Friday, February 27, 2009

New Shows for the Spring Season: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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

Spring is here, and that means that it's time for warmer weather, baseball and a whole bunch of new (and returning) television programs. Maybe we should call it the "Grey's Anatomy" season, since ABC aired the first episode of the hit hospital-based drama on March 27, 2005, and surely the networks will be hoping for similar success as they roll out a bunch of new offerings between now and the middle of April.

So, as I have been known to do, it's time for the lists of the new programs I am most and least looking forward to watching. When I last previewed new shows, in January, the pickings were so slim that I couldn't find a third entry I was looking forward to (I had no trouble filling my roster of programs that looked like bad bets, though). I am happy to report that this time around, I had the exact opposite problem. With a bunch of new sitcoms and some other interesting programs set to hit the air, it was tough narrowing my good list to three. And, shockingly (for me), I had trouble finding three new shows that I felt deserved to be taken to task.

Without further ado, on to the lists:

The good:

3. "The Unusuals" (ABC, debuts Wednesday, April 10 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern)
Anyone who regularly reads this space knows that I'm not big on police procedurals, or really cop shows of any kind. But when I went through the sitcoms that are debuting this spring, I realized that I had reservations about all of them (see item 2, below, for more). So rather than make a half-hearted pitch for a comedy just because I'm such a fan of sitcoms, I decided that there was a more deserving show for this slot, despite it being a cop show.

From Noah Hawley, the creator of "Bones," "The Unusuals" is, as the ABC Web site puts it, "a modern-day 'M*A*S*H'" that "explores both the grounded drama and comic insanity of the world of New York City police detectives." That description would have struck me as being highly unlikely had I not seen the preview on TV. But I liked the snappy dialogue and the tone of the trailer, and I am a big fan of Adam Goldberg, whose character, a detective that wants to kill himself in the line of duty, seems perfectly suited to his dark-comic persona.

If "The Unusuals" was being offered by CBS, I would have no interest in another by-the-numbers cop show. But this take on the police world looks to have found a fresh angle on the topic. At the very least, it has gotten my attention, and I will certainly check it out.

2. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC, debuts Thursday, April 9, at least that's what a press release said a few weeks ago, but there is no date on NBC's Web site now)
This was the hardest one to figure out. I'm always in favor of networks launching new sitcoms, but I am always worried that if they aren't good, they will only further injure a less-than-healthy genre. And as I mentioned earlier, none of the new comedies screamed "can't miss" to me. ABC has three offerings, all of which look okay, and all of which I'll check out, but all of which also have red flags, and none of which earned the right to a spot on the list. "Better Off Ted" (debuts Wednesday, March 18 at 8:30), set in a wacky office, is created by Victor Fresco, who cut his teeth on "My Name Is Earl" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" (a favorite of mine), and one of the stars is Andrea Anders (from "The Class" and "Joey"), who I like a lot. But I'm not a fan of Portia de Rossi, nor do I like Jay Harrington (the smarmy doctor who kissed Addison on "Private Practice"), the guy who plays the eponymous Ted, and, most of all, nothing in the commercials for the show made me laugh. (Besides, I object to there being another sitcom Ted besides Josh Radnor's character on "How I Met Your Mother"!) I like that "Surviving Suburbia" (debuts Monday, April 6, at 9:30 Eastern) is an old-school family sitcom, starring Bob Saget and Cynthia Stevenson and produced by veterans of "Grace Under Fire," "Roseanne" and "Reba." But the show looks like it could be a bit too old school, and I never liked "Grace Under Fire," "Roseanne" and "Reba." Finally, "In the Motherhood" (debuting Thursday, March 26 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern), starring Megan Mullally (Karen on "Will & Grace") and Cheryl Hines (Larry's wife on "Curb Your Enthusiasm") as harried mothers, came closest to clawing its way into the top three. I'm a big fan of Hines, and Mullally can be very funny (like her cameo in the season premiere of "30 Rock"), but the premise seems a little tired (all the moms are "types"), and the tabloid tales of trouble on the set are not a good sign for a program that hasn't even aired yet.

I just couldn't bring myself to elevate "Sit Down, Shut Up" (debuts Sunday, April 19 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) because even though the animated comedy is from Mitchell Hurwitz of "Arrested Development," it's also from two producers from the complete crap fest that is "Two and a Half Men," it is set in a Florida bumpkin town (I'm not a big fan of the "King of the Hill" vein of Southern humor), and I have trouble becoming attached to animated series.

So that leaves "Parks and Recreation," created by Greg Daniels, the brain behind the American version of "The Office," and starring Amy Poehler, in her first post-"Saturday Night Live" prime-time effort, as a parks department worker. Just like with the other new comedies, there are certainly red flags with "Parks." The show has had a bit of a turbulent history, with Daniels originally planning an "Office" spin-off, and then changing it to a new concept. There has also been changing information coming from the network. The show didn't have a name until recently, and, as I noted above, I'm not even positive when it's debuting. And for every Tina Fey transitioning seamlessly from "Saturday Night Live" to the sitcom world, there are several Molly Shannons marooned in lesser shows (in the case of Shannon's "Kath and Kim," an out-and-out debacle).

What raised this sitcom above the others? Well, mainly these four things: First, I love "The Office," and "Parks" also will employ the mockumentary style. If anyone can pull it off, Daniels can. Second, "Office" alum Rashida Jones, who is very funny and deserving of a better vehicle than her short-lived unfunny comedy "Unhitched," co-stars. Third, if "Parks and Recreation" is going to replace "Kath and Kim," it deserves support for that fact alone. And finally, in light of the beat down I'm about to give NBC, I figured karma required me to toss the formerly Must See network a bone. So "Parks and Recreation" gets the number two slot, but you have been warned.

1. "Cupid" (ABC, debuts Tuesday, March 31 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern)
Remakes are the norm in Hollywood, but it is something completely different to reboot a 10-year-old critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged one-hour dramedy that didn't last a season before being cancelled. So give ABC credit for having the guts to try. The original, which, I am sad to say, I have never seen, was an early showcase for Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall (as well as Paul Adelstein of "Private Practice"), and was Rob Thomas's first chance to steer a ship of his own after writing for "Dawson's Creek."

Thomas went on to run the smart and innovative "Veronica Mars," and he is back to oversee the remake of "Cupid," bringing along much of his "Veronica" crew to write and produce, including Diane Ruggiero ("The Ex-List"). Bobby Canavale (Will's cop boyfriend on "Will & Grace") steps into Piven's wings as the maybe-crazy, maybe-sincere guy who claims he is the real Cupid, sent by Zeus to bring 100 couples together, and Sarah Paulson (of my beloved, but few others', "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") takes over Marshall's role as the psychiatrist charged with keeping an eye on him.

For me, a remake of a prematurely cancelled critic's darling, run by Thomas and starring Canavale and Paulson, is something I definitely want to see. In fact, it's the show I most want to see, so it earns the number one position on the list.

The bad:

3. "Kings" (NBC, debuts Sunday, March 15 at 8:00 p.m.)
Maybe it's the pretentiously cryptic ads running on NBC. Or maybe it's the pretentiously cryptic posters on the New York trains. Or maybe it's the fact that the NBC Web site pretentiously describes "Kings" as "a riveting new drama about a modern day monarchy" that "is a contemporary re-telling of the timeless tale of David and Goliath" which is "an epic story of greed and power, war and romance, forbidden loves and secret alliances -- and a young hero who rises to power in a modern-day kingdom."

But maybe it's just that the whole thing looks more like an over-the-top made-for-television movie than a series, and, worst of all, just looks, well, pretentious. Yeah, everything about it is not my cup of tea. But I watched "Heroes" for a couple of seasons (Michael Green, the executive producer of "Kings," comes from "Heroes"), so I'm willing to give a sprawling epic that looks interesting and entertaining a try. "Kings" looks neither.

2. "Chopping Block" (NBC, debuts Wednesday, March 11 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern)
I know I pick on NBC a lot, but they really do ask for it. I mean, if you put a horribly written disaster of a sitcom on between "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office," I'm going to call you on it. And if you have a habit of taking already tired reality show premises and making the umpteenth knock-off of them, I'm really going to call you on it. So when NBC aired the 1,674th knock-off of "The Bachelor," and added as the twist a racist mother describing in disturbing detail how sexy her son is, I had to write about how awful it is. And when you are third in on the dance show craze, airing something that is a knock-off of a knock-off of "American Idol," you are going to end up in the top spot of one of my lists of shows I'm not looking forward to.

Oh, NBC, when will you learn? I know you're in last place, you haven't developed a successful new scripted show in a long time, and you've proven to be so desperate, you've quit the 10 p.m. slot and handed it over to a daily talk show. But, seriously, are you banking on saving the network with a "Hell's Kitchen" knock-off? Four years after the original debuted? And after Bravo already launched it's version of a cooking competition show, "Top Chef," three years ago? It's a cooking competition with a British chef (Marco Pierre White), just like "Hell's Kitchen." Are you even making an effort? According to the NBC Web site, "Chopping Block" is a "a new original cooking competition series." Yes, I know it will feature couples rather than individuals, but, come on ... original? About as original as "Superstars of Dance" and "Momma's Boys" were. And how did that work out for you?

Let's face it, NBC. You really gave me no choice.

The ugly:

Since I could not find a third obviously crappy new program for the bad list (how cool is that?), I decided to reserve the final (and top) slot for an especially odious returning series, one that, shockingly, is being brought back by ... NBC:

1. "The Celebrity Apprentice" (NBC, debuts Sunday, March 1 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
Here is a list of things I truly detest:
- Donald Trump
- Reality shows that focus on the worst aspects of human nature and enforce negative stereotypes
- Donald Trump
- Joan Rivers (while I respect her early work as a pioneering female comic, her development into a plastic-surgery-addicted, mean-spirited, soul-selling, fashion-obsessed shrew was sad)
- Donald Trump
- Melissa Rivers
- Donald Trump
- People famous for being famous, but who possess no actual skill or talent (like Khloe Kardashian)
- Donald Trump

So you can imagine that the return of "Celebrity Apprentice" is about as low as television can get, by my estimation. I don't know why anyone would want to be in the same room as Donald Trump, let alone work for him (or watch him or watch people that want to impress him). To me, he stands for greed, ego, arrogance and materialism, the very qualities that have destroyed our economy. This is entertainment? It would be more fun to watch foreclosure proceedings.

But when you consider that most of this year's contestants are well past their primes in their careers, I guess desperation is a powerful force. For the record, this year's pathetic chasers of 15 more minutes of fame are: poker player Annie Duke, has-been comic Andrew Dice Clay, singer Brian McKnight, "Baywatch" and Playboy alum Brande Roderick, country singer Clint Black, "Deal or No Deal" suitcase model Claudia Jordan (I predict she'll be secretly pining for Howie Mandel 14 seconds after arriving on the set), former basketball player/tabloid staple Dennis Rodman, retired football player Herschel Walker (odd choice for him, since the the last time he was in the news was because he claimed he suffered from multiple personality disorder), motorcycle dude Jesse James, plastic surgery casualty Joan Rivers, talentless fame monger Khloe Kardashian, nepotism personified Melissa Rivers, golfer Natalie Gulbis, figure skater and announcer Scott Hamilton, comedian and member of the witness protection program (or maybe it only seems that way) Tom Green and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of TLC.

(I should note that I didn't purposely set out to put three NBC shows on my "no interest" list. It just worked out that way. Seriously.)

Other New Shows of Note
Nathan Fillion takes another shot at prime time in the writer-cop buddy show "Castle" (ABC, debuts Monday, March 9 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern); Lisa Kudrow helps celebrities discover their family histories on "Who Do You Think You Are?" (NBC, debuts Monday, April 20 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern); John Wells fills his "E.R." time slot with the L.A.-based cop show "Southland" (NBC, Thursday, April 9 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern), at least until Jay Leno claims it in a few months (Benjamin McKenzie of "The O.C." stars); I really wanted to put "Harper's Island" (CBS, debuts Thursday, April 9 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern), which sounds like a bad teen horror film brought to the small screen (people travel to an island for a wedding and start getting killed one by one; dig this laugh-out-loud description on the CBS Web site: "Although they've come to laugh and love, what they don't know is they've also come ... to die."), on my bad list, but I have to give it props for its innovative approach (they are going to kill a character each week until the mystery is solved at the end of the 13-episode season); and remember that Jimmy Fallon replaces Conan O'Brien starting on Monday, March 2 (NBC, 12:35 a.m. Eastern), and Conan slides into Leno's chair on Monday, June 1 (NBC, 11:35 p.m. Eastern).