By Ted Harbert | September 23, 2019 | Culture
I was a television executive for 40 years. I held senior management positions at broadcast and cable networks and studios… jobs I wanted since I was 10 years old. There’s no way to prove it, but I’m pretty sure I read more TV scripts and watched more episodes than anyone, ever. I also lived and died every day by "The Double R": ratings and reviews. Reviewers truly make me crazy, so what’s the solution? Become one.
We all know there’s a zillion things to watch. I want to help. This week, I’ll give you a quick read on just the new shows launching on the broadcast networks starting Monday, September 23. It’s Premiere Week! I swear, it used to be a really big deal.
I stooped to emojis so who am I to criticize Chuck Lorre, the most successful TV comedy writer/producer ever? Mr. Lorre thrives on twisting well-known formats, so here we have a large, white sock (!?) salesman who falls for his Nigerian immigrant nurse who sings to him to help him pee in the hospital. What could go wrong? I’m all for opposites attract, but this seems like a pretty big stretch. Genius that I am, I said that about The Big Bang Theory, too. Chuck Lorre has earned a bit of our patience, so watch.
The bad news for the “Big Three” networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) is that even in a totally transformed television universe, they still have to fill 21 hours a week (Fox-15, CW-12). The only thing surprising about All Rise is that this title hasn’t been used before. New judge gets hazed by everybody but she’s fair, resolute and unflappable. Suggestion: Be more flappable! The tried-but-no-longer-true “B” story is supposed to be comic relief. It isn’t. If you pitched this to Netflix or Amazon, they wouldn’t validate your parking. Tony-winner Ruthie Ann Miles is good and there are worse procedurals.
This is hard for me because I love Jimmy Smits, both personally and as an actor. He saved NYPD Blue (and my butt) 25 years ago when David Caruso left for a much needed vacation on Mars. Smits is a famous civil rights lawyer who also runs a firm that goes after the corrupt corporations that 60 Minutes stalks every week. Yay! I hate Big Pharma, et al. But in court with his estranged daughter turned partner, he hands her a Post-it that says “CHANGE THE WORLD.” Well, I’m all for that but this earnest, overzealous diatribe isn’t much help. This show has a great lead-in from The Voice but you should still watch.
This spin-off of Black-ish takes Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) back to 1985 when her family moves out a hippie commune to suburbia, where Rainbow and her two siblings are teased at school for being of mixed race, as this was relatively uncommon in the 80’s. Their loving parents tell them all will fine. Black-ish works because America likes smartly written family comedies. But they also want characters and circumstances that foster comedy and conflict, whether it be Archie Bunker, the amalgamation of the very different households in Modern Family or the difficulty assimilating when you’re the upscale African-American family in Black-ish. Clearly, I know little about the difficulties mixed race Americans confront and if there are years of comedy to be gleaned from this situation, so my opinion of this concept nay not have much value. What I do know is that seven year old Mykal-Michelle Harris, who plays Rainbow’s little sister Santamonica is a scene stealing star. If you like Black-ish, watch.
A plane or something crashes in a field. A phony NTSB cleans up the site too quickly. An eight-year-old girl is found near the crash. She has no injuries, no memory and some murky supernatural powers The police chief, well-played by Allison Tolman (Fargo), takes her home because she’s just that kind of cop. Only on TV. I’m pretty tough on these “what’s going on here?” shows because they’re so tough to get right and sustain into season two and beyond. The mistake Emergence makes is that there’s not enough cement in the foundation. There’s not enough information to set the hook. They’ll say “watch next week.” Sorry, those days are gone. That only works if I can binge it. Shows like this demand undying loyalty and patience. In return, you’re supposed to get a Pavlovian supply of yummy nuggets of OMG. Emergence is really nugget lite, so run.
