2011-2012 – New Shows

36 pilots this year. As usual the vast majority of them are American series, but there’s a couple of British ones in there and almost as many Scandinavian ones!

Things I watched
American Horror Story – something very different for television, not always brilliant quality, but addictive
Awake (cancelled) – (not yet finished), clever and challenging.
Borgen – superb. The plots and characters didn’t go the way I wanted them to, but it was extremely well written, acted and produced.
The Bridge – great premise, not particularly well realised. Some fun and interesting characters let down by a disappointing plot.
The Cafe – utterly charming, although maybe only because it’s set in the town that I spent all my summer holidays and it re-creates it to a tea.
Homeland – fascinating (although occasionally frustrating) twisty plot and superb acting.
The Jury – properly awful ITV drama, but my excuse for actually watching it is that it was only 5 episodes and I had a cold.
Luck (cancelled) – incredible footage of horse racing surrounded by a too complicated plot and utterly incomprehensible characters.
The Newsroom – (not finished yet), swerving wildly from breathtakingly good, to really rather rubbish.
Once Upon a Time (not finished yet) – a nice idea, charmingly done. It’s not going to set the world alight, but it’s really rather lovely for Sunday evening relaxed viewing.
Smash – something different! Hugely entertaining with the exception of a couple of terrible characters who have sensibly been cut for next season.
Terra Nova (cancelled) – it had problems, but as Saturday evening ‘fun for all the family’ it was pretty good.
Veep – Some good dialogue, but I don’t like comedies about stupid people. I only really watched it because it was a short season.

Last year I only picked up eight new series, this year it’s thirteen so it’s been a better year on numbers, and actually the more I think about it, the more positively I think about the new season. It doesn’t feel like a spectacular year, but it’s got a few quiet stars, but once again they’re all on cable channels in the US (Homeland, American Horror Story, even The Newsroom), network channels are really struggling to find anything remarkable.

Things I might watch
House of Lies – quirky and entertaining pilot, with some charismatic performances and no problems with being unlikeable.
Scandal – show about legal ‘fixers’ working in Washington DC from the people that brought you Grey’s Anatomy. For some reason I failed to review the pilot, but it had potential. Yes, it was cheesy and predictable but the fast paced dialogue was entertaining and the characters and storyline had potential. Doesn’t seem to be airing in the UK though.

Things I might have watched if they weren’t cancelled
Alcatraz (cancelled) – a sparkles pilot just didn’t inspire me but I could see some potential, I was going to give it a chance, but then it was cancelled
Prime Suspect (cancelled) – fascinating central character and good line up of actors, with an interesting directorial style to it all.
The Playboy Club (cancelled) – Surprisingly entertaining and interesting, but pretty much doomed
The Secret Circle (cancelled) – Teenage witches in a small town with plenty of mysteries. It was pretty cheesy but I found myself somewhat charmed (pun intended!).

Things that weren’t bad, but I just didn’t like
GCB (cancelled) – I did laugh and enjoy pilot, but I hated myself for it a bit so didn’t really want to watch any more, then it was cancelled so I didn’t have to decide.
A Gifted Man (cancelled) – a well put together pilot, interesting concept, well written directed and acted. But I couldn’t see any way the story wouldn’t end badly for the characters and I just didn’t want to watch that happen.
Grimm – it reminded me of lots of other things, all of which had been done better than this. It felt small and boring.
New Girl – As comedies go, I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t really feel like watching any more.
Touch – too manufactured and artificial and not very well written.

Things that were rubbish
The Body Farm – badly written, badly acted and less scientifically sound than CSI Miami.
Charlie’s Angels (cancelled) – awful. Just awful.
The Finder (cancelled) – I only watched the backdoor pilot in Bones, but it was packed with irritating tropes (bloody awful accents, know it all characters, intellectual tough guy)
Hart of Dixie – cliché ridden awfulness.
Hell on Wheels – utterly un-engaging.
Pan Am (cancelled) – a bit boring and too plastic and artificial feeling
Person of Interest – charisma vacuum characters making ridiculous decisions and delivering cliché ridden dialogue
Revenge – utterly unsympathetic, hateful characters
Ringer (cancelled) – Terrible pilot with crappy production and a daft premise.
The River (cancelled) – Fun concept, delivery was painfully awful. The pilot was a double episode and it was so bad I couldn’t bring myself to watch the second half and never got round to reviewing it.
Titanic – I was rooting for the iceberg.
Unforgettable – An ironic title given it was pretty unremarkable, it’s a good cast but cheesy dialogue and cliché premise and plot left it not making any impression.

