Friday, May 29, 2009

My Network Upronts Recap (and I'll Be Nice to NBC, I Promise)

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

Last week, the five broadcast networks held their upfront presentations in New York, revealing what their Fall 2009 schedules would look like. (You can download the grid from It's hard to be surprised by much, since information leaks out early, and NBC no longer adheres to the upfront system, announcing its new programs in advance. But now that the decisions are in black-and-white for all to see, some observations have seeped into my brain.

Getting Ratings Isn't Enough
It was a rough scheduling season for some fairly successful shows that had either become too expensive to produce, or which the networks figured were trending in the wrong direction. One shining example is "My Name Is Earl." The lead-off program on NBC's demographically successful Thursday night lineup of single-camera comedies, "Earl" garnered ratings in line with "30 Rock" and "The Office." But after four years on the air, "Earl" had become more expensive (as all programs do over time), and the comedy did not have the same kind of pop culture buzz, critical acclaim, and Emmy-success as its Thursday night neighbors. Apparently, that was enough for NBC to show "Earl" the door. It's a shame. "Earl" was an innovative, smart and funny comedy, unafraid to take chances to keep from falling into a premise-induced rut (something I wrote about last November). I won't be surprised if ABC or Fox snaps up "Earl," which, according to Entertainment Weekly, is a possibility.

A very different program met a very similar fate on CBS. "Without a Trace" has been on the air for seven years, and it's been a Top 20 show all seven seasons, including the one that just concluded. But CBS canceled the police drama anyway. The network can't be upset that it skews to an older demographic, since most of its cop shows fall into the same category. But the ratings, while good, apparently weren't high enough to justify its cost.

ABC also got into the act, handing walking papers to "Samantha Who?". The show shot out of the box in the spring of 2008 with strong ratings, in no small part due to its cushy post-"Dancing With the Stars" time slot. While the ratings fell to earth this season, "Samantha" maintained respectable numbers. I had read that ABC wanted the producers to consider going to a multi-camera production format, though I don't know if it was an effort to control costs, boost ratings, or both. In any event, when ABC's Fall schedule was announced, "Samantha" wasn't on it. I liked the comedy, although, as I wrote last November, the second season was uneven. Still, I'm a bit sad to see "Samantha" go. It still had the capacity to be very funny, and Christina Applegate showed range that she had never demonstrated before.

ABC is Still Smitten with Smart Comedies
If some shows were canceled despite solid ratings, ABC, at least, seemed happy to give new life to comedies that received positive notices, but which few people were watching. I gushed over "Better Off Ted" when it debuted in March, lauding the off-beat comedy for taking wild chances and delivering laughs. But even then I expressed concern that it was too "out there" to find an audience, and the show routinely lost in the ratings to its comedy competition on CBS. Thankfully, ABC seems to be as big a fan of "Ted" as I am, so it will be a mid-season replacement next year. And I bet it will be paired, again, with ...

"Scrubs." Seriously. Has any show lasted for so long, with so few viewers? And survived so many near-death experiences? "Scrubs" is the Evel Knievel of network programs. Oh, and did I mention that "Scrubs" aired a fantastic series finale in May that included a brilliant closing montage revealing everyone's future in a flash-forward projected on a video screen, set to Peter Gabriel's beautiful "The Book of Love"? (Yes, I know that J.D.'s final line reveals that it's his fantasy, but still.) I am a huge fan of the pioneering single-camera comedy, but how do you come back after that? Well, creator Bill Lawrence answered that question when he asked fans to think of next season's "Scrubs" as being like "Frasier," a new show using a character from an established, long-running program. I know much of the cast has signed to do the first six episodes of next season to transition the story to its new incarnation. And I'm not sure Lawrence and the network know exactly what that story will be (a clue might lie in the fact that Donald Faison's pilot was not picked up for next season, so he will, presumably, be available for "Scrubs" duty if called upon). But given the show's brilliant run, I'm willing to give Lawrence a chance. Let's hope the new episodes are worthy of the "Scrubs" name.

I don't know how much Lawrence will be around "Scrubs" next year, though, since ABC picked up his new pilot, "Cougar Town," set to air on Wednesday nights (at 9:30 p.m. Eastern). The network's decision to not only bring "Scrubs" back despite its low ratings, but to give its creator another slot on the network schedule, really demonstrates how ABC approaches programming. It seems that quality can actually overcome past lousy ratings. As a viewer, I'm impressed. If I was a Disney stockholder, well, I'd need some more convincing before getting behind such a plan. But since I am a viewer and not a stakeholder in the Mouse House, I'll be happy to watch "Cougar Town" and "Scrubs" next season. Hopefully "Cougar Town," which stars Courteney Cox as a recently divorced single mother re-entering the dating world, will earn ratings that justify ABC's faith in Lawrence.

