The Upfronts 2017 – ABC

ABC – held together by Shondaland productions and a cheesy, but heartfelt catalog of shows to be watched with a healthy distancing from reality. It’s been a pretty brutal year for them, with very few new series getting picked up and a whole host of second years being canned as well.

What’s done
One of the few new shows I sought out and stuck with was Conviction because the cast was so good, but the writing let them down very badly. Half a season of Notorious was enough for anyone, Imaginary Mary struggled to make it to air before it was cancelled, but Time After Time (HG Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time – obviously) gets the booby prize, airing just 5 episodes.

American Crime’s critical acclaim didn’t help it much and after three seasons it was cancelled. The Catch and Secrets & Lies were both cancelled after their second season, and I have utterly no memory of them existing, let alone getting renewed the first time. Dr Ken I do remember from a horrific trailer, but I’d forgotten that it managed two seasons before being put out of all of our miseries. The Real O’Neills was also cancelled after two seasons. And Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing apparently made it through 6 seasons before anyone realised it was the 21st century.

What’s returning
Shonda Rhimes’ stable continues, with Grey’s Anatomy returning for a fourteenth series and How to Get Away with Murder for a fourth, but Scandal is set to bow out after the coming seventh season, and no one seems overly disappointed by that. Once Upon a Time has been renewed for a seventh season but it’s set for a big reinvention with a time shift and multiple main characters not returning. I am glad that Marvel’s Agents of Shield was renewed for a fifth season, even though it’s always slightly disappointing compared to what it could be. Quantico will have a reduced season (it’s third) and also gets a new showrunner which doesn’t bode well. The only freshman drama to survive was Designated Survivor which I’ve tried to get into multiple times and never quite clicked.

New comedies were a little more successful – Speechless and American Housewife were both renewed. At the opposite end of the age spectrum The Middle and Modern Family were both renewed for a ninth season, and Modern Family got an extra year too taking it through the following year too. Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat were both renewed for fourth seasons and The Goldbergs got a double pick up for five and six.

What’s new
Roseanne – do you know what series everyone really misses? Well, ABC thinks it’s Roseanne, presumably they’ll back out of the terrible final season.

The Crossing – a bunch of people show up in a small fishing village, claiming to be fleeing a war a couple of hundred years in the future. And some of them seem to have super powers. The trailer lays it on a bit thick, but I am intrigued.

Deception – A superstar magician is ruined by a scandal and the only place he can sell his skills is the FBI. Obviously. The trailer isn’t too bad. The lead seems charismatic enough, and yes, that is Vinnie Jones loitering in the background. As a character apparently named Gunter Gustafsen. Yup, seriously.

For the People – Shonda Rhimes does lawyers. Just the usual, young and ambitious blah blah blah. Whatever.

The Good Doctor – from the maker of House, a medical drama (duh) centred on an autistic, savant doctor who moves to a big hospital. Nothing particularly remarkable in the description and the trailer is pretty much by the numbers, but the cast has three big names that make me pay attention: Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) stars, Hill Harper (CSI:NY) and Richard Schiff (West Wing)

The Gospel of Kevin – a “light drama” about a “cluelessly self-serving person on a dangerous path to despair” who lives with his widowed twin sister and is visited by a “celestial being” who gives him a mission to save the world. The trailer is as bad as the description.

Inhumans – sitting in the Marvel Universe, the Inhuman royal family flee their world in civil war and land in Hawaii. It’s just a teaser at the moment, so who knows. The trailer really is a bit much.

Ten Days in the Valley – a TV producer’s life turns into a version of her own show when her daughter disappears. Kyra Sedgwick vehicle. Doesn’t look like anything earth shattering, but it looks well done.

The Mayor – young rapper sort of accidentally becomes mayor and then gets all inspirational. Ugh.

Splitting Up Together – a couple splits up, sort of. It’s a plot that wouldn’t keep a 90 minute rom-com going, it barely made it through the trailer, so I don’t know how they think it’s gonna drag out to a whole series.

Alex, Inc.– I can’t even be bothered to explain it. Let’s just describe it as “Zach Braff deserves better”.

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The Upfronts 2017 – Fox

Fox’s niche is kind of the low level action-drama often erring on the side of comedy, it makes for solid entertainment, but there’s rarely much there to get passionate about. The pilots are a little bit more varied, but good grief there are some real turnips in there.

