2013-14 – New Shows

2013_2014I rather arbitrarily describe the television year for US shows as starting in September (UK shows I cover separately). By my estimates on Wikipedia there were 51 ‘serious’ new drama shows this year (my list was a bit arbitrary as I excluded stuff on smaller channels or that were imported from outside US or that I’d never heard of in the slightest), and I’ve watched 26 pilots, so I’m pretty happy with a 50% hit rate. As this is about US shows, there were a lot that haven’t or won’t make it to UK broadcasters, which in some cases is a shame but in a lot of others is no loss whatsoever.

Of the 52 pilots I identified, 25 were renewed for a second season and a further 7 haven’t been confirmed either way (many of the summer premiers are still broadcasting after all) which seems to me like a pretty good rate of success. But that’s quite heavily skewed to cable channels like HBO etc. Of 29 drama premiers on the five major networks, only 9 of them were picked up for a second season.

I watched 29 pilots (including 3 comedies) and only made it through the whole season of 7 of them. Frankly, I don’t think it was a very good year, last year I watched 23 pilots and 8 whole seasons. There was just nothing outstanding, even the ones that I did stick with, only Fargo would I really describe as great; Almost Human, Penny Dreadful and Blacklist were thoroughly entertaining and SHIELD had some highs amidst the frustrations. But frankly that’s a pretty lacklustre summary. Where are the stars, the headline grabbers, the must-talkabout shows? The only new shows that have fallen into that category this year have been British, this lot are all just a bit mediocre.

Shows I stuck with

  • almost_humanAlmost Human – a very ropey start killed this series before it realised the strength it had in it’s two central characters and actors. It was more ‘fun’ than ‘good’, many of the plots were mediocre retellings of standard tropes, but the bickering between the two cops was worth tuning in for.
  • The Blacklist – this show is all about James Spader, he’s wonderfully charismatic and unpredictable to watch. The ongoing story and mystery is also fairly engaging, although the ‘criminal of the week’ is generally pretty disposable.
  • agentsfoshieldMarvel’s Agents of SHIELD – not nearly as good as it should be. It did get better as the series went on and the story got bigger, but certainly the early episodes were extremely amateur. It could desperately do with more involvement from Joss Whedon, but the building blocks are there, so hopefully season 2 will buck up.
  • Fargo – it took me two attempts to get into the show, but that turned out to be a good thing, because by the time I came back to it, I could watch the whole thing in big blocks. The tone and setting and characters are all just the right level of quirky and contrast wonderfully with the bleak subject matter. Wrapping up the storyline makes for a very satisfying series, but it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with them.
  • nightshiftThe Night Shift – I’m about half way through this one too, mostly watched in the last couple of days. It’s far from excellent (the medicine is particularly improbable to anyone who’s watched an episode of ER let alone been in one) but the characters are interesting and the whole thing trots along at the perfect level for background watching while doing other boring tasks.
  • Extant – I’m about half way through this series on Amazon Instant Video and it’s passing the time. That’s pretty faint praise, but I can’t seem to get excited about it despite the interesting story and great actors that are involved.
  • Penny Dreadful – entertaining, engaging and disposable, does exactly what it sets out to do and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Shows that I may watch/return to


  • The 100 – More teenagers. It’s was nowhere near as painful as the Tomorrow People, but I was again somewhat unenthused by the genericness of it. I may give it another couple of episodes to see if it can do anything original.
  • Sleepy Hollow – I watched about half this season before a recording failed and then I never quite got round to going back to it. I enjoyed each episode, but never really got fully engaged with the sprawling mythology. I may return to it in the future.
  • chicagopdChicago PD – just like Chicago Fire, this does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s rather by-the-numbers, but those numbers work for a reason.
  • Trophy Wife – I never actually reviewed it properly, because I watched it through somewhat dodgy methods, but this was actually a really charming and funny little sitcom. I’m biased because of my love of Bradley Whitford of course, but it’s a real shame that this series wasn’t better promoted and scheduled and got cancelled after its first season.
  • crisisCrisis – a nice idea and solidly delivered, the fact that it’s a contained story means that its cancellation doesn’t matter so much and effectively turns it into a mini-series which I may seek out at some point.
  • Resurrection – the pilot set up some nice ideas and it was certainly more interesting than the French Les Revenants which has pretty much the same plot, I’ve got the series stacking up on my sky plus, but I’ve not actually had sufficient enthusiasm to watch it yet.
  • rakeRake – playing up the charm and the humour makes this a pretty easy watch, but that may have got grating after a while.
  • Halt and Catch Fire – I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but maybe it will grow on me. I’ll pick it up when it comes to the UK.
  • Black Sails – Like Pirates of the Caribbean without the annoying Johnny Depp. I’m going to add it to my “things to watch while baking” list.