ABC's Wednesday night will be filled with two hours of new sitcoms, with "Cougar Town" joining three comedies with solid pedigrees: "Hank" (8:00 p.m. Eastern) stars Kelsey Grammer (his comeback after the under-appreciated "Back to You" was canceled after one year) as a deposed CEO who moves back to his small town; "The Middle" ("8:30 p.m. Eastern), which features Grammer's "Back to You" co-star Patricia Heaton as an Indiana wife and mother (with Neil Flynn, the janitor on "Scrubs," also on board); and the faux documentary "Modern Family" (9:00 p.m. Eastern), from Christopher Lloyd ("Frasier") and Steven Levitan ("Just Shoot Me"), and starring Ed O'Neill and Julie Bowen from "Ed" (one of my favorite shows).

Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out
At some point during the run of the egregiously horrendous "Kath & Kim" (which wrapped up in March), I read a quote from someone at NBC that the show would most likely be given a second season. The logic went something along the lines of that the performers were talented, but the scripts were not up to par, so if they just fix the writing, the show would be great. Which is kind of like saying if I just got 15 years younger and more athletic, I could play center field for the Yankees. Maybe it was the decision to give five hours a week to Jay Leno, or maybe it was just good old-fashioned coming to one's senses, but the network changed course and canned the Molly Shannon vehicle. Based on my karma-influenced vow to be nicer to NBC, we will assume that the programmers at the network showed improved judgment in deciding that "Kath & Kim" was a disaster that had no business blighting the airwaves. So good for them. (I made my opinon of this "comedy" quite clear last November.)

I also think it is important to note that the 2009 upfronts will go down in the annals of history as the moment when "According to Jim" officially dropped off of ABC's schedule. Like the killer in a cheesy teen horror movie, "According to Jim" just wouldn't die, lasting an unexplainable and indefensible eight seasons (eight freakin' years of Jim Freakin' Belushi!). I'm still traumatized by my decision in December of 2007, during the writers' strike, to watch an episode to review. It was truly awful. In fact, I'd have to research this, but I'm not sure you would be able to find any other year that tops the double-whammy of sitcoms as awful as "Kath & Kim" and "According to Jim" departing at the same time. I'm starting to think this is worthy of some kind of recognition from Congress. Freedom from Insultingly Awful Sitcoms Day?

I'll Miss You
As I said, I'm sad to see "My Name Is Earl" and "Samantha Who?" go. And while I held out little hope that "Privileged" would survive for a second season (especially once "Melrose Place," a historically natural fit to be paired with "90210," was announced), not seeing it on the CW's schedule made me a bit sad. While the show lost its way a bit towards the end of its first season, I enjoyed some of the sharp writing, and I stand by my assertion that Joanna Garcia has star quality. I also wish "Cupid" had gotten another season to see if it could find an audience, but the low ratings didn't really warrant such a leap of faith. (I made my peace with the loss of "Life on Mars" when ABC ended the show earlier this year.)

Looking Forward to Meeting You
There is more to preview in the new schedules than I could possibly get through in one section of one column. So, going network-to-network, here are some nearly random thoughts:

As I wrote when NBC first announced its new shows, the network has some potentially funny comedies coming, including "Community." I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Joel McHale/Chevy Chase-led ensemble sitcom had been slotted into the network's Thursday night comedy lineup, first in the space that "30 Rock" will later occupy at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, and then moving earlier in the night when the prime-time edition of "Weekend Update" wraps up. (Or, maybe by then NBC will realize that "Parks and Recreation" just doesn't work, and that will affect how the lineup shakes out.)

And, again, I think it's exciting that ABC has put together two hours of new comedies on Wednesdays.

I'm curious about "Accidentally on Purpose," a new CBS comedy that will join the network's Monday night comedy block (the funny "Big Bang Theory" is being moved to 9:30 p.m. Eastern to follow the awful "Two and a Half Men," while the stellar "How I Met Your Mother" slides back into its old lead-off position at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, with "Accidentally" following it). Starring Jenna Elfman, the premise of "Accidentally" sounds like it is well-suited to her quirky persona, as she plays a woman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a younger guy and decides to try and make the relationship (and being a mother) work. These kind of high-concept comedies are high-risk, high-reward. But Elfman made the odd-couple pairing work on "Dharma & Greg," and the preview on made me laugh, so I'm going to give the comedy a shot.

