Baldwin Show, the fall hasn't been disastrous for the broadcast networks. CBS found some interest for stuff like FBI and The Neighborhood. NBC was quick to order more episodes for Manifest and New Amsterdam. Fox is overjoyed with the resurrection of Last Man Standing and its pairing with The Cool Kids. ABC got at least a decent initial sampling for The Conners. The CW's move to program Sundays isn't off to a bad start.

Where does that leave a humble critic, though, when the best the broadcast quintet has to offer is an assortment of familiar procedurals, half-baked Lost knockoffs and tepid multicam retreads? As it feels like we're asking more and more in recent years, is there anything for critics in what used to be the most important part of the TV calendar?

Tim Goodman: I think the TV viewing patterns most people have held throughout their lives (unless, you know, they are in their early 20s or something) have changed dramatically in the last 10 years, but especially the last five or so. Fall means almost nothing to me anymore. Seasons, schedules, time slots, channels — virtually useless and absolutely unimportant. I only care about quality and I can find that virtually anywhere and at any time of the year — but it's rarer than ever on the broadcast channels, unless it comes in the form of a comedy.

That said, the most joy I got from the networks "this fall season" — whatever that means — was the return of The Good Place and Bob's Burgers. I did find something to like in The Kids Are Alright, but haven't watched enough episodes for solid proof just yet. For me, it's harder and harder to look at broadcast television for anything besides comedy. You have taken the bigger plunge there, but as I read your reviews, you aren't exactly giving me that FOMO feeling. 

DF: It's notable that the networks are saving a few relatively big swings — Fox's The Passage for example — for midseason and launching fall with very little exertion at all. I also found things to like in the 1970s-set The Kids Are Alright, though mostly those things are Michael Cudlitz, Mary McCormack and how much it reminds me of other recent ABC period comedies. I love the cast of The Conners and appreciate being able to experience them Roseanne-free. I wish the cast of ABC's Single Parents were in a more consistent comedy. A few weeks in, I'm not prepared to commit to any of them, nor to a broadcast drama field in which the flawed and derivative All American on The CW may be the best this autumn has to offer. No judgment, but at this moment is there a single network drama, new or returning, that you're watching and enjoying, Tim?

TG: No. And there hasn't been for some time now. I know that people got into This Is Us, and it's a fine show, but not something I enjoyed watching over multiple episodes. And even stray drama series I run into out of curiosity or accident don't end up holding my attention for the entire hour. It's not even that the playing field is uneven — which was a good excuse and mostly true for a while — but the network shows just don't hold up to most cable or streaming dramas. So why would I waste my time on them? I love the period of television we're in now — here it comes yet again, Dan: the Platinum Age, where I don't seem to have enough time to watch all the "great" and "very good" dramas that are out there. It's a wonderful feeling (though also sometimes frustrating) to think that at any moment I can fire up the TV and watch all sorts of superb dramas (and comedies, of course) from all kinds of content creators both here in the States and internationally. Virtually none of that is coming from network television, however. And with that said, in no way am I implying that, say, Netflix has all excellent offerings. Because I've seen The Good Cop, Dan. I've seen it. I can't unsee it. (And I stand behind my review, which posits that creator Andy Breckman is an evil genius).  

DF: The Good Cop is definitely the answer to the "What if Netflix made an early '00s USA dramedy?" question nobody asked, and yet I still find it more appealing than the over-long, under-lit monotony of Ozark. No, Netflix definitely doesn't have a monopoly on TV's great shows, even if it feels some weeks like they have a monopoly on TV's volume of shows. We're at the point at which the average week for Netflix includes one drama with no restrictions on episodic runtime, one so-called comedy that isn't really trying to be funny, a stand-up special, a documentary geared toward starting Change.org petitions, a Marvel series that didn't need to be 13 episodes, two shows about why food is awesome and a rom-com starring Noah Centineo. Then somehow the only show people end up talking about is the edgy prep-school soap opera from Spain.

I feel like we moved away from the broadcast networks awfully fast, but how much do we have to say about the uneven, admirably feminist remake of Charmed, the incompletely realized Latinx remake of Magnum PI or CBS' revival of Murphy Brown, a show that absolutely arrived with a sense of purpose but hasn't really managed to make good on it?

TG: Not much. But I can swing back and say that even though it's not my thing, I thought The Cool Kids was a perfect network show? Multi-camera. Nostalgia-fueled. Broadly funny. Easy to digest. Nothing wrong with that. Wait, there's an edgy prep-school soap opera from Spain that I missed?

DF: Netflix's Elite! All the kids are talking about it. Or so I hear in my bubble. I think it's hard to dispute that we all process more and more of our media in our respective bubbles. In my bubble, for example, I've been trying desperately to get people to watch AMC's trippy, funny and philosophically diverse Lodge 49 and Starz's substantive Chicago public school documentary series America To Me for weeks, even though both premiered in the late summer. What have you been proselytizing?

TG: Hell, I feel like I'm still trying to get people to watch Counterpart on Starz. But lately I think a lot of my energy has been put into championing Mr Inbetween on FX, though it came and went very fast (I'm super happy about a second season — I'll take as many episodes as I can get). What I loved about this Aussie import about a hitman in crisis (the magnetic Scott Ryan) was how much it accomplished in so little time; it's comparable in that way to Netflix's The End of the F***ing World — they're both poster series for cramming a maximum amount of story, nuance, feeling and style into a limited number of minutes (no episode of Mr Inbetween was longer than 26 minutes and I think the average on The End of the F***ing World was like 18.5 minutes...seriously impressive).