Shows that weren’t my thing


  • Masters of Sex – I think it’s probably a superb series, but I didn’t like it. It’s an interesting idea, but I would have found it more interesting if they’d skipped the ‘obvious’ option of having the central characters get caught up in a relationship.
  • Intelligence – Fine, but the chip implanted in someone’s brain was already being turned into a magical fix-all even in the first episode and I immediately felt the writers didn’t have the restraint or skill to establish or stick to any rules of how it could be used, rather than just a magic thing that powers plots and dramatic timing.
  • truedetectiveTrue Detective – I didn’t get on with the style and found Matthew McConaughey’s character supremely irritating. I just decided that life was too short to force myself to sit through this no matter how Good it was.
  • Looking – the male, gay equivalent of Girls. It was less hateful than that series, and I made it through a couple of episodes before the awkwardness of the characters just made me cringe too much.

Shows that just weren’t good enough

  • starcrossedStar-Crossed – bland and derivative.
  • Ironside – generic, cliché and really, really boring.
  • Dracula – it was bright and full of energy but it was also a mess, with characters jumping about, loads of questions and very uneven tone. The whole thing felt very cheap and C-list, but it was potentially entertaining if only as something to mock.
  • legendsLegends – nice idea, but some disappointing choices undermined it. Also, I wasn’t convinced Sean Bean could pull off the complexity of the different roles.
  • Hostages – I didn’t like the story, I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the writing and I didn’t like the tone.
  • Tomorrow People – again, just very generic characters partnered with pretty much every superhero power in the box. No spark, no self-awareness, just built by committee.
  • reignReign – completely unbalanced, lurching from silly frippery to pretty brutal historical issues, either one could have been fun, but combined it was just a mess.
  • Believe – oops, I never wrote this one up. For a show about an adorable child, this wasn’t too bad, but fundamentally it was about a precocious child with super-powers and I’m not sure I can get past that.
  • Silicon Valley – I didn’t even make it through the whole first episode before I had to switch it off. Stereotype characters in awkward situations, I just don’t get the attraction.

I edited this post on 8th September because I’d left Penny Dreadful off the list. 

Almost Human: Season 1

almost_humanPossibly the most promising and interesting new series of the year, but it’s a sci-fi series on Fox, so obviously it’s cancelled after only 13 episodes. Sigh.

In fairness to Fox, the series did get off to a rather ropey start. The pilot was pretty clunky, playing out a number of traditional SF tropes without really giving them much freshness. They should frankly be paying royalties to Bladerunner! The backstory of the world and characters was delivered in big chunks of very heavy handed exposition, every emotion was dialled up to 11 and you had to really want to see the potential in it. On the plus side, the pilot certainly showed that little expense was spared on the production design and special effects though and as I had been informed by various reviewers that the series got better I figured I’d stick it out for the full, short run. It’s not like there’s much else in the way of SF to watch at the moment.

It almost immediately picked up though, or maybe settled down is a better descriptor. The writers realised that the real strength of their show was actually the old stalwart of the mismatched buddy cop motif, and that in Karl Urban and Michael Ealy they had the kind of actors who can bounce off each other, elegantly hiding real emotion and depth behind effortless banter. The high points of the show weren’t any of the (admittedly stunning) special effects, or moderately well thought out sci-fi storylines, but the small scenes of the two guys sitting in a car bickering. It’s just a real shame that the pilot didn’t show that off.

Urban may have gone into it as the big name (Eomer in Lord of the Rings, Judge Dredd, Dr McCoy in the new Star Treks) and he certainly delivers, but relative unknown Michael Ealy completely holds his own and creates an amazingly complex character in Dorian. He is the ‘amost human’ of the title, and manages to make both of those words relevant and intriguing. The supporting characters were a little weaker, disappointing given the pedigree of the actors involved, but then they never really got much of a chance to develop beyond their single paragraph summaries.