What’s cancelled
Fox has retired a couple of big hitters this year. Bones bowed out after 12 seasons and nearly 250 episodes, about half of which were pretty good and then the series just sort of degenerated into a repetitive loop of character regressions. Sleepy Hollow started out big, but puttered out with four seasons. Scream Queens could have been fun, but was instead pretty rubbish and the biggest surprise was last year’s renewal for a second season, not this year’s cancellation. Rosewood was also cancelled after its second season

New series didn’t do too well. APB looked rubbish from the outset (rich tech guy takes over police department), but Pitch (woman major league baseball player) looked like it could have potential. Comedies Making History and Son of Zorn both looked insane and not in a good way.

What’s back
A lot of pickups for Fox. The X-Files will have another short season, its eleventh overall and second of this re-start, which I frankly found mediocre. Other than that, the longest running series, which will both be returning for fourth seasons, are the unremarkable Gotham, and Empire which doesn’t seem to generate quite as much buzz and praise as it used to. I’m a lot more engaged about the renewal of the extremely entertaining Lucifer for a third season. The animations are all back: the longest running scripted primetime show ever, The Simpsons was already renewed through season 30; Family Guy for a sixteenth, Bob’s Burgers had already been renewed for next year’s eighth season. The New Girl was renewed for a seventh season, but that will be its last, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Last Man on Earth return for fifth and fourth respectively.

Three of the freshman shows got pick ups. I’m really enjoying Lethal Weapon which is doing a really solid job with very traditional ideas thanks to the charismatic lead pairing and able supporting cast. I was so surprised that I liked The Exorcist pilot that I wanted to watch it a second time before reviewing and then failed to do so, but with a second season, maybe I’ll try to get back to it. Star looked like it could be painfully cheesy or possibly interesting, but I don’t think it’s made it to the UK yet for me to find out. Comedy The Mick was also picked up.

What’s New
Gifted – based in the X-Men universe, a family goes on the run when their two teenagers are revealed to be mutants. The X-Men universe has a huge depth of untapped characters and stories, and with X-Men movie supremo Bryan Fuller is on board as Exec Producer and director of the pilot it’s certainly got potential, but the trailer did not excite me.

The Orville – A spoof of Star Trek, created by and starring Seth MacFarlane. I think it’s supposed to be funny but the trailer contains a joke about men and women arguing over the toilet seat being up.

Ghosted – an “action comedy” with a group of underdogs investigating unusual occurrences in LA with the aim of proving or disproving alien involvement. It’s awful. Stunningly so.

The Resident – absolutely bog standard medical drama. The blurb is a collection of tropes – unconventional approaches, charming but arrogant, innocent idealist and the final tedious nail in the coffin the “on-again-off-again” romance. I almost strained a muscle rolling my eyes so much during the trailer. Still, it does have Matt Czuchry (The Good Wife) in it and he is so very pretty.

LA to Vegas – A budget airline runs weekend flights back and forth, LA to Vegas, filled with a rotating group of gamblers, hen/stag dos and a handful of regular commuters, all held roughly in check by the cabin crew. I really loved the concept of this one, it’s possibly one of the best, tidiest ideas of the year with a great structure for new characters, but ongoing stories. And then I watched the trailer.

9-1-1 – Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck (Amerian Horror Story, Glee etc) take on emergency responders. Angela Basset stars, which is a good start, but other than the names this sounds pretty generic procedural, but it’s a pretty reliable format.

The Upfronts 2017: NBC

There is simply no way it can be time for the upfronts yet again! I’ll stick with tradition and run a commentary, but I’m so far behind with my watching that I’ve barely seen any of this years shows before they’ve all been cancelled. First up, NBC a channel where I watch absolutely zero of the shows they air.

What’s cancelled or not returning
It looks like a pretty good year for NBC, only three shows are cancelled, three of them one-and-dones. Grimm managed a very respectable 6 season. I did watch the pilot way back in 2011 and found the whole thing utterly unremarkable, maybe it went somewhere more interesting. Powerless looked like it could have been a fun superhero/office based comedy and had some good names attached, but clearly didn’t grab the ratings. The spin-off of The Blacklist: Redemption only lasted a handful of episodes. I only watched a couple of seasons of The Blacklist, but it didn’t take a genius to see that the only thing that made the show even vaguely watchable was James Spader and the annoying husband wasn’t going to cut it. Emerald City was another attempt at a Wizard of Oz related series and I know nothing about it except it lasted just 10 episodes.

