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.

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!


Terra Nova: Season 1

I was a bit thrown by Terra Nova. With its vast budget and marketing hype I was expecting something epic about dinosaurs and the fate of humanity, but I’d forgotten that executive producer Steven Spielberg’s style is actually to tell those stories through the lens of small groups of ‘normal’ people. It worked well to make the story more easily enjoyable, but I can’t help feel a little disappointed that there wasn’t a little bit more epicness about the whole thing.

Terra Nova is much more a family friendly Saturday evening kind of show than I was anticipating, it’s obvious closest comparison is ITVs Primeval but it also fits in neatly with something like Merlin. It’s more about a gradually developing storyline and gentle character interactions than it is high adrenaline or intensity. It’s not that there aren’t serious stories to be told, but they are mostly buried under a more frothy layer of action, mystery and humour. If you want to peer under the surface there’s interesting stuff, but if you just want to be entertained, you don’t have to bother looking.

I was very impressed with the characters – they care about things, they get scared, they make jokes, they’re extremely competent at what they do and even the bad guys actually want to work together and compromise so that they can all get as close to what they want without destroying everything. The only dark spot was Josh, the teenage son, who seemed to just be a bit of an idiot, but he really was the only weak link in a great collection of regular and recurring characters and actors.

I wish the writing of the plots were up to the same standard as the writing of the dialogue. While I struggle to remember what many of the episodes were actually about,. I can certainly recall tutting over several of them as gaping holes and unanswered questions were left laying about.

Terra Nova is not an epic story that will span eras, an action packed thriller, or an intense character drama, it’s ‘just’ a little show about a group of people in a weird place. I enjoyed watching Terra Nova and spending time with its characters. It’s not going to set the world alight, but as an escapist hour of television each week, it was pretty good. My biggest complaint about the whole thing would be that it would have been nice if there were a few more dinosaurs.

Terra Nova season 1 is available on dvd

Terra Nova: Pilot Review

It’s 2149 and Earth isn’t looking too shiny what with the pollution and overpopulation and whatnot. Fortunately they find a rip through time to 85million years ago and we cheerfully begin colonising the past while trying to avoid getting eaten by dinosaurs.

First off – thank the TV deities for two part pilots! Terra Nova is neither cheap nor simple and it really needs a double episode to show off the spending and not rush the plot. To be honest, there was still a fair amount of rushing in the early section of the episode but I didn’t mind that too much as it’s not like I really wanted to linger on the grey, depressing and overly cgi’ed Earth when we all knew that there were dinosaurs through the Stargate!

Given that the series is exec produced by Steven Spielberg and it has the budget of a smallish feature film, it’s hard to not immediately jump to the label of Jurassic Park the TV series. The problem for Terra Nova is, that even after 18 years, Jurassic Park is still firmly ingrained in my memory, and the best that Terra Nova can do is remind me how much I loved that film. The moment in Jurassic Park where we first see the dinosaurs is still one of my favourite scenes of all time, the jaw dropping effects combined with the beautiful music and such an amazing sense of wonder… when I watched the similar scene in Terra Nova all it did was remind me of Jurassic Park’s moment and not quite live up to that standard.

That’s not to say that Terra Nova isn’t good. It really is and I really enjoyed the pilot episode. But a lot of that came from the bigger ideas, not so much the dinosaurs. I find the concept of getting a fresh start and the ability to set up a colony from scratch fascinating. With an entirely blank canvas would we create the best of all worlds or would we just make the same mistakes all over again? Too often these series opt for the latter line of argument and I end up depressed, Terra Nova however manages to step around a few of the obvious traps. That’s not to say the colony doesn’t have issues, but it at least initially has avoided the cliché of civilian vs military vs scientist. It also presents the leaders as smart and thoughtful people – they may start off a confrontation pointing guns at each other, but they quickly end it by exchanging prisoners and medical supplies.

