I Like to Watch

"Veronica Mars" dies, "Jericho" falls and "Friday Night Lights" shines on. Plus: This fall, geeks, soaps and superpowers dominate the small screen.


Heather Havrilesky
May 20, 2007 5:00PM (UTC)

Last week, the fates decided which TV programs would get the ax and which would live to see another day. And by "fates" I mean, of course, the network executives, cruel in their whimsy, cackling over their TV schedules like heartless brokers of destiny. As the yearly upfront presentations unfolded in New York, some low-rated critical darlings were spared, while others' lives were cruelly cut short by those merciless, expensively suited agents of doom!

NBC
Before we get to the heartbreaking losses doled out by the demons in Brioni, let's start by giving NBC a hearty slap on the back for bringing back the moving but low-rated drama "Friday Night Lights." The show will be airing, appropriately enough, at 10 p.m. on Friday nights, a nice gift to shut-ins nationwide who still long for the days when "Battlestar Galactica" graced the Friday night lineup. NBC is also bringing back the plucky and lovable "30 Rock," and axing Aaron Sorkin's sucky and unlovable "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

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Lest there be any doubt that NBC has the geek demographic in its sights, not only is "Heroes" back, but NBC will air a six-episode series called "Heroes: Origins" which will introduce a new character every week and invite viewers to vote on which one they want to join the "Heroes" cast. The network is also adding two geeky pilots: "The IT Crowd," a knockoff of a British comedy about a gaggle of basement-dwelling techies who keep the informational systems of a corporation operational while loathing everyone who dwells upstairs, "Office Space"-style, and "Chuck," a drama (brought to you by "OC" creator Josh Schwartz) about a nerd who turns into a spy when he accidentally downloads top-secret information to -- wait for it -- his brain! Holy comic-book concept, Batman! Too bad it doesn't star natural-born wiseass/nerd Adam Brody.

And that's not all! Apparently to become the destination of choice for the "Heroes" crowd, NBC has also picked up "Journeyman," about a newspaper reporter who can travel through time (Hmm. "Quantum Leap" and a few other failed pilots with names I can't remember spring to mind) and "Bionic Woman," -- yes, that's right -- a revamp of Jamie Sommers story co-created by "Battlestar Galactica's" David Eick. Personally, I always preferred "The Six Million Dollar Man," but that's because Lee Majors was muy macho and muy depressed. What's next? A reimagined "Kojak"? An Iraqi version of "M.A.S.H."?

ABC
ABC should get props for killing the painfully awful "According to Jim" (no official word but it's not on the fall schedule) and the generally pretty-bad "George Lopez," and for limiting "Lost" to three more seasons, during which we can only assume that we'll learn something about the stupid island. Naturally ABC renewed "Ugly Betty" (Hurray!), "Men in Trees" (Huh?) and "Brothers and Sisters" (Boo!) and picked up "Private Practice," the "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff that underwhelmed audiences a few weeks ago. As if that didn't seal its image as the Network of Girly Girls, they're bringing back "The Bachelor" (Consider "The Bachelor: Masseuse, Poet and Five-Star Chef" next year, ladies) and "Notes From the Underbelly" which is about childbearing, but honest to God, it's pretty funny. OK, there, I said it!

And as if that weren't enough to forever brand ABC as the Network That Wears a Skirt, it also picked up "Women's Murder Club," a drama pilot about gals who solve crimes, starring Angie Harmon"; "Sam I Am," a drama about a woman who gets amnesia and can't remember who she is, starring Christina Applegate (sounds like that annoying story line on "Grey's Anatomy," but stretched out to last way too long); "Cashmere Mafia," a drama about four successful women in New York City produced by Darren Starr of "Sex and the City" fame; and "Dirty Sexy Money," a soapy drama about a lawyer (Peter Krause) who goes to work for a wealthy family. And who in the world doesn't want a little Narm back on the small screen?

In a transparent move to make itself look muy macho, the Network That Shaves Its Armpits also picked up "Big Shots," a pilot about four CEOs who go to the same country club and kill with the ladies. I like that concept, actually, as long as they can stray away from "Mind of the Married Man" territory -- you know, maybe one of the guys can have actual blood flowing through his veins and real thoughts jangling around in his head and a soul and stuff. Either way, throwing a Man Show into the mix is sort of like giving the Network That Lactates a tie and a fake mustache.

Even so, I just want to take a minute and applaud the Network That Smells Nice for having the courage to make TV that's soft and pretty for us girls. I don't like "Brothers & Sisters" and never got into "Men in Trees" and I hate "Desperate Housewives," but I'm glad that shows like "Ugly Betty" and "Grey's Anatomy" and "Notes From the Underbelly" have a happy, comfortable home on the TV dial. Because, after decades of grumpy procedural dramas, it's nice that there's a comfy hot-pink refuge stocked with lots of a) hunky sensitive types to ogle, b) gay men to cackle with, and/or c) jokes about PMS, childbirth and fashion. Just give us a fewer lip-biting wishy-washers and a few more heroines who are confident and unapologetic (Rachael Harris' character on "Notes From the Underbelly" is a good start) and we'll be happy. Or we'll say we're happy, and then we'll post something mean about you on our blogs.

