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This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
TIM GOODMAN: There are a ton of TV topics to discuss from this fall, not least of which is the fact that this was a terrible season for broadcast television. And the fact that cable, the premium channels and the streaming platforms all had something intriguing in the mix only made the networks’ lack of anything truly compelling even more glaring. But why not start our discussion with a new show that was both truly bad and — shocker — a (minor) success? Tell me your thoughts on being unable to kill ABC’s Dr. Ken and, since you’re good at crunching numbers, how the hell it managed to do pretty well after dodging all those critical bullets.
DANIEL J. FIENBERG If you’re cynical, you say Dr. Ken‘s relative success proves how little viewers care about critics. If you’re more realistic, you say Ken Jeong is a known quantity with a built-in audience. If you’re genuinely optimistic, you say this continues to prove that in a niche-driven broadcast landscape, programming to diverse and underrepresented audiences is more important than ever. But let’s not waste any more space on Ken. Do you have anything pithy to say about what we can learn from early bombs like NBC’s The Player or Fox’s Minority Report?
GOODMAN Maybe not pithy. How about snarky? Fox must have known that Minority Report was a mess pretty early on, and that there wasn’t a fix for it. In fact, there’s probably a fascinating story in all the notes that were given to the showrunners, culminating in the last few, which must have read something like: “Still looks pretty terrible” or “Can we sell this for parts?” This show should have worked, but no part of it does. I’m guessing the only reason it’s still airing is because there’s not much on the bench and Steven Spielberg’s name is on it. As for The Player, that was just an experiment to see if people would watch stupid stuff that moves real fast, right? And what about Blindspot? With its over-the-top premise and engaging trailers, the first hour was poised to be the perfect Peak TV pilot — and it wasn’t bad. But now that it’s been renewed, there’s one nagging problem: The show hasn’t been very good post-pilot.
FIENBERG Blindspot is an inert, lifeless blob of uninvolving mythology. Moreover, it has no sense of what its leading man, Sullivan Stapleton, does well. If you look at his former show, Strike Back, you think, “This guy is good at Han Solo-style cowboy snark, and he’s a charmer with the ladies.” The Blindspot showrunners seem to have concluded, “Let’s give him a relentlessly humorless pill of a character who never gets to display even a wink of charm.” Compare it to Limitless, which is blatantly dumb and clueless about how to use most of its supporting cast but at the very least has a reasonable sense of fun and is beginning to capitalize on the chemistry between Jake McDorman and Jennifer Carpenter. It’s not good, but in a season this weak, it’s watchable. Moving right along: We always say new comedies need a couple of episodes to find themselves. Is there anything growing on you?
GOODMAN Frankly, I had almost no hope for the new network comedies, and that really hasn’t changed much. You and I were split on Grandfathered and The Grinder (you prefer the former; I prefer the latter, which I’d watch by accident without feeling too put out). But neither of them is really setting the world (or Fox) on fire with those ratings. And dare I bring up The Muppets? I’m wondering if that was a good idea only on paper. OK, let me duck while you answer that.
FIENBERG First off, I still prefer Grandfathered to The Grinder for one simple reason: It knows what it wants to be, and it has been that show for all of its episodes thus far. John Stamos, Paget Brewster and Josh Peck have good chemistry and strong comic timing, and you can count on some warm-fuzzies at the end. The Grinder still can’t figure out if it wants to be a meta Hollywood satire, a legal comedy or a family comedy, and so far the only one of those subgenres that it’s doing well with is the first. Alas, it’s still better than The Muppets, which has taken the “Here are Muppets … and that’s our show!” approach to the characters. Other than Pepe the King Prawn, the Muppets just aren’t being used in a fresh or funny way, so I watch out of nostalgia rather than true enjoyment. Thank heaven for a slew of terrific sophomore network comedies, including Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Jane the Virgin. Oh, and thank heaven for cable, right?
GOODMAN I absolutely second your praise for returning series and add to your list Brooklyn Nine-Nine and, creeping over into cable, FX’s You’re the Worst, which has been fantastic lately. Of course there also are the big returning cable dramas like Fargo, Homeland, The Affair, The Leftovers, The Knick and the smaller but intriguing Manhattan. Cable has a lot of big guns firing at the same time, which has contributed significantly to the drowning out of the broadcast networks’ freshman fall launch. How can networks possibly compete with a Murderers’ Row like the list above? There are only so many hours of TV people can watch.
FIENBERG There’s a holistic storytelling approach that’s possible on Fargo or Leftovers that’s just not possible on network TV. That said, virtually unlimited creative freedom on cable can get you great stuff like The Knick, but it also can get you seemingly unedited raw spews like a certain show FX has let one of its more powerful showrunners get away with. “What? You need 75 minutes for your Welsh shenanigans, Kurt Sutter? Whatever you say!”
GOODMAN Ouch. I’m more generous than you toward The Bastard Executioner, which I think has been, surprisingly, subtler than people might have guessed. The problem that show faces is that if its storytelling gets too ponderous, people will find BBC America’s quicker-paced The Last Kingdom — which I also liked — a better fit. Also, with History’s Vikings and Starz’s Black Sails, there’s no shortage of violent costume dramas out there. In fact, there’s no shortage of anything out there. But if the whole “Too Much TV” thing has left a number of quality shows standing around looking pretty without many people there to compliment them, the upside is that I love the conflicts and conversations it provokes within the industry. While I’m excited for all the stuff we’ve yet to see on cable and streaming, it’s really hard right now to work up much excitement at all for broadcast offerings. I still love a network series that just flat-out entertains me — The Blacklist, Elementary and Person of Interest are notable favorites — but outside of Empire, there’s really not much to discuss. One network that gives me hope, however, is The CW. I mean, seriously — wow. There continues to be a truly uplifting resurgence over there. I love how Jane the Virgin kicked off this season, and I’m looking forward to more fun from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, to see if future episodes follow through on that promising beginning. Although I’m not a super genre fan, Arrow and The Flash hold my interest. I’m loving my catch-up marathon of The 100, and I like iZombie, too. That’s an impressive enough arsenal to make us forget the dismal period that was the fall TV season — almost.
THR’s Fall TV Awards
Goodman and Fienberg hand out some highly coveted honors.
Most Likely to Succeed: Blindspot
Least Desired Comeback, Tie: Heroes Reborn and Wesley Snipes (The Player)
Most Improved, Tie: Gotham and Halt and Catch Fire
Least Memorable, Tie: Rosewood and Truth Be Told
Dumbest Show About Smart People: Limitless
Best Cast Still in Search of a Show: Life in Pieces
Most Ironic Title: Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris
Best Age-Defying Hair, Tie: Rob Lowe (The Grinder), John Stamos (Grandfathered) and The Muppets
Best Dressed: The cast of Empire
Most Likely to Save the Fall TV Season: Supergirl (Oct. 26)
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