TV Critics Summer Press TourThe new fall slate barely treads water
By Melanie McFarland Seattle Post-Intelligencer
TV Critic Friday, July 28, 2006
Pasadena CA--At midnight, the Ritz-Carlton's outdoor pool lights up with a blue glow not unlike a television set. Usually the pool is empty by that late hour -- except for a few nights, when a man could be seen floating on his back and, oddly enough, smoking.
Gently kicking his legs to keep his head and chest above water, the man circled lazily, pausing every so often to take a puff, forefinger and middle scissoring the filter so his cigarette didn't get too wet.
This was a guy enjoying his place in the universe -- either that, or he was in the throes of an existential crisis, wrestling with "Who am I?" or "Where am I going?"
Think of him as the mascot for the fall TV lineup, a slate full of new series that seem to have very little idea of where they're going. Holding out for that one tremendous hit that'll renew your faith in TV? Don't. Intriguing pilots are everywhere, but behind a fair share of them are producers lacking in concrete vision.
That's what happens when network TV settles into a comfortable middle territory.
Fall 2006-07 isn't "Lost"-in-the-first-season fantastic, but it's not "Whoopi" terrible, either. The upcoming schedule is solidly built, with just enough fat around the midsection to float.
You may not think this after seeing a few premieres, because a lot of these introductory hours are quite well-made. The pilot for Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is at the top of NBC's class, which is not especially shocking when you remember that it's made by two men who know and respect the medium. The Peacock also is taking a chance on Tim Kring's "Heroes," which could appeal to the comic-book-loving kid inside many adults. And if that kid doesn't exist? Well, nobody is making you watch.
ABC has a strong contender in "The Nine," a drama about a group of people who survive a hostage situation at a bank. The show boasts an ensemble cast that includes Tim Daly and Scott Wolf. "The Nine" promises lots of flashbacks as the series returns to that day even as the survivors move on, to show the ways in which it changed them.
Other drama pilots are glossier but -- well, there's that crisis again: The big question coming out of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, besides Can Serials Work, is whether these shows should be movies instead of great TV.
The problems go hand in hand. There are more serials on TV this fall than ever, it seems. A number of them premiered last year, too, but those are all gone, and in most cases, without giving their viewers answers to the questions that drew them in the first place.
We never really found out what the deal was with "Surface's" sea creatures or the source of "Invasion's" bizarre phenomena. Do you even remember specific story lines in "Threshold" or "Reunion"? Think hard -- and, no.
A number of the coming season's dramas speak to viewers in the language of serials dressed up as cinema, attempting to elevate TV's dialect of close-ended stories.
Fall casts have gotten more exciting too: Jeremy Sisto, Dana Delany, Delroy Lindo and Timothy Hutton are the faces of NBC's "Kidnapped." "Smith" brings Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen together on CBS.
Even the way these series are executed is going to make you crave popcorn. "Smith," created by John Wells, takes cues from "Reservoir Dogs," "Ocean's 11" and "Heat." The pilot clocks in at an hour. It really could be a movie.
Don't forget the significant difference between movies and TV -- movies end after a couple hours. We tend to be done with them once they're over, so what's to bring us back next week?
Puff, puff -- kaff kaff kaff. Serial and cinematic touches are TV's nicotine.
You can thank or blame "Lost" for this trend of attempting to create 22 hourlong movies for the small screen -- and for inspiring CBS's "Jericho," which substitutes a small Midwestern town for the island, a nuclear blast for the plane crash and dry confusion for excitement.
At least "Jericho" deserves credit for stabbing at complexity because only one of Fox's series, "Vanished," even makes an attempt at it, muddled though it is.
TV is experiencing an existential crisis, no question. Inevitably many of these shows are going to sink like boulders. Even in our supposed golden age of drama the simple fact is, who has the time to keep up?
But a solid medium is better than an out-and-out miserable one, which bring us to fall's new comedies. They're in a worse position -- not floating, but looking pretty dead in the water.
Beware CBS's "The Class." Just avert your eyes, OK?
One joke that has been passed around so much that it's already old is that NBC's "Twenty Good Years" has about 20 decent seconds in the pilot. An eyeful of John Lithgow in a Speedo is not one of them. It comes on at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays; eat early and take an antacid afterward.
This is a season in which Brad Garrett can play the bitter married-to-it card on Fox's very typical comedy " 'Til Death," and has a good shot at remaining employed, even if it gets murdered in its 8 p.m. Thursday time slot.
This is a season in which some ABC programming executive thought that applying "24's" concept to "Big Day," a half-hour comedy that desperately searches for laughs on a wedding day, would lead to a season of pants-wetting laughter. It was a struggle to get through 22 minutes of the pilot, let alone the 45-minute panel.
Comedy still has some cramps, but the genre has hope. Tina Fey's "30 Rock" is getting an overhaul, so she may be able to work through the dead spots in what was otherwise an enjoyable pilot. ABC could have something with "Knights of Prosperity," if it can find a name that isn't so dreadful and the producers can maintain the pilot's focus.
Dramas may have to race, but all these comedies need to do is tread water.
The swimming promises to be at a leisurely pace.
Ah, but don't forget that cigarette, Mr. TV. You might want to quit. Those things will kill ya.http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/printe...9151_tv28.html