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The other networks, the ones that don't Bring Life Into the World and Nurture It Passionately, seem to be following ABC into girly territory, too: NBC added "Lipstick Jungle" to its midseason lineup, a dramedy about three successful women in New York City, based on the book by Candace Bushnell of "Sex and the City" fame (sound familiar?), and CW added "Gossip Girl," about rich teenagers in New York who post mean things about you on their blogs. But now I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first...

CBS
CBS blew "Jericho" sky-high, forcing us all to bid adieu to those heartwarming vigilantes for good, but kept "Ghost Whisperer" (aka "Touched by a Titty"), "Numbers" (aka "Snagged by a Mathematician") and "Shark" (aka "Prosecuted by an Asshole") on the schedule.

CBS picked up some crazy, crazy pilots: "Viva Laughlin," a repurposed British musical ("Viva Blackpool") about a casino in Nevada. Yes, that's right. A musical. "Cop Rock" meets "Las Vegas." CBS is also taking on an "Angel"-like vampire drama called ,"Moonlight," a drama (starring Jimmy Smits) about a Cuban-American family in Miami called "Cane," and a drama (featuring Robin Weigert of "Deadwood") about swinging couples called, appropriately enough, "Swingtown." Is Julie Chen secretly drugging Les Moonves?

Now, while I personally grew to hate "Jericho" with a white-hot passion matched only by my contempt for ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" (aka "Huggin' 'n' Learnin'"), the annihilation of "Jericho" was mourned by some loyal viewers, one of whom wrote to me to register his anger and pose some questions about the serial dramas in general:

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Dear ILTW,

I just found out that CBS was not renewing "Jericho" and I'm feeling like a sucker for once again allowing myself to get hooked on a broadcast TV serialized drama. As far as I'm concerned, network television has become an unreliable storyteller.

I was drawn to "Jericho" because of Gerald McRaney, whose talents I grew to appreciate through the "Deadwood" series. I also thought the story line dealt with post-9/11 anxieties in a way that generated hope.

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How CBS handled "Jericho" demonstrates three reasons why I've soured on network drama: 1) After a reasonable launch that generated an engaged audience, the network decided to put the show on a hiatus. 2) When the show returned, CBS put it up against "American Idol" and then wondered why there was audience drop-off. 3) The season finale was a cliffhanger that didn't provide any resolution to the season's story arc.

I'm sure that there are plenty of other examples of how broadcast TV is killing off loyal fans of serialized drama through mishandling of schedules.

I no longer trust ABC, CBS, NBC or FOX to be reliable storytellers. This soured broadcast viewer is now turning to HBO and DVDs for his serialized dramas.

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Brian B.
Seattle

Dear Brian,

I agree that the networks have mishandled their serial dramas this season, in large part because they all jumped on that rickety bandwagon with guns blazing, and then balked when "The Nine," "Kidnapped," "Daybreak," "Six Degrees," "Runaway," "Vanished," "Smith" and the rest didn't simultaneously break wide as expected. But who could blame them? Who wouldn't imagine that the American public could commit to more than eight shows you have to watch every single week for a full season just to get to the good part?

You'll be happy to know, however, that many of your concerns were addressed at the upfronts last week. In many cases, the fates are either planning shows that are a little shorter ("Lost" will have just 16 episodes during each of its final three seasons) or long enough to run all season ("Heroes" will have a whopping 30 episodes, if you include "Heroes: Origins"), and will run without any repeats or breaks in between to avoid the stop-and-start troubles. There's no guarantee that you won't fall in love with a serial show that's canceled, but then, there aren't nearly as many serial dramas on the slate this fall.

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And while you may be turning to HBO and DVDs for your serialized stuff, let's not forget that HBO took "Deadwood" out back and shot it prematurely. And while we're on the subject...

Dear ILTW,

A year ago we were shocked to learn that "Deadwood," one of TV historyb

Critics and fans were dumbfounded by this seemingly arbitrary and senseless decision by then-HBO chief Chris Albrecht to cancel such a well-received and critically acclaimed show. Particularly because "Deadwood" creator and producer David Milch had just announced his vision of a four-season series arc had been green-lighted by HBO. At the time, Albrecht was identified as the power behind the decision to end "Deadwood" prematurely. Disgusted HBO subscribers, fed up with abrupt series cancellations and feeling taken for granted, canceled HBO subscriptions after the "Deadwood" season finale. Fan activism produced a promise from Albrecht for two "Deadwood movies," reported to begin production next month.