What’s coming back
NBC’s bank of Chicago based dramas continue in all their ridiculous glory – fireman for a sixth, police for a fifth, and doctors for a third; but it doesn’t seem to have been announced if the lawyers will return for a second. James Spader carries the otherwise unremarkable Blacklist into its 5th season, while Blindspot gets a third. Law & Order Special Victims Unit gets a 19th season making it “the current longest running scripted non-animated U.S. primetime TV series… and is the fourth-longest running scripted U.S. primetime TV series on a major broadcast network.” according to wikipedia. I don’t think I’ve seen a single episode. Neither have I felt any desire to watch an episode of Jennifer Lopez’s Shades of Blue, but it’s gonna be back for a third season, as is comedy Superstore.
On the freshman front, the big success has been This Is Us, which was rewarded with a second AND a third season. I haven’t seen because if I want to watch somethign to make me cry this year I’ll just watch the news. Given that the rubbish film managed so many follow ups, I guess it’s not surprising that Taken the TV series somehow found an audience and comes back for a second season. And freshman series Timeless managed the unusual trick of getting cancelled and then renewed 3 days later. Prompting numerous naff time travel jokes. Comedies Great News and The Good Place were both renewed.

What’s new
Will & Grace returns after 10 years. I thought I was kind of looking forward to this, and then the laughter track on the trailer kicked in and I hated myself.

The Brave: fairly generic looking military action drama, with a hefty dose of patriotism. Meh.

Law & Order True Crime: The Mernendez Murders. The clumsy title is a bad start, why bodge the true crime story into the Law & Order brand? Particularly when it looks like it’s only an 8 episode mini-series. The sanctimonious, overly dramatic voiceover killed this one for me.

Rise – about a school theatre department. The blurb isn’t encouraging but… it’s by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights!) and stars Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) and I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, so I’m bordering on excited!

Good Girls: struggling suburban mums rob a super market. For laughs I guess. Oh, no wait it’s a drama. Um, ok.

Reverie: a hostage negotiator is brought in to help bring people out of a virtual reality they’ve got trapped in. It could be a little Quantum Leap-ey, I was not enthused by a hook that the negotiator has suffered “an unimaginable personal tragedy” which is hopefully not an indication of the quality of the writing on the show.

Champions: “Vince, a charismatic gym owner with no ambition, lives with his younger brother Michael, a gorgeous idiot.” That’s genuinely how the press release sells this pair of morons. Then there’s something about unexpectedly having to look after a teenage son. Hilarious parenting will ensue no doubt.

A.P. Bio: A smug sounding academic finds himself teaching biology to high school kids. It’s a comedy so I’m guessing it’ll mostly be about screwing things up rather than heartwarming growth.

The Walking Dead: Season 7

I think the first episode of season 7 of The Walking Dead is a key turning point for the series. For a show that has already defied boundaries of violence and brutality, the introduction of Negan and Lucille marks a new extreme. Characters are pushed further than before and it’s very clear that none of them will ever be the same as they were before. For me, sadly, it marked the point that I fell out of love with the series.

I read spoilers of The Walking Dead, it’s not about a lack of patience for the few hours I’d have to wait to watch the episode, but it’s more about making the tension bearable. I find that if I’m stressed and uncertain about what’s going to happen in a show I care so much about, I just can’t concentrate on the nuances of the acting, writing and directing that make The Walking Dead what it is. So, I knew not only who met Lucille, but how and how the rest of the episode was drawn out. When it came to sitting to watch the episode that evening, I realised I didn’t want to see it. So I didn’t. After a couple of weeks, I still didn’t want to watch it, so I figured I’d wait until the whole half season backed up and I could box-set my way through it. But I still didn’t want to. Eventually the whole seventh season was waiting for me, and I still couldn’t face watching the first episode. So I didn’t. I skipped it. I watched the rest of the season and just missed the brutality of the first episode.

With or without the first episode, binge watching the season in a few days worked well, because if I had tried watching it an episode each week I’d probably have died of boredom. The entire synopsis of events can be written in a not terribly long paragraph (I checked), and thanks to the fact that most episodes follow just one plot line, only a few characters, all the stories are stop start, and you might get stuck for an hour with someone you just don’t care about. Slow and subtle character and plot development is one thing, but this is just glacial. We know most of the characters well enough that we know exactly what they’re thinking and watching them go very slowly through the motions is mind-numbingly dull. The majority of the stories were predictable, only the shock violence and the specifics of who died, when, were surprising.

Half of me wants to go back and watch another season to see if it’s the series or me that’s changed, the other half doesn’t want to risk that I’ll realise I was wrong all along. The writing this season felt ham-fisted and clumsy at times. Too many of the new characters felt cliche or over-the-top, and I was bothered by the logistics and realism in a way that I hadn’t been before – how far apart are these groups, how have they never tripped over each other, is that a realistic number of guns, how inept are they to not just shoot Negan, where is the petrol coming from? I’m struggling to engage with the newer characters and too many of the old characters are getting bogged down (not unreasonably I guess) in their traumas. When characters or groups reunite, the emotional impact was intense, but it felt more obviously manipulative than I remember it being in the past.