Luckily, as you mention, part of the deal with everybody consuming series in their own bubble is that they get to grab a bunch of shows off the shelf and watch when they want. That means they will sometimes grab something from last year, or several years ago, as well as from yesterday. It gives me hope that something really special and different like Lodge 49 will find an audience (that it was renewed also helps). In the process of judging something out of a festival recently, I went back and started America To Me and, yep, it's pretty amazing. 

DF: FX ran through Mr Inbetween in a hurry, didn't they? On the bright side, that means that all six episodes of this dark and quirky little treasure are available for discovery whenever folks have the time. It's fitting that we've mostly accentuated under-the-radar gems, because one of the big stories of the fall has been star vehicles failing to find traction. I feel like Netflix's Maniac, boasting Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, and Hulu's The First, with Sean Penn, had surprisingly little impact on the conversation. And that's not a commentary on either show, because I could argue on behalf of both. I'm a big fan of Showtime's Kidding, but that absurd treasure ultimately owes more to the vision and sensibility of director Michel Gondry than star Jim Carrey whose carefully calibrated and weird performance may have been a distraction for viewers. I don't have figures for Facebook Watch's Sorry For Your Loss, featuring Avenger Elizabeth Olsen, but it's a really good series that nobody seems more aware of than, "Oh, the grief show," which is sad in and of itself. Of course, sometimes when a star vehicle falls flat, there are more obvious reasons, like with HBO's Camping, which hasn't been greeted as warmly as one would expect for Jennifer Garner's return to TV, has it?

TG: Yes, Kidding is really interesting and arguably Showtime's best series, but it didn't really pop — so you wonder if some big-name actors will look and think, "Wow, even Jim Carrey couldn't make that a hit because the TV world is so cluttered" and then stay away from the small screen. But I doubt it. Again, a second season helps and people can find it and hopefully they will. Often, as you know, it's about how much time people have. They might not get to it for another eight months. But that series is a delight. If Showtime didn't hold onto its shows forever it might take enough swings to have more series like Kidding and SMILF. I'm not sure people look at Showtime as a channel that constantly has fresh, inventive stuff. The First is definitely on my list to watch and precisely because of what you got at in your review — I'm interested in discovering the characters, not the race to Mars, so that appeals to me. Maniac was a visual delight that was easy to binge but, I don't think, delivered much of a story. And Camping was just wrong at every turn, starting with Garner, whom I quite like, being miscast. The one positive is that people who loved the British original have been so vocal in their support that I'm going to track that down to wash away the pain of having to watch the HBO version. I love Julia Davis and hadn't seen the original. (Loving Davis is also handy because I'm really looking forward to her new series on HBO, Sally4Ever). See, there's always something fresh ahead, right Dan? And while I was writing a piece on auteur directors and dissecting the shortcomings of Maniac, I got to mention Homecoming from Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts on Amazon. Having seen four episodes, I'm ever-hopeful about continued platinum-level greatness but worried I'll never catch up. When you and I divide up reviews, I'm always secretly happy when something sounds terrible because then I can put it off or maybe never watch it.

On the other hand — and speaking of star-heavy auteur TV — you wrote one of the more even-handed reviews of Matthew Weiner's The Romanoffs on Amazon, so after much delay I've started that and, while I'm still too early in the run to decide if it all works, I'm enjoying the journey thus far. And when you haven't seen something that I've seen, like Wanderlust, how long does it eventually take to find a spot in your available viewing schedule? Based on anecdotal evidence I think people who are drowning in Peak TV choices feel a little better when even TV critics feel the same and are perpetually behind. 

DF: I still try to get to things that you reviewed that interest me. Amazon's Forever was a show that I made sure to carve out a few hours for because I wanted to make sure I saw what it was before "what it was" was spoiled for me and I was glad to get that sense of discovery — and also to watch Maya Rudolph having a blast. It's going to be interesting to see if Amazon's weekly premiering of The Romanoffs has a positive impact on continuing the conversation. That's one where, between Weiner and the ridiculous cast, it's star-studded on all levels and yet the majority of the chatter I've seen has been about how polarizing it is. I think when it works, it's magical. It just only works 60 percent of the time, and that puts me in the "positive" camp.

Of course, "polarizing" means you're moving people one way or the other, and that matters more than even an A-list star. Look at Netflix's Haunting of Hill House. Yeah, Carla Gugino is a known and adored quantity and Timothy Hutton is an Oscar winner, but that's a show that scares the snot out of people and the frights and occasional tears are the real stars, while the actors who play the Crains, both known and unknown, are essentially just a bonus. You mentioned Homecoming and we'll see if that's a star vehicle that cuts through the clutter as we approach the end of the year. Anything else giving you hope for the close of 2018?

TG: Forever is also a good example of short seasons giving viewers an opening when committing to something else seems too much; plus I liked what they did and while it's not fully realized, it might become so over time (or in the second season). To close out the year, I doubt there's a series I'm more excited about than the second season of Amazon's Patriot, which — to an even greater degree than Counterpart — people either didn't sample or didn't finish. It's a terrible name, but one of my favorite underrated series. AMC's The Little Drummer Girl is probably on both of our lists. But honestly, what I might be looking forward to most of all is actually finishing so many of the series I've started. We put so much attention on previewing and evaluating the start of series — and there are so many in the Peak TV era — that getting to finish something, think about it critically in a different head space and re-evaluate it seems like a luxury.

A version of this story appears in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.