I Like to Watch

"Dollhouse" lives, "Earl" dies, and Leno joins the living dead! The networks announce their puzzling fall lineups.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published May 24, 2009 6:22PM (EDT)

When things in your life aren't working, how do you respond? Do you make a fort out of couch cushions and hide in there with a loaded bong and some high-quality Swiss chocolate until the storm blows over? Or do you pledge to reinvent yourself from the ground up, taking on a brand-new regimen of diet, exercise, meditation and expensive closet organizers? Do you troubleshoot your problems, searching self-help books and consulting therapists for solutions to the major troubles that have plagued you? Or do you drink a four-pack of peach wine coolers, then take the phone off the hook and go back to bed?

At this week's Upfronts, in which the five networks present their fall lineups to advertisers, network executives revealed very different approaches to these challenging cultural and economic times for televised entertainments. Some networks reinvented themselves, others  sent out pot-smoke signals from the confines of their forts. Some networks meditated and consulted their gurus, while others got fall-down drunk on 40-ouncers of malt liquor and wandered off to sleep in the gutter.

Which approach would bring audiences back? Would bold, courageous (but risky) moves win us over, or would conservative, repetitive (and arguably safer) maneuvers attract more viewers? As usual, we won't know until the fall season (see also: until it's way too late to correct course), but that won't stop us from analyzing (see also: second-guessing) each network's strategy from the comfort of our own couch-cushion forts.

(Could you slide that grilled cheese sandwich in the crack there? Yes, I want to eat in the dark. No, that's all I need. Thank you.)

 Uppity front

What's fascinating about this year's Upfronts is that, instead of offering a generous range of brand-new shows from each genre like they usually do, most of the networks are producing just a handful of new series and holding onto critically acclaimed ones that are nonetheless struggling in the ratings.  Unheard of, but somehow refreshing!

Let's start with schizophrenic NBC, the network that, on the one hand, has great taste ("30 Rock," "The Office") and can afford to stick by its past decisions but that also refuses to play by the rules, from announcing a few major decisions weeks before the Upfronts to arbitrarily deciding that Jay Leno should rule the known universe.

This year, NBC made some bold moves by keeping a few good but ratings-poor shows that it believed in ("Friday Night Lights," "Southland," “Parks and Recreation") while ditching some longtime favorites with better ratings ("My Name Is Earl," "Medium"). "Earl" creator Greg Garcia bitterly likened getting dumped to "being thrown off the Titanic," but expressed hopes that Fox might pick them up. Meanwhile, CBS is picking up "Medium," which is, for NBC, sort of like dumping your wife, only to have her move in with the (richer, older) guy next door.

Personally, except for the death of "Kings" (the airing of which was a bold move in the first place), I like NBC's choices, ratings be damned. What I do find unnerving is that NBC still plans to roll out "The Jay Leno Show" five nights a week at 10 p.m., which is a little bit like polishing off a 2-liter bottle of Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull that you know you hate in the first place, then vomiting all over your brand-new shoes. Isn't it odd that the network with the most charming, funniest comedy on TV ("30 Rock") would give five hours of prime-time real estate to the least charming, least funny man on TV (Jay Leno)?

 ABC, on the other hand, is taking the extreme makeover route. They're canceling "Samantha Who?" and "The Unusuals" while throwing money behind a slate of 11 new shows, seven to air in the fall. My favorite? A reinvention of the 1983 miniseries "V" (Remember the alien baby bursting out of the woman's stomach?) in which aliens invade the world and their initially friendly intentions are eventually revealed to be nefarious. Now, admittedly, pretty much anything apocalyptic gets my vote, at least at the outset: "Invasion," "Jericho," "Heroes," "24.” As long as the general populace is threatened, panicking and/or hiding out in bunkers, I'm on board. That said, the clips for this one look awesome: Aliens arrive, but they're totally friendly and cooperative! The world rejoices! Then, just as a journalist (played by Scott Wolf from "Party of Five") is about to interview a friendly alien in human form, she menacingly (but politely) instructs, "Just remember not to ask me anything that might portray us in a negative light." Ominous, but subtle. This is the kind of cheese that I eat until I'm sick.

Other notable new ABC shows are "Shark Tank" (Mark Burnett-produced show with competing entrepreneurs), "Eastwick" (dramedy based on John Updike novel and movie "Witches of Eastwick"), "Flash Forward" (worldwide blackout gives people a glimpse of the future), "Cougar Town" (dramedy with Courtney Cox as divorced single mother) and "Hank" (comedy with Kelsey Grammar as executive who loses his job).

The question is, will ABC's new regimen of diet, exercise and meditation work, or will it just become a neurotic, controlling version of its former frumpy self? Throwing a bunch of different shows at the wall to see what sticks seems like as good a call as any, but having watched some clips online (you can see a few of them here), most of these shows seem to suffer from ABC's tendency to take vaguely interesting or dark concepts and render them chirpy and toothless -- think "Lipstick Jungle," "Brothers & Sisters," "Private Practice." Everyone smiles and acts adorable; harmless, button-nosed women are cast in every role; sharp lines have no edge because the actors and the direction are tone-deaf. From what I've seen, "V" doesn't seem to suffer from this curse, but at first glance "Eastwick" and "Cougar Town" look like otherwise decent concepts transformed into the same old bland, girly fluff.

 But don't take it from me, take it from Jimmy Kimmel who, as part of ABC's Upfront presentation last Tuesday, informed advertisers, "Let's get real here. These new fall shows? We're going to cancel about 90 percent of them. Maybe more." Kimmel continued, "Every year we lie to you and every year you come back for more. You don't need an upfront. You need therapy. We completely lie to you, and then you pass those lies on to your clients." Hmm. Now there's a new approach: total honesty. In the advertising world, that's sort of like buying a very expensive Winchester revolver, pointing it at your own head, and pulling the trigger.

But then, when you're (sort of, almost) winning, you take a very different tone. At the start of CBS's Upfront presentation, Les Moonves reminded reporters, "We are the only network that is up a single demographic. Nobody else is up in anything." With that, CBS promptly unveiled the repetitive, scaredy-cat tactics that got them there: Procedurals, procedurals, a few sitcoms, a new hospital drama and even more procedurals. There's "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles" (a new spinoff), "Criminal Minds," "Numb3ers," "CSI," "CSI: NY," "The Mentalist," "The Ghost Whisperer," and, since that's really not nearly enough procedurals, "Medium." But don't forget, there's also some brand-new stuff! A new drama called "The Good Wife," about the wife of a fallen politician, starring Julianna Margulies (her again?), a new sitcom, "Accidentally on Purpose," starring former "Dharma & Greg" star Jenna Elfman (her again?) and "Three Rivers," a drama about organ transplants.

 In short, CBS, the Stuart Smalley of TV networks, has decided that CBS is awesome and CBS doesn't need to change a thing about CBS. CBS should consider taking a hint from the competitors on its own long-running show, "Survivor": The second you start feeling safe (Hello, Tyson! Hello, Taj!), that's when the ax is about to fall.

Thankfully, Fox is still taking healthy hits off the bong (as usual), but instead of crouching in the couch fort, they're blowing smoke all over the other networks' faces. Fox execs have decided to stick behind Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" (great move!), along with its new hits "Lie to Me" and "Fringe."

They also added the new comedy "Glee" (another great move) and the longtime summer show "So You Think You Can Dance" to their fall lineup on the same night. Since last fall there was a serious dearth of good new comedies and fun reality programming, and both "Glee" and "SYTYCD" fit the bill, it's hard to see where this strategy fails. As loath as I am to admit it, lately Fox has been making pretty good decisions, as evidenced most dramatically by the very existence of "Dollhouse" and "Glee." Keep hitting that bong, friends!  It's working.

The hour that felt like a decade

But speaking of Fox and hitting the funny pipe, did anyone catch the two-hour finale of "24," and if so, did anyone stay awake through the second hour?

Yes, clearly "24" jumped the shark a long time ago, but who knew it would stand around for so long afterward, having slow-moving, weighty conversations about how frightening and awful it was to jump the shark ... but really, it had no choice, can't you see that?

So much wasted potential! Tuesday's finale could've been explosive, or at least vaguely distracting: Jack Bauer was dying, Kim Bauer was about to be held hostage (an old "24" standby), Tony Almeida had a master plan that (of course) involved avenging Michelle's death so many millions of moons ago. And the president's daughter was about to be sent to her room without supper for having terrorist mastermind Jonas Hodges killed on the sneak!

But instead of car chases and coughed up lungs and panic in the streets and lots of big, loud explosions, all we got was weak, grumbly Tony, revealing his secret plan, then crying his eyes out over stupid Michelle. "Grow up, Tony," we wanted to say. "Take a shower, shave, have a hot meal, and you'll see that things aren't nearly as bad as you make them out to be."

Instead, Tony was dragged off screaming in high "Scooby Doo" style. OK, sure, it was cool when Jack was about to get his organs harvested and then repurposed as biological weapons. But they could've at least cut him up a little, instead of just jabbing him with a needle. And wasn't it interesting how they paralyzed him, and after laying still for a minute, eyes bulging, he writhed and screamed in agony, then killed a whole roomful of able-bodied men with his bare hands? Did someone replace the paralysis-inducing serum they usually serve with superpowered assassin serum?

And what next? A hijacked plane? An exploding van? No, Jack and the redheaded babe agent had a long talk and exchanged a warm embrace (yawn) and Jack and Kim had a weighty heart-to-heart and made up (snore). Sweet Jesus, could "24" really be ending with a series of interminable, sniffly confessions? What is this, "The Tyra Banks Show"?

Worst of all, the (stupidest) president (ever) acted mildly disappointed in her felon of a daughter and then, instead of dying of guilt on the spot for making the petulant brat her chief of staff in the first place, she turned the pouting ingrate over to the authorities while her (vaguely pathetic) first husband looked on disapprovingly. That's all we get? And meanwhile, how completely frowned upon would it be for a secret service agent to leak news of administrative malfeasance outside the White House? Aaron Pierce would've shown up in Rock Creek Park with a bullet in his frontal lobe.

It was sad to see "24" stoop so low, after we waited so very long for its triumphant return. Why did the producers of "24" respond to a long hiatus by killing its golden goose, then grinding it up to make gooseburgers?

But this is what happens in times of great stress. Some people respond to a divorce by adopting a second child, some handle a personal budget crisis by redecorating the bathroom, and some greet the Second Coming of Our Lord in Gay Sheep's Clothing (Adam Lambert) by voting for the nice little hetero Disney prince instead, thereby insuring the survival of strummy, wussy GooGoo Dolls music to play during "Grey's Anatomy" montages.

And speaking of "Grey's," apparently some people respond to a foot-stomping diva on their cast (Katherine Heigl) by killing her off (Oh please, please!) and maybe even killing off her pouty sidekick (T.R. Knight) while they're at it. Sweet lord, bestow your tender mercies upon us all and knock them both off the planet with one fell swoop!

From the financial crisis to the specter of a global pandemic to the threat of even more neutered acoustic strumming, we all have to decide on our own response: Reinvent, redress, reinvest, reheat or return to bed?

I think you know my approach. Nighty night! 

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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