I think the problem is that Negan just feels like a hyped up version of The Governor, who was already close to a pantomime villain at times. Now that the walking dead themselves are not so much of a threat, human villains are having to get more extreme to make it comparable, but I think that’s the wrong direction to go. I was more interested in the politics between the different factions, the different styles of governance and how they interacted. The super-villain just felt unnecessary and stupid for a show that I always thought was more intelligent than that. I’m not angry. I’m just incredibly disappointed.

Luke Cage: Season 1

One of the strengths of the Marvel Universe is that each sub-franchise, be it film or TV, has entirely its own style. Even when characters cross between things (as Luke Cage does from Jessica Jones) they somehow manage to bring their own tone. It means you can like one thing but not another, or you can like them for very different reasons. You could probably put together a pretty complete map of genres just within the Marvel Universe which is impressive really.

As its central theme, Jessica Jones was about individual control – what it does to the people involved when one person takes someone else’s control away. Luke Cage is still about individuals, but individuals as the components of a community – how each person contributes towards that community, and how individual actions impact that community. The community of Harlem is an important character, but one that has no voice of its own for much of the series. Everyone thinks they know what ‘the community’ needs and wants and the best way to realise that vision; they seek to control it and mould it to their vision, not allow it to evolve and change organically. Luke Cage is almost the apathetic hero, he isn’t really part of the community, he’s just hiding within it and is brought into the struggles against his will.

You could talk about all of this without really talking about superpowers. As with most superhero stuff, it’s not about the superpowers themselves, it about what it lets people do. For Luke Cage, the fact that he is nearly invulnerable means that he can take actions that others couldn’t. If you take away the fear of death, what does that mean? As with Superman of course, it means that your weakness is now other people, the people you care about, so those relationships become even more powerful. And the ‘victims’ you need to protect are those that have less power than you. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a cliché, but it’s also true.

The characters and casting is (mostly) all you’d expect from the Marvel universe, with a lot of familiar names and faces playing to their strengths. All the characters are rich and interesting, imbued with their own history and credible reasons for their actions. There’s an unfortunate weak link in the second half with Claire Temple’s character who is always in the right place, at the right time, and magically able to solve all problems which is really unfortunate as the character (nothing to do with the performance) dragged the series down rather.

I must admit, in writing this review I’ve put more thought into the series than I did while I was watching it. I enjoyed watching it, and the 13 episodes rattled along always leaving me wanting to just let the auto-play carry me onto the next. But it didn’t have the impact that Jessica Jones did, it’s only when I thought about it afterwards that I started seeing the complexity and themes that you could find. Sometimes analysing shows to death kills them stone dead, other times though it really elevates them into something greater.

Bates Motel: Season 1-3

I’d been meaning to watch this for a while and finally spotted it while rummaging on Netflix. It’s just going into the fifth and final season so I’m pretty late for the party, but at least I’m now making up for lost time, powering through all the episodes that Netflix had available in just a couple of weeks.

When I first heard the idea of telling the backstory of the infamous Norman Bates from Psycho, I rolled my eyes a bit. There are enough remakes/prequels/sequels about, does the world really need a high-school age prequel of a horror film? Surprisingly, the world does. There’s something absolutely riveting about knowing how the story ends, but not really knowing anything about how they get there. You find yourself sympathising for them, or rooting for them, crossing your fingers that things will work out for them and constantly remembering that it’s not going to happen. It means the writers and actors can play, taking a step in one direction and raising hopes before lurching back again, in the early seasons they can be incredibly subtle and immediate red flags go up anyway.

The ongoing structure of the series is very well designed though. The story of the series is how Norman Bates becomes the character in Psycho, and his story is completely intertwined with his mother’s story. They arrive in a new town with already some troubling events in their past, but the location of their ‘fresh start’ rather dooms them, given that the town is far from a quiet seaside town. Each season is then a discrete-ish story of their connection with a particularly group of people, or local events. Each season is only 10 episodes long, which is just enough to build and resolve that story, and move along all the characters, generally with a bit of a cliffhanger to highlight the step changes. It starts feeling a little formulaic if you watch three seasons back-to-back like I did, but that’s rather a first world problem of my own cause and the fact that I wanted to go straight on to each season shows how good it is.