This is one of the things I was happiest about watching the show – for the most part the characters are smart, reasonable and professional. The colony is well established and sensible in the way that it deals with the predictable threat of the dinosaurs. In fact the writers have to introduce a somewhat irritating group of teenagers just to show that the dinosaurs are dangerous if you don’t follow the rules; the grown-ups are all too smart to be caught outside the secure perimeter. I can see it served a purpose but the plot did rather degenerate into a syfy channel movie of the week with predictable teenage whining, clumsy flirting and inevitable peril and panic which I really hope they don’t repeat too often.

The biggest success of the pilot for me was Jason O’Mara leading the audience through the experience. He was instantly and completely believable as a police officer utterly to be thrown back in time 85 million years but desperate to find a better life for his slightly estranged family. He managed to find the tricky middle ground between being competent and confident in his abilities without tripping over into being arrogant or all knowing – there were plenty of things that he wasn’t good at, didn’t know, or just wasn’t sure how to deal with, but he did his best and dealt with them all with charm and humour. I found him an immensely likeable and relatable presence, so much so that even though the rest of the cast were perfectly fine, they seemed slightly stilted in comparison.

I wouldn’t want to jinx it, but I think this show has the potential to be really rather good. I think the pilot was not the best, but it was necessary to get some facts established – no matter how difficult this place is, it’s still paradise compared to ‘home’ and that the rules are there for a reason. Now that those issues are out of the way, the series can actually get on with some really interesting storytelling. Or… it’s going to turn into a weekly instalment of stupid people doing stupid things and dying in messy ways. We’ll have to see how it goes.

Terra Nova starts 8pm, Monday 3rd October on Sky1

Other reviews:
TV Fanatic – But the positives outnumbered the negatives by a country mile, and I am excited to see where this tale goes from here. The ending of the second hour […] reminded me once again at what an epic story this was. Will the rest of the series continue to live up to that scale? We’ll have to tune in again to find out.

AOL TV – ‘Terra Nova’s’ expansive vistas and action scenes look spiffy, and if you like to see humans battle dinosaurs in HD, you’re likely to be satisfied by the workmanlike but effective story told in the pilot.

The Upfronts: Fox

Another year, another set of upfronts. Fox is a channel I approach with considerable nervousness, I’ve never forgiven them for cancelling some of my favourite shows (Wonderfalls and Firefly for example). But on the flipside, they’re also the channel that actually commissioned those series, and recently they’ve actually given shows like Dollhouse and Fringe more chances than maybe their ratings deserve.

What’s out
The Chicago Code – This never really got enough viewers for it to survive and another Shaun Ryan show bites the dust. I liked the pilot well enough, but am not sure if I’ll bother picking up the rest of the series now. I was more upset about the loss of his other show, the superb Terriers.
The Good Guys – Despite the dream pairing of Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks, this wasn’t my kind of show, and the ratings would seem to indicate it wasn’t other people’s either.
Lie to Me – Now this one I am cross about. I feel this show never really got a fair shot with mucked about scheduling and minimal promotion. Tim Roth was superb in this, raising it up above other similar procedurals like The Mentalist. It could have been improved with more development of the supporting characters, but this is one of only very few cancellations that I have any kind of strong feelings about.
Also off are Human Target (not awful, but just a bit crappy), Breaking In (Christian Slater thing), Running Wilde and Traffic Light (comedies) and Lone Star which is probably the winner of this year’s “critics’ hero”to “ratings zero” award.

What’s back
There are no surprises that Bones and Glee are back, nor the animations that I have no real idea about but see people talking about a lot (American Dad, Bob’s Burgers, The Cleveland Show, Family Guy and The Simpsons). Also Raising Hope is back which I hear good things about.

Fringe’s renewal came a bit of a surprise to everyone, and I actually really appreciate Fox’s commitment to this show despite it’s not great ratings. I wouldn’t have thought there’ll be another chance next year, so I hope the writers take the opportunity to produce an amazing season that concludes the story.

