Now that TV fans (or at least 10.3 million of them) are emerging from a “Breaking Bad” coma, which shows among the new TV hopefuls are actually worth watching? The major networks followed a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks blueprint this year, as the beginning of the 2013-14 season has seen the big four (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) collectively crank out more comedies than any other season over the past decade. Oddly enough, it’s kind of working. Some may think it’s too early to judge some of these shows – after all, some of them have only been on for a month and change. We should give them some time to find a groove, develop characters, and at least let the writers’ room air out a little bit, right? Well, sometimes you can just tell.
As always the fall TV schedule is in constant flux. While fans flocked to shows like “Modern Family” and “How I Met Your Mother” long ago, the networks still need to assault viewers’ eyeballs nightly with enough choices to keep them at least mildly interested and if there’s a chance, get them hooked.
Still, it’s early. NBC has held off on running its “Dracula” series until this week. The highly-touted (and expensive-looking) J.J. Abrams-produced “Almost Human” (FOX) doesn’t even start airing episodes until next month. Others, like CBS’ “We Are Men,” have already seen the chopping block. The Eye canned the sitcom after two episodes, and rightfully so. The trope about four desperate men (Kal Penn, Tony Shaloub, Jerry O’Connell and well, some other dude) coping with singledom and perfecting their womanizing was face-palmingly banal. It’s a wonder how other freshmen comedies haven’t suffered a similar fate. Here’s a few that perhaps should be killed off (though likely won’t), along with the true keepers (that hopefully will). And one excellent drama.
Sitting through just one episode of the multi-camera comedy “Dads” (FOX) was one of the most painful television watching experiences I’ve experienced in years. In the show, two 30-somethings (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) have their quirky, down-on-their-luck fathers moving in with them. Allegedly, comedy ensues. Executive producer Seth McFarlane lays the racist jokes, slapstick gags, and a tired plot on thick, but people continue to watch. FOX even ordered six more scripts of the show two weeks ago, suggesting at least something is working. It’s the same strategy CBS has been mining – quite successfully – for years. The network has long catered to the coveted 18-49 demographic, peddling dopey crime dramas (“CSI,” “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds”) and other hackneyed laugh-track comedies (“2 Broke Girls,” “The Big Bang Theory”), while watching the money pile up. This year is really no different.
KILL: “THE CRAZY ONES”
“The Crazy Ones” has been exactly as billed, a workplace comedy with a lot of Robin Williams doing the crazy voices he’s become known for. If you’re a fan, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered. But for those of us who prefer Williams’ more restrained, dramatic roles, we should probably consider ourselves lucky his zaniness is limited to a scant 21 minutes each week. Save for the downright delightful James Wolk (Bob Benson!), who plays a copywriter at the fictional Roberts and Roberts ad agency, it’s a fairly boring cookie-cutter comedy, just one with a droll Sarah Michelle Gellar and that one actor with an amazing name from “The New Adventures of Old Christine” (Hamish Linklater). Still though, it’s a bona fide hit: It’s averaged 12 million viewers per episode so far and could be primed to be a juggernaut for the network in the years to come. As long it’s on, it will continue to be a success. Partly because people will watch it and partly because that’s simply how the CBS machine works.
KILL: “THE MILLERS”
The same goes for “The Millers” (CBS), the latest Greg Garcia situational comedy that’s excelled at making a halfway decent cast seem dull and lifeless. While Garcia’s underdog family comedy “Raising Hope” continues to find a new lease on life at FOX, his latest CBS offering stagnates. “The Millers” has rendered Margo Martindale (who’s outdone herself as of late with roles on FX’s “Justified” and “The Americans”) bland and Will Arnett (who won our hearts as Gob on “Arrested Development”) hopelessly unfunny. Come on! Arnett’s work in the last season of “AD,” “Up All Night,” and even “Running Wilde” was good, but every word out of his mouth in “The Millers” sounds forced and disheartened, like he knows exactly what he’s doing: selling out. That said, “The Crazy Ones” and “The Millers” are already the most and second most-watched new comedies this season, respectively. They’re doing exactly what CBS wants them to do.
While those shows are no doubt pleasing executives, there are other new shows that are fighting for and actually worth your attention.
KEEP: “TROPHY WIFE”
The unfortunately-titled “Trophy Wife” may be the most surprising among them. The lead Bradley Whitford fares well in his first real comedy role since the ill-fated 2010 vehicle “The Good Guys” (FOX), playing Pete Harrison, a lawyer who has to deal with his current wife, two ex-wives, and all of their children. While the kids are plenty funny, it’s the women who really shine here. The infallible Marcia Gay Harden plays Diane Buckley, Harrison’s first wife, to an icy ‘T,’ while underrated “SNL” alum Michaela Watkins portrays second wife Jackie Fisher. Malin Åkerman is Kate, the new wife or “trophy wife,” as the title suggests. While the ratings – which have been fair to good – suggest it may happen, the show should get another season. Åkerman has proved she’s funny by biding her time on a handful of Adult Swim comedies over the years, notably the perennially weird “Children’s Hospital.” She’s a delight here. All the characters are believable but it’s Åkerman, whose knack for physical comedy and chemistry with Whitford, who translates the best. If nothing else, it’s worth rooting for creator/Harvard alum Sarah Haskins. Co-creator Emily Halpern has a handful of “Private Practice” and “The Unit” episodes under her belt but it’s Haskins – who helped helm Current TV’s short-lived InfoMania program – and her irrepressible snark that’s won me over. ABC doubled up on Tuesday comedy this year, slotting “Trophy Wife” and fellow new comedy “The Goldbergs” between superhero drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and the network’s proven hit “Scandal,” in order to compete with FOX. It’s been a mixed bag, to say the least. Last week saw ABC order three additional scripts of both comedies (which is good!) but also saw season-low marks in viewership for both shows (which is, well, less than good.)
KEEP: “BROOKLYN NINE-NINE”
Only five episodes in and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the hip Andy Samberg-led cop comedy, is already finding its way into critics’ hearts. It shouldn’t be too much of a shock once you realize it’s the work of creator Michael Schur, whose excellent “Parks and Recreation” has soldiered on in the comedic wake of “The Office” and “30 Rock.” Unlike those comedies, “BK-99” calls FOX home and it makes perfect sense that its found itself slotted before other genuinely likeable comedies “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” on the network’s Tuesday night schedule. If you could stomach Samberg’s shtick on “SNL,” you’re going to be in pretty good shape here. The police comedy is fairly old hat at this point but the actors gel: Samberg, who plays roustabout young detective Jake Peralta, and Andre Braugher, who nails it as the perpetually solemn and straight-faced police commissioner Ray Holt. The bonuses are Chelsea Peretti – a comedienne who’s made the rounds on a number of cult podcasts and also penned a few “P&R” episodes herself – and the irascible Joe Lo Truglio, esteemed “The State”/Stella veteran. The show can be a blur sometimes, bouncing back and forth between rapid-fire jokes and callbacks, but both actors and their sense of comedic timing work well with the fast-paced script. It’s still early but the writers, who previously wrote for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “Happy Endings” (R.I.P.), have managed to find their wheels faster than their counterparts on “Parks and Recreation” did in its first season. FOX seems to agree – the network ordered a handful of extra “BK-99” scripts at the beginning of this month.
KEEP: “MASTERS OF SEX”
While all of the big networks have trotted out mediocre-to-serviceable dramas this fall (CBS’ “Hostages,” NBC’s “The Blacklist,” FOX’s “Sleepy Hollow”) nothing truly great has jumped out, save for Showtime’s promising “Homeland” companion, “Masters of Sex.” Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan play Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, two researchers at Washington University who were innovators when it came to the study of sex. A pseudo-period piece set in 1956, “Masters” has already drawn early parallels to “Mad Men” (see photo above!) and it’s easy to see why – it’s stylish and dark in all the right places. The show isn’t overtly salacious or raunchy but its subject matter sort of mandates it be at times. Sure, there are racy science experiments here and brothels there, but the show is delineated by the real-life effects of the pair’s research and its place in history. Of course, being broadcast on Showtime affords the show a lot of luxuries – and it’s not just the nudity. The nearly 60-minute episodes allow Michael Sheen, who most will remember from 2008’s “Frost/Nixon” or his brief stint on “30 Rock,” adequate room to breathe and deliver a finely-tuned, balanced performance. Also, aside from a brief arc in the first season of “New Girl,” this is the first we’ve seen of Lizzy Caplan since Starz’s cult “Party Down.” Caplan’s beauty is well-established at this point, but her acting in “Masters” should exceed expectations. While the show has already been guaranteed a 12-episode run by the network, Showtime also bumped “Dexter” to a mid-summer premiere in order to accommodate “Masters,” demonstrating their confidence in the show — and apparently (hopefully) in its future.
[Photo credit: Erwin Olaf/Showtime]