It quickly becomes clear that even though the audience thinks it knows the end of the story, there is a huge amount of uncertainty still to understand. This is as much the story of Norma as it is Norman and there’s a lot of questions about her past and her responsibility. There is also a vibrant ensemble of supporting characters who become increasingly important to the audience, they’re the writers’ innocent victims in the inevitable. Each character has a role to play in stabilising and destabilising particular situations, it’s an interconnected network that is fascinating to watch and all the people around Norma and Norman bring a normal context to them. Norma and Norman are big and over-blown characters and they’re not really much for subtlety, so the supporting characters deliver a necessary counterpoint in their more appropriate responses.

The tone of the series takes a little while to get settled, and the first season requires a little bit of faith. There are immediately some violent and traumatic events that feel as if they don’t land with the characters as intensely as they did with me. Given how little that key moment is then reflected back on over the subsequent dozens of episodes it felt a little like the writers bottled out of it after using it as a dramatic starting point. The series is still gripping and interesting from the get-go, but thinking back on it, it just didn’t seem as balanced and considered as later seasons. The level of violence, bloodshed and chaos in this supposed small town continues through later seasons, but it does feel like it hits the characters a little more appropriately. It’s still Jessica Fletcher level of improbability, but it sort of makes sense. This isn’t a subtle show,

I’m not sure whether it was always intended to be five seasons, long, but it’s a good length. The third season, the mid point of the five season arc really turned up the psychological elements, and there’s a lot more going on in looks and glances, but also a fair number of emotional explosions that really show how unstable everyone is becoming. We’re cresting the top of the roller-coaster and the only way is down. I heartily recommend this series, the only hesitation I would have is that it’s probably a good idea to be at least passingly familiar with the story of Psycho so that you can appreciate the references and the sense of inevitable destination. I think the series would still work without that, and probably even add something sometimes, but I would think the writers meant you to know the ending.

The Halcyon: Season 1

I’m going to do what every other reviewer out there has done and connect this series with Downton Abbey. I wanted to find an original approach, but I guess I’m just not that creative. The only reason I don’t feel too bad about it, is that comparing The Halcyon to Downton Abbey is I think going to end well for The Halcyon. Drawing attention to the way a series surpasses something that was a huge success doesn’t feel like quite such a cheap reviewing strategy.

The similarities between The Halcyon and Downton Abbey are quite clear. Both period dramas from ITV, both the kind of thing that is very safe to watch with your Gran. The plots are notionally based around issues of the time (in this case World War 2 and the blitz) but are really about the range of people sharing the same physical space but being worlds apart in background and social location. The tones of the series are similar, both towards the easy watching end of the drama spectrum, but it’s in the nuances of the tone that the series actually differ.

Downton seemed to try to hover on the very edge between drama and melodrama, generally drifting towards the farcical end of the spectrum with the occasional swerve back towards thoughtful drama when it felt it had got a bit too silly. Some characters were played mostly straight, while others were played as mostly caricatures. Plot lines were more likely to make you laugh, although there were a few that would make you cry as well, and a non-negligible number that made you do both at the same times. It was a guilty pleasure, a silly series for a Sunday evening to watch with a biscuit before the proper drama of the week got started (both televisual and in real life) .

The Halcyon is a Monday night drama, not a Sunday night one. It’s played straighter, it’s not without moments of levity and happiness, there’s plenty of romantic threads running through to make it still entertaining to watch, rather than the occasional slog that ‘proper’ dramas can become. But it’s a just a little less silly than Downton – people die, people suffer and some problems just aren’t solvable. I think part of that comes from the fact that time seems to pass more slowly, people remember what happened last week without awkwardly pointing it out.

The characters also feel a bit richer, no one is just one thing, they’re not just their job or their title even if that is the pretense they put on. On Downton the characters rarely felt fleshed out or complex, just very simplistic descriptions of “this is the X, they believe Y”. Not all of the characters on The Halcyon progress beyond that, but most of them get at least a few different aspects – changing their minds, presenting different fronts to different people. The interactions are more interesting.

There are still some dafter, and more cliche plots that I could have lived without. The cheesy “he has a secret past” stuff I could happily have lived without, and some of the ‘issues’ are dealt with in a slightly off-hand way, possibly rushing through too many ideas in the first season. But I found myself looking forward to it each episode. Downton always felt disposable, very enjoyable while you’re watching it, but rarely lingering in your thoughts once Monday comes around. There’s a place for that (Sunday evening) and I do miss having that sort of easy watch, but The Halcyon filled a very specific niche too, and I’ll miss that too.