Speaking of high-risk, high-reward efforts, Fox is really walking a tightrope with its new sitcom "Brothers." The siblings of the title are played by former professional football player Michael Strahan and Daryl "Chill" Mitchell ("Ed"), who, unfortunately, might be best known as the actor who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2001 motorcycle accident. Who knows if Strahan can pull off the acting gig, but, smartly, he is not being asked to venture too far from known territory. Strahan is playing a former NFL player who moves back home to help his disabled brother (Mitchell) keep his restaurant afloat. Bonus points to the producers for employing the talented CCH Pounder as the boys' mother, and Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed in the "Rocky" movies and a former football player himself) as the family patriarch. I will never look at Weathers the same way ever since his very funny portrayal of "himself" (I really hope the quotation marks are necessary) on "Arrested Development."

I will also be very interested to see if "Glee," which I enjoyed when Fox previewed it last week, attracts good ratings.

Finally, while I doubt I will sample either of the CW's younger-skewing new dramas, "The Beautiful Life" (following the lives of two supermodels, one female and one male) and "The Vampire Diaries" (following the lives of two vampire brothers, one good and one bad), I'm afraid I just may have to take a peek at the new "Melrose Place." I didn't watch the original (even though, at the time, I did watch "Beverly Hills 90210"), but this remake has all-time bad television written all over it. One of the stars is Ashlee Simpson-Wentz. Need I say more? If she acts like she sings, the show could be really ugly. At least she won't get caught lip-syncing here.

Wait 'Til Next Year (or at Least Until September)
Assessing the upfronts is like judging NFL and NBA teams the day after the draft. You can make certain judgements, but you don't really know how things will be until the new season starts. But like with the drafts, it's a lot of fun to speculate, anyway.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Do So Many Republicans Hate America?

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

On Sunday, as I sat watching former House speaker Newt Gingrich unabashedly endorse the politics of fear on Meet the Press, ("I think people should be afraid"), I couldn't help wonder why so many Republicans hate America so much.

Don't get me wrong. I know Republicans think they love America. They talk a lot about how much they love America. And they were quick to question the patriotism of anyone who opposed the Bush administration's policies after the 9/11 attacks. But do they?

Yes, I know, I'm being a wise guy to make a point. But when Gingrich talks, it seems like he opposes the basic principals of freedom and due process that for centuries have defined what it means to be an American.

Gingrich, after forecasting doom if Guantanamo is closed down (Terrorists will recruit in our prisons!), even defended torture and Guantanamo by saying, "[W]hat's your highest priority? Is it to defend America and protect American lives, or is it to find some way to defend terrorists and to get terrorists involved in the criminal justice system?", adding that "only" three targets were tortured. (As Keith Olbermann asked last night, is only committing three crimes, hundreds of times, a defense to those crimes?)

Gingrich defended the Bush policies in these words:

"And so they did everything for seven and a half years to--and they have a very simple principle: If you're in doubt, do what it takes to help America survive every time. So they consistently fell down on the side of being very tough about national security, being very tough with specific terrorists."

He also explained his thought process:

"The question is, is the most important thing to us today to find some kind of civil--American Civil Liberties Union model of making sure that we never offend terrorists, or is the model for us today to say to the CIA and others, 'Do everything you can to protect America....'"

But here's the thing: Gingrich talks about defending America, but he and his pro-Guantanamo, pro-torture crew are not defending America, at least as it has been identified by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to even George W. Bush. In fact, the America that we have defended from World War II through W.'s administration seems to be something Gingrich, Dick Cheney and those that agree with them feel comfortable disposing of.

Every U.S. conflict of the 20th century has been explained as some variation of freedom fighting tyranny. That quality, it was said, is what made America special. We had a free society, with a democratically elected government that followed the laws of the land. We bragged about the lack of succession challenges when Richard Nixon resigned, noting that even though Gerald Ford had never been elected president or vice president by the American people, his legitimacy was never questioned, since his ascension to office followed the process set out in our laws. World War II was a battle between democracy and fascism. The Cold War was about freedom versus Communist repression.

Even in the 21st century, Bush spoke a lot about freedom. One of the 1,876 justifications (I may be exaggerating a tad) offered by Bush for the Iraq war after no weapons of mass destruction were found was to provide Iraqis with democracy and freedom