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Now we learn that Albrecht, by his own admission, had relapsed into active alcoholism two years ago. Active alcoholism impairs cognitive, emotional and behavioral processes related to areas of life far more critical that TV programming, as evidenced by Albrecht's reported violence against women in his life. This is a very painful and unfortunate situation for him and his family and friends. May he get help with these serious problems.

Fans of quality TV can now only hope that Albrechtb

Thank you,

Ann

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Dear Ann,

Hold on. So you're saying, basically, that "Deadwood" was only canceled because Chris Albrecht is a drunk? Don't get me wrong, I loved "Deadwood," but as anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows, drunks make up a large percentage of the creative workforce here. Those impaired cognitive, emotional and behavioral processes of which you speak fuel the local economy. Would you snatch "Light in August" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" from the shelves because Faulkner and Hemingway were filthy drunkards? I think not.

Next you're going to tell me that stoners shouldn't be allowed to make major programming decisions or work in comedy. Comedy! Their homeland! Where they flourish and, through the magic of sticky bud, bring us hearty belly laughs galore!

As much as I would love to support you in your outrage, I must lend my prayers to the countless drunks and stoners who keep the creative lights of Tinseltown ablaze.

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ILTW

P.S. Based on the one episode I've watched so far, "John From Cincinnati" is fantastic. For the love of David Milch, I wouldn't cancel HBO just yet.

CW
But speaking of reckless decisions, CW axed "Veronica Mars" even though plenty of us were anxious to see Veronica join the FBI, knowing that creator Rob Thomas could have a great time with that setting. Does it really make sense that "OC" creator Josh Schwartz has two pilots that were picked up, while Thomas has nothing but time on his hands? As long as everyone's in love with geeks, Thomas should start churning out some new pilots; the powers that be should have more faith in his ability to keep a show lively and interesting than they do in Schwartz's.

CW also picked up "Reaper," a show about a slacker who does the devil's dirty work, directed by Kevin Smith of "Clerks" fame; "Aliens in America," about a Pakistani exchange student in Wisconsin; and "Life Is Wild," about a dad who relocates his teenagers after their mom dies (see also: "Everwood").

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"America's Next Top Model" is also back, presumably so Tyra Banks can trade in her elaborate Vegas-style costumes and makeup and instead appear as a floating, menacing disembodied head, flanked by flames shooting into the sky -- think "The Wizard of Oz" meets RuPaul meets Xerxes in "300."

Fox
Finally, Fox, the Network That Panders to Our Basest Urges: It's a good thing that Fox has "American Idol," really, because unlike, say, NBC and ABC, Fox tends to choose pilots that suck mightily. Aside from notable exceptions "Arrested Development" and "24," Fox has a real way of picking up unreasonably shitty pilots. The recent abject failure "Drive," just for example, was one of the most ridiculous, unbelievable dramas I've seen in years, like a really, really bad episode of "CHiPs."

That said, though, Fox does send me some great schwag. I'm willing to watch any DVD that comes enveloped in a giant receptacle of chocolate pudding or wrapped in a basket of mini-muffins or tucked into a pile of prettily designed promotional T-shirts and whimsical toys.

In truth, Fox's lineup for next season looks pretty interesting: There's "K-Ville" a post-Katrina New Orleans cop show; "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," an intriguing sci-fi series based on "Terminator 2"; and "The Rules of Starting Over," a comedy about a dating game for older people.

But the show that looks really promising -- alarmingly so, in fact -- is "The Return of Jezebel James," a comedy slated for midseason. The show is written by (gasp) Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Dan Palladino, of "Gilmore Girls" fame, and it's about a children's book editor, Sarah, played by (gasp) Parker Posey, who discovers she's infertile, so she asks her sister Coco, played by (gasp) Lauren Ambrose, to have her baby. Yes, you heard me right: The talent behind "Gilmore Girls," embodied by comedic charmer Parker Posey and lovable Lauren Ambrose. This is already my favorite new show, and I haven't even seen it yet.

Fates collide
So let's review what's in store for us next season: Lots of girly stuff, lots of soaps, lots of humans with superpowers and vampires and time travelers, lots of nerds, and a whole slew of ensemble casts. It all sounds great to me -- but then, it always does, until I'm sitting there, watching one crappy pilot after the next. That said, though, the TV industry is obviously attracting an obscene amount of writing, directing and acting talent right now, so it stands to reason that many of these shows will be impressive.

In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that it's a very fine time to be a TV critic. But you might want to check back with me on that in a few months, when "Ass Monkey" and "Robot Smackdown" have already been canceled, and the networks have had to replace them with "Dingleberry Hound," "Gabardine Lynch Mob" and "The Back-Fat Brigade."

Next week: "Sopranos" recap on Monday, "Heroes" and "24" recaps on Tuesday, and way, way too much more!


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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