Finally some creativity!
I was critical last year that it didn’t feel like there was any creativity in the line up, everything was either a thinly veiled recreation of another successful show, or at best a ‘bog standard’ example of a genre that wasn’t represented on TV (Walking Dead, Game of Thrones). Someone seems to have listened to me, because this year did offer up some refreshing originality.

Shows like Smash, Once Upon a Time and Awake all had novel ideas or settings at their hearts and even though they weren’t always successful, I did at least want to cheer them on for giving it a try! American Horror Story set about bringing the horror genre to TV in the same way Walking Dead brought the zombie genre, but did a lot better job of merging the genre and the platform and made something really fascinating. Mind you, there were still some unremarkable procedurals and ‘rehash’ shows out there, Pan Am (and to a lesser extent The Playboy Club) tried to capture the period appeal of Mad Men and fell on their faces.

I’m right, everyone else is wrong
One thing that I find interesting is looking at the shows that I liked that got cancelled (annoyingly) and the shows I hated that stuck around (unfathomably). One show I was disappointed to see cancelled was Terra Nova which I suspect was rather miss-pitched as a primetime weekday evening show, when really it fits best in the early Saturday evening family slot (which the American’s don’t really seem to get like the UK does with Doctor Who and Merlin and the like). The other was Awake, which was an intriguing concept well played by Jason Isaacs (hello!) but was maybe a little slow for mass audiences. Mind you, I can’t really judge that harshly those that didn’t watch it, as I haven’t actually finished the series yet.

On the flip side I guess I’m saddened, but not surprised that some of the horrifically cheesy, cliché ridden shows found an audience (Hart of Dixie, Revenge). Why anyone wanted to watch Jim Caviezel suck all the life out of the room in Person of Interest is a mystery to me though.

Don’t believe the hype
Looking back at the upfront coverage, it seems that the big shows had the odds stacked against them. “Eagerly anticipated” programmes with big budgets and big names attached struggled to find the ratings to match their budgets – Steven Spielberg’s Terra Nova, JJ Abrahms’ Alcatraz, DeNiro’s NYC 22 (such a failure I didn’t even notice it go by), Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return in Ringer, the spin off for Bones, all fell flat. Only slightly more successful were the new Shonda Rhimes show Scandal and while Smash lived out the season it was far from the eponymous hit that was expected, and I’ve never seen a show create a more confused critical reaction of loving and loathing it than Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.

Meanwhile, the darlings of season are based on an Israeli show and from the critically hounded creator of Glee. Homeland dared to be smart and used extraordinary actors to keep audiences on the edge of the seat, while American Horror Story did exactly what it said on the tin and wrapped its story up miniseries style.

Oh UK
I’ve really tried to find more UK shows to watch this year, but there’s been precious little of interest on UK channels. In addition to the stuff I’ve mentioned above which was at least bad enough to bother reviewing (Titanic – why and how are you so rubbish?!) I tried out probably half a dozen others and didn’t even get as far reviewing, often not even as far as the end of the first episode. Recent examples include ITV’s Last Weekend which was so full of foreboding it was laughable, and BBC’s Parade’s End which was mumbly and dull. As a rule I found the UK shows I watched either too impenetrably complicated for my little brain or killed by terrible production values.

It’s quite telling that I watch more Scandinavian shows than I do British ones. Well done to BBC for airing them at least, but I’m not sure what it is that’s stopping the UK channels making stuff this good. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. If anyone has any recommendations I’d be very grateful!

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Awake: Pilot Review

The majority of television shows these days follow a pretty basic recipe – take a basic flavour of procedural sponge cake (doctors, police, lawyers) and add some kind of unique frosting to it. So House is a basic medical procedural sponge with a ‘miserable bastard’ frosting on top. CSI is a police procedural with a forensics frosting; if you take that CSI cake and add sprinkles of Navy on the top you end up with NCIS, and if you add a location based cherry on the top of that you get NCIS: LA. It’s all basic cake making.

Sometimes though the frosting takes a step further and combines some weird flavours, this year in particular has got some weird toppings. A Gifted Man is a medical procedural with ghosts, Grimm and Alcatraz are both police procedurals but one has fairy tale monsters the other has time travelling criminals. Awake is the very definition of this ‘high concept’ model. (Don’t worry, I’ll abandon this metaphor now).

Awake is a police procedural, but that’s not what it’s about, that’s just how it tells its story. Detective Michael Britten lives two lives, he literally goes to sleep in one reality and wakes up in another. In one reality a car crash killed his wife, in the other the accident killed their teenage son.

What impressed me most with this show is that it moved straight through some of the obvious steps that other shows might take months to get to. Britten has actually already told people about his situation, his wife in one reality and his therapists in both. Of course, everyone he tells is convinced that their reality is the true one and the other is just a dream – the therapists take different approaches but they work their way through the logical steps just like I would. This means that by the end of the episode the character and audience were all completely convinced that unlikely as it might seem, this guy really is living two realities. Now that’s settled everyone can get on with the more long term issues about how he manages that situation.

The procedural element played second fiddle in the pilot episode understandably, when I think about it now I can’t remember either of the mysteries (one per reality). There was something about hints from one reality’s case giving hints that carried over to the other case, but I wasn’t really focussed on that element and it seemed a little tenuous.

I admit I went into this show hoping it would be good as I’m a big fan of the star (Hello to Jason Isaacs!) but I was delighted and surprised at just how good it was. There’s a huge amount put in the first episode, but it didn’t feel rushed at all, in fact I had to check the episode runtime once I’d finished because I couldn’t believe that it was only 45 minutes. The concept itself is quite simple and elegant, but when you start thinking about it there’s an immense amount of material there. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all develops.

Other reviews
TV Fanatic – I was in awe of Awake by the time the credits rolled. The pilot, and the way it propels the show forward, is emotionally and meticulously crafted. It’s hard to believe this is a TV show when it feels like an experience that is better placed in a theatre. It is honestly one of the best premiers of a show I have ever watched.

CliqueClack – I saw the first handful of episodes, and I’m happy to report that this is one to keep watching. It may not be utterly edge-of-your-seat action and thrills, but it’s consistent and, at many times, moving.

Huffington Post – The good news is that the unusually ambitious “Awake” succeeds at several of the things it’s attempting, and star Jason Isaacs grounds the drama with a charismatic yet subtle performance. I have a few misgivings about the show — I do wonder how “Awake” will work in the long term — but in the near term, I’m happy to stick with this unusual cop show to see where it goes.

The Upfronts: NBC

What’s out
The only show that I actually watch on NBC is Friday Night Lights and the end of the show has been planned for a while, giving plenty of time to wrap it up in a satisfying fashion. I adore the show, think it’s superb, but have to admit that I haven’t quite had the emotional strength to watch the last season yet, knowing it’s the last actually made it harder.

There are plenty of new shows that won’t be back, most of which never got off the ground at all – The Cape, Chase, The Event, Law & Order LA (which couldn’t be rescued even by a complete overhaul mid-season), Undercovers, and several sitcoms. Not a good year for NBC.

What’s back
Chuck has been renewed for a final half season wrap up, for a show that’s been bubbling since it started, 5.5 seasons seems like a bloody good run. But I don’t watch it so I can’t really say.

Harry’s Law is one that I wanted to like, but the more I thought about it, the more troubling I found the tone of the pilot. I may investigate whether it got better and go back to it as it will be returning next year, slightly surprising given that I haven’t heard any critic say anything about it in months and the ratings weren’t spectacular.

Parenthood is a show I keep meaning to catch up on, initially staying away from it because I didn’t want to fall in love with it as it seemed doomed to early cancellation. Now that’s just been renewed for season 3 so I guess that excuse has worn out.

Other things I don’t watch that are returning – 30 Rock, Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, although there seems to be the suggestion that they might be making big cast changes (if anyone reading this cares).

What’s new
Awake – Hello to Jason Issacs! You seem to have landed yourself a pretty amazing looking show.

Bent – I like Amanda Peet and the rest of the thing isn’t horrific, although it all looks a bit unremarkable.

Grimm – Kind of Supernatural meets Criminal Minds from the looks of it, sounds interesting, but I wasn’t massively impressed with the trailer.

The Playboy Club – This could end up being the kind of show that you tell people to ignore the title and the blurb and just watch because it’s superb. Or it could be horribly sexist and offensive. The trailer leaves me optimistic.

Prime Suspect – I’ve not watched the UK version, but this doesn’t look like Helen Mirren. I like Maria Bello a lot and this doesn’t look half bad.

Smash – Hey, Glee is massively successful right, why don’t we do a show about musicals?! Frankly I’m amazed that every network isn’t belting out show tunes at me. This looked… all right, not sure how they’re going to make it a series rather than just a tv movie though.

Up All Night – I actually chuckled a couple of times at this!

Free Agents – Damnit, I chuckled a couple of times in this one too. I hate myself.

Whitney – I did not laugh. I feel better about myself.

Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea – dear god in heaven, this is possibly the most offensive and horrific thing I’ve ever seen labelled as a comedy. Drinking and driving… so funny!

Also a TV adaptation of The Firm (coming next Jan, so there’s no trailer for me to label as boring yet) and something called Best Friends Forever which seemed awful from the only clip I could find.

Links: The TV Addict, The Futon Critic, TV Squad.