For 70 years, network schedules have been packed with dramas about doctors, lawyers, cops and private investigators. Since we’ve watched more than our fill, why are there more every season? Because ABC is like KFC. One knows chicken, the other knows procedurals… a fancy word meaning the bad guy goes to jail and the patient lives. Networks know the PI franchise is tired (who can top Jim Rockford or Thomas Magnum?) so they tell writers OK, but only of you bring me a great piece of talent. Enter Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), playing a smart alec Army veteran who “accidentally” becomes a PI in Portland, Oregon, which many people call Stumptown, because, um, they have a lot of stumps there. I guess Portland PI was taken. I’m not going to bore you with the story here, because it’s boring. But Smulders is terrific and makes Stumptown worth a quick watch.
Unicorn follows this season’s trend of trying to spruce up ordinary concepts with better than average casting. Walton Goggins (Justified, Vice Principals) is the sprucer upper here playing a widowed dad who’s reluctant to start dating again. But guess what? His good pals are there to talk into going on a dating website and hilarity tries to ensue but not so much. There is, luckily, a pretty fair amount of sweetness in Unicorn, as well as a good supporting cast, including Rob Corddry and Omar Benson Miller (both from Ballers). Final answer: it’s another sitcom.
A motley crew of misfits finally make good is a formula as old as network television. I so wish Perfect Harmony was a decent example of the formula because the head harmonizer here, Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), is a fantastic actor with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. Unfortunately, he accepted this role as a difficult, down on his luck music professor who happens upon a lousy church choir. Against his will, of course, he winds up helping them. Now, nobody loves to see underdogs come from behind more than I, from The Bad News Bears to Pitch Perfect. But this choir’s wildly disparate assemblage of goofball stereotypes dashes any desire to root for them. Then add the cringey moments Mr. Whitford is asked to deliver and you will quickly jump for the remote.
Patricia Heaton is one of TV’s most successful sitcom actresses. She’s energetic, relatable and knows how to turn a phrase. In Carol’s Second Act, she's a doctor who shows up for her first day at the hospital and meets the other much younger interns who are standard sitcom characters and her arrogant, aegist boss. No one thinks this fish belongs in this tank of water. She doesn’t follow orders and tries too hard. But because this is a 80s/90s sitcom, Carol has more than a few things to teach these millennials. Just like in the 80s/90s, there are four jokes per page and then a “real moment” every five pages, just like the sitcom instruction manual says. Patty Heaton deserves better. Please run as fast as you can.
It’s great that network television is trying to become more diverse. Unfortunately, diversity doesn’t make your show funny. In Sunnyside, the talented Kal Penn plays Garrett Modi, a disgraced city councilman who loses his seat and most of his dignity. In a bar, he bumps into a group that needs green cards, but, oh no, all the prep classes are booked! We’ll get deported! Will you help us, Mr. Modi? The immigrants from Sunnyside, Queens hit the racial trifecta, with stereotypes of Asians, Indians and Latinas delivering the jokes you hoped not to hear. What’s supposed to happen in future seasons? How long do you study for a green card? One hopes such a diverse program will break out but this unlikely situation is why sitcoms struggle so much. You just don’t believe it. Immigration is obviously a hot topic these days, but one of the group getting picked up by ICE doesn’t get me laughing, it gets me running away.
Not that anyone cares, but this genre of TV creeps me out. I know that’s the idea but I’ve had his issue ever since The Exorcist. I have to leave the country when American Horror Story is on. But Michelle and Robert King (The Good Wife) really know what they’re doing. A mom with four kids who lives near the subway is asked by the excellent Michael Colter (Luke Cage) and the Catholic Church to “assess” whether or not the awful things happening are Church related or just regular awful. Evil makes one regrettable mistake that too many pilots make. It takes 19 minutes until I start to care. With commercials, that’s almost a half hour of TV time. These days, that's an eternity. When producers like the Kings are involved, I watch at least three episodes to make sure I’m not missing a potential hit. I can cover my eyes at the scary parts.
Next time, I’ll cover the network shows with later premieres and the best of cable and streaming. And if the shows above don’t keep you busy, watch Unbelievable and Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates on Netflix. So great.