House will also be back, but due to massive budget cuts it will be without Cuddy (news story) – which as far as I’m concerned may actually improve the show. It will almost certainly be the last season of the show and I’m not overly devastated about that, hopefully the writers will make the most of the opportunity to go out on a high.

What’s new
Terra Nova – The long anticipated and rather spectacular looking Stephen Spielberg action adventure thing. Looks like an extended Jurassic Park. I can’t wait.

Alcatraz – JJ Abrahms’ new mysteryish show. It’s starring Lost’s Jorge Garcia and Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill and the trailer efficiently hooked me in. Don’t get overly excited, it’s not on until mid-season.

The Finder – the Bones spinoff which was backdoor piloted got an official pickup. It’s got some potential, but also some really irritating tropes (bloody awful accents, know it all characters, intellectual tough guy) that will need toning down. Another midseason.

Plus a couple more animations (Napoleon Dynamite and Allen Gregory) and two utterly hideous looking comedies (The New Girl and I Hate My Teenage Daughter). And… The X Factor. Lucky Americans, no reason we should suffer alone I guess.

LinksThe TV Addict (thanks for the youtube links), TV Squad, and The Futon Critic

The upfronts: Fox

What’s Out
The big news is that 24 will not be returning. I’ve never been a fan of the show, I watched the first few episodes and got frustrated by the ridiculousness. Apparently they’re moving the franchise onto the big screen, but I don’t know whether they’re going to rename it “120minutes” or change the format, either way it seems like a bit of a fudge.

The only one of the cancellations that I actually watched was Dollhouse, which even I’ll admit got a pretty good run all things considered. Brothers, Past Life and Sons of Tucson were all cancelled before reaching their 2nd season and the more established Til Death also lived up to its name.

What’s Back
The fact that Glee started AND ended the year as one of the most talked about shows on television made its pick up pretty obvious, the fact that a show about high school kids singing musical hits is going to be given the prestigious post-Superbowl spot next year is a bit more surprising.

The only other freshman show to survive was Human Target, which was pretty terrible but mindless enough to pass the time. Bubble shows Fringe and Lie to Me will both return for a third season which I’m pleasantly surprised by. The animations all return – American Dad, The Cleveland Show, Family Guy and The Simpsons and the ratings juggernauts of Bones and House return for seasons 6 and 7 respectively.

What’s New

  • Bob’s Burgers – Another animation. I don’t really like any of Fox’s animations, so can’t really comment.
  • The Good Guys – This one actually gets a preview this week in the US and the critics are already in love. The lure of Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks is pretty strong and if you can get past the terrible moustache, it sounds like a really fun old school miss-matched buddy cup show.
  • Lone Star – Interesting looking drama centred around a conman trying to get out of the business, but unable to chose between his ‘real’ life and the one he’s constructed to swindle a big Texas oil family.
  • Mixed Signals – Bromance comedy, three blokes dealing with the trials and tribulations of life and love, guess it makes a change from the endless female equivalents. The trailer wasn’t horrible, I even smiled a couple of times, but it’s far from riotously hilarious.
  • Raising Hope – Following from the success of this year’s whacky family comedies The Middle and Modern Family, this is another one. I wanted to hate it, but actually the trailer didn’t look entirely awful and this might actually end up being quite sweet and entertaining.
  • Ride-Along – Another drama about corruption in the police force from Shawn Ryan (The Shield), although I suspect it won’t be quite as… gritty as The Shield. The trailer is ok, but nothing really jumped out at me as being outstanding.
  • Running Wilde – Awful looking comedy about a Beverley Hills snob who falls for a bleeding heart anthropologist. The trailer is one of the least funny 3 minutes of ‘comedy’ I’ve experienced in a long time.
  • Terra Nova – This sounds pretty exciting. Steven Spielberg and Brannon Braga (Star Trek) bring us a big action sci-fi series about a family sent back 85 million years to save humanity. Sounds like a cross between Primeval and Lost in Space.

Fox’s website, TV Squad summary and pilot reviews, The Futon Critic