It’s sad that this show was cancelled, but I can turn that frustration around on the show runners. It’s not Fox’s fault for cancelling a show with too low ratings, it’s the producers and writers fault for making a poor pilot that led to losing nearly a third of the audience before the second episode. First impressions are everything, and a show is unlikely to be able to recover from that sort of start, making the whole thing a waste of time and talent. A real waste.

Pilot Review: Almost Human

Detective Kennex (Karl Urban) had a bad day at work that left his team dead, him missing a leg and in a coma for 17 months. Now he’s going back to work with a ‘synthetic’ leg, an abundance of psychological issues and almost no friends. Fortunately his only two friends are his boss and the tech guru so when he’s forced to have a synthetic partner (i.e. a robot) they find him one that actually has a personality, albeit one that’s renowned for driving the model insane. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

This was one of the shows that really caught my eye when it was announced. For a start, it’s science fiction and that’s in pretty short supply these days. For a second it’s science fiction plus a buddy detective show, which I’m an absolute sucker for. The miss-matched partners trope is extremely well covered in television, but that’s partly because it really does make compelling tv. The conflicts drive character moments, the moments of connection give satisfying emotional milestones and, if handled correctly, the contrasts can easily drive stories and arcs over multiple season. Finally, the name Karl Urban is a big draw, most recently familiar for being Dr McCoy on the new Star Trek, but a genre favourite since being Eomer in Lord of the Rings, his movie credentials show he’s capable of the action hero stuff, but he’s also able to bring a dry wit to things that I’m always a fan of. Michael Ealy as his partner I didn’t know but had a great reputation and the supporting cast also had enough names to offer optimism (Lili Taylor, Six Feet Under; Minka Kelly, Friday Night Lights and Michael Irby, The Unit; Mackenzie Crook, Pirates of the Caribbean).

So that’s what made me look forward to it. On the down side by the time it reached the UK, it had already been cancelled. Literally a week before it arrived on air, in the middle of Sky’s advertising drive, Fox announces it’s dead. That’s often enough to put me off a show altogether (best case scenario – it’s great and you’re angry) but given a general lack of sf things to watch with the house mates (who have rather specific requirements) we gave it a shot anyway.

The good news is, at least I’m not angry it was cancelled.

My house mate’s take on it was “how can so many great components combine to make something so bad?” which is an excellent question. All the promise was actually there, plenty of sci fi, loads of expensive looking technology and shininess, a complex universe to become familiar with, light and dark moments between the partners, some running and shooting and shouting… and yet overall, it was just poor.

The biggest problem is that there’s very little delicacy with anything, and a lot of that I’m afraid lies with Karl Urban who alternately lays everything on way too thick and yet also phones it in. Now that could be the script’s fault which is pretty lacking in subtlety, but Michael Ealy’s performance was a lot more nuanced. I wonder if the director told Urban that he should play up that he is not dealing with his real human emotions as well as his robotic partner is dealing with his simulated ones, maybe the director really wanted to make sure that a non-sf familiar audience Got It, but it felt patronising.

The other frustration was that within just a few minutes my house mates and I were picking holes in the plot and the technology, logic was compromised too often just to drive the plot along. Now if the rest of the show is pulling you in, that sort of nit-picking doesn’t happen, but because the writer/director was taking so much time to hammer things home, there was more than enough time to ponder why the robot needs a graphical interface to assimilate data, how people don’t walk into the transparent panel in the middle of the office and just how a robot analyses blood by injecting it in their neck.

I suspect we will probable watch the rest of the series anyway to be honest. Firstly, there’s not much else on we watch together, secondly it’s only a dozen or so episodes, and thirdly it is just about possible that after the initial stress of the pilot, everyone will calm down a bit and it will get better. I won’t hold my breath though.

The Upfronts – Fox

Fox network logoUpfront week has rolled around surprisingly quickly this year. Over the span of just four days the five major US network channels will introduce their schedules for the 2013-14 season, delivering last rights to those that have failed to bring in the ratings, offering another year to the select few and introducing those that are lucky enough to win a coveted new slot.

First up, Fox. Much of their schedule is dominated by reality shows (American Idol and X-Factor mostly) which I don’t even mention, so they have less stuff than CBS, NBC and ABC.

What’s out
fringeJust four comedy/drama cancellations from Fox this year, which is joint lowest with CW. Fringe held out longer than anyone expected and came to a very well managed end, so I can’t say I’m that sad to see it go, particularly as the last season was not its strongest. Keifer Sutherland’s Touch made it to a second season, but never seemed to get much attention either from the ratings or critics. The Mob Doctor and Ben and Kate were freshman series that never really got off the ground, and while the latter received some critical praise, it doesn’t look like anyone will really miss either of them.

What’s returning
bonesMost of Fox’s renewals are comedies (New Girl, The Mindy Project, Raising Hope and Glee) or animations (The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy and American Dad). The only drama renewals are Bones and new show The Following (all be it mid-season). It would seem in a slightly desperate attempt to add some established drama to its schedules they’ve taken the rather bizarre route in renewing 24 for some sort of special run. I never liked the original, so am not particularly fussed, but it certainly drew the attention of the media.

What’s new
Almost Human – Set in 2048, police officers are partnered with ‘synthetics’. Detective Kennex (Karl Urban, Star Trek) is about as unstable a human as you get and Dorian (Michael Ealy, Sleeper Cell) is about as unstable an android as you get. The sci-fi elements look interesting and impressive and the unlikely buddy cop motif is generally a pretty reliable way to drive story. The cast is full of familiar names (Lili Taylor of Six Feet Under, Mackenzie Crook of Pirates of the Caribbean, Minka Kelly of Friday Night Lights and Michael Irby of The Unit and has JJ. Abrams (Star Trek, Fringe, Lost) as creator and Exec Producer, so expectations are high, but the trailer left me intrigued.

Sleepy Hollow – Ichabod Crane comes back from a couple of hundred years ago, comes back from the dead to continue his search for the headless horseman. Part supernatural DaVinci Code thriller and part buddy cop action comedy this could be both fun and interesting, although it’s best to ignore the ridiculous voice over on the trailer.

Dads – I’m not sure I’ve ever really found anything by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, Ted) funny, and this trailer is no different. Seth Green (Oz from Buffy, And other stuff) and Giovanni Ribisi (Phoebe’s brother from Friends, and other stuff) are best friends both of who’s fathers decide to come live with them. Chaos ensues. It wasn’t intolerable, I just didn’t find it funny enough.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – This however was intolerable. A comedy about a dysfunctional New York detective squad. Andre Braugher used to be in Homicide: Life on the Street and now he’s in this?!

Enlisted – Geoff Stults (The Finder), returns home from war and is put in charge of turning a bunch of incompetent soldiers, including his two brothers, into something less embarrassing. I hated this from the second the music started.

Us & Them – Gavin and Stacey (yes, like the UK series) seem a nice enough couple who come from New York and Pennsylvania respectively, it’s just that they’re surrounded by well meaning but slightly horrific friends and family. Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls!) and Jason Ritter (Parenthood) are both charismatic and sort of lovely in the trailer, but the others may be unbearable. I didn’t hate it though.

Surviving Jack – based on Justin Halpern’s book I Suck at Girls, a comedy set in 90s California about a no-nonsense semi-absent father (Christopher Meloni, Law and Order: SVU) who’s suddenly forced to be the full time parent to a pair of teenagers. I chuckled a couple of times at the trailer, but also rolled my eyes a couple of times, so it averages out to a ‘meh’. Starts midseason.

Rake – a fairly standard set up, the central character is a complete disaster in his personal life but a pretty good lawyer. It’s the kind of show that lives and dies with its star, and in Greg Kinnear they have someone who is instantly likeable and left me feeling optimistic for the show. Starts midseason.

Gang Related – Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez, The Wire) is on the LA Gang Task Force but also has ties to a local gang and is torn back and forth between the two. The trailer looks very impressive, but I can’t help feeling that I’ve seen this film several times before and at best have come away impressed, but not that interested.

Wayward Pines – Wayward Pines is an idyllically perfect American town, but you can never leave. Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) is a Secret Service Agent sent to the town to investigate the disappearance of two of his colleagues. But he soon finds himself trapped as well. The idea sounds intriguing, but with the Press Release laying the similarity to Twin Peaks on a little too much, and the dubious talents of M. Night Shyamalan attached, there’s the potential for this to go very wrong. Starts midseason, no trailer yet.

Murder Police – animated comedy about a group of inept, corrupt and lazy police officers. Sounds like the animated equivalent of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and I’m even less enthusiastic about this than I am about that. Midseason

Trailers collated by The TV Addict and TV Line and schedule summaries from The Futon Critic.