Friday, August 29, 2008

The Five New Shows the Networks Should Be Embarrassed to Have on Their Fall Schedules

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Last week I identified the five new programs I was most looking forward to seeing. So it only seemed right, in a yin-yang kind of way, to choose five new shows that I think represent everything that is wrong about current network television (based on their descriptions, since none of them have aired yet).

Yeah, I completely understand that they’ll all probably get good ratings, and they will be profitable (in the short term, anyway). But that doesn’t make them good, and they certainly shouldn’t make their networks proud. And, most of all, I don’t believe they’ll be good for the long-term health of television.

Oh, and yes, I know they’re nearly all reality shows. I am fine with that. Really. And just like some of my top show predictions turn out to be duds, there is always the chance one of the dogs in this compilation will end up being great. I just won’t know about it, because I won’t be watching.

So, with no further fanfare, and in reverse order of lack of quality, here are the five new shows I think the networks should be embarrassed to have on their schedules:

5. “The Mentalist” (CBS, Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
One of the best things about television right now is that there is no shortage of new, innovative, fresh ideas. And not surprisingly, many of these programs are hits. There are high-quality, inventive shows like “Lost” and “Heroes,” popcorn thrillers with unique premises like “Prison Break” and “24,” comedies that take fresh and smart approaches like “How I Met Your Mother” and “30 Rock,” soaps that break new ground like “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Gossip Girl,” and, yes, even reality shows that show creativity of thought, like “Amazing Race” and “Project Runway.”

Unlike their studio film counterparts, the creators of television series have the green light to think outside the box and concoct unique and innovative programs.

Which is why there is no excuse for derivative and uninspired new shows like “The Mentalist.” This police procedural is about Patrick Jane, a con-man psychic (played by Simon Baker) who nevertheless can use his well-developed observation skills to solve crimes. The tagline could easily be: “Fake psychic. Real detective.” Except that the slogan is already being used by “Psych,” a series currently in its THIRD season on the USA Network, which also features a guy who pretends to have psychic powers.

“The Mentalist” could be forgiven for poaching the central premise of “Psych” if it added something fresh to the approach. And while there is no doubt that “The Mentalist” strives to be darker than “Psych,” the description of the show on the CBS Web site reads like a parody of tired television police procedurals: “Jane’s role in cracking a series of tough high-profile cases is greatly valued by his fellow agents. However, no-nonsense Senior Agent Teresa Lisbon openly resists having Jane in her unit and alternates between reluctantly acknowledging Jane's usefulness and blasting him for his theatrics, narcissism and dangerous lack of boundaries.” Change the names, and you could probably apply the quote, in some fashion, to half the police procedurals on the air. Change the law enforcement theme to medicine, and the guy is House.

“The Mentalist” just feels like a lazy, pandering attempt to attract viewers. It could work, but it also has the potential to feature an audience with a median age in the “Murder She Wrote” demographic.

4. “Stylista” (CW, Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
“Life on Mars” made my top five most anticipated shows because, among other reasons, it was the cross-breed of two quality programs: “Swingtown” and “Law and Order.” “Stylista” is the anti-“Life on Mars,” finding itself on the shame list because it is a direct knockoff of one of the lowest gutter-dwelling shows of all time, “The Apprentice.” “Stylista” is like that awful Donald Trump vehicle combined with “America’s Next Top Model,” since it follows a group of women cat-fighting for a job as an editor at Elle (and Tyra Banks is a producer). Derivative and exploitive is not a good combo.

Sure, “Stylista” might get good ratings, but if you cancel a show like “Aliens in America” (a year after booting “Gilmore Girls” and “Veronica Mars”) and add a Trump knockoff the next season (as the CW did), you should expect your program to end up on this list. And I’m happy to oblige.

3. “America’s Toughest Jobs” (NBC, Mondays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)

This looks to me like “Amazing Race” dumbed down for “Fear Factor” fans, as contestants compete by performing dangerous jobs. The idea is to watch people perform hazardous tasks like logging, oil drilling, driving on icy roads or ice fishing. In other words, to enjoy the misfortune of others. But if you’re going to go down that road, don’t the activities in “America’s Toughest Jobs” seem a bit tame? After all, we live in a reality television world in which contestants routinely are forced to eat insects and grisly animal parts. It takes a lot to shock viewers.

And if “America’s Toughest Jobs” is trying to take the high road, I’m still not impressed. The show still depends on the voyeuristic appeal of watching people in peril. Not to mention that the premise of the show is stolen from “Dirty Jobs,” which has aired for the last five years on Discovery. And on “Dirty Jobs,” instead of exploiting contestants trying to win money, it is the host that performs the unpleasant career tasks, lending the program an air of respectability.

So “America’s Toughest Jobs” manages to be exploitive, tepid and derivative, all at the same time, one-upping “Stylista.” That’s enough to land it one spot lower on my list.

2. “4Real” (CW, Sundays at 6 p.m. Eastern)
I would describe the premise of “4Real,” but I’m in awe of the text on the CW’s Web site, so I’ll let it speak for itself: “4Real is a series of half-hour television shows that take celebrity guests on adventures around the world to connect with young leaders who, under extreme circumstances, are affecting real change. These are the real heroes of our time.” The celebrities include Cameron Diaz, Mos Def, Joaquin Phoenix, Eva Mendes, Casy Affleck and Flea.

Yes, because what we want to do with our young leaders is grant them the counsel of actors and musicians (several of whom have done time in rehab). We wouldn’t want to hook them up with, say, scientists, philanthropists or elected officials. No, the bass player of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is clearly the way to go.

If “4Real” isn’t the defining moment and nadir of our celebrity-obsessed culture, I don’t know what is.

Oh, and I believe that it should be a law that any show whose title uses a numeral to indicate a word should be canceled immediately (except, of course, for any program created by or starring Prince).

1. “Hole in the Wall” (Fox, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern)
A remake of a Japanese game show, I fully admit that much of my disdain for “Hole in the Wall” comes from my post-traumatic stress from having watched an episode of “Wipeout” earlier this summer. This humiliation-fest is billed as a kind of human Tetris, as teams of competitors try to fit their bodies into cutouts in a wall that is sent hurtling towards them. Miss, and you end up in the drink.

I described “Wipeout” in my review in this space as being the real-life incarnation of the “Ow, My Balls” show depicted in Mike Judge’s movie “Idiocracy.” I can easily imagine “Hole in the Wall” following “Ow, My Balls” on that film’s fictional Violence Channel.

To me, if you have to air programs of people getting slammed by moving walls into water to get ratings, it’s not worth it. But for Fox, with the truly odious “The Moment of Truth” on its schedule, “Hole in the Wall” won’t even be the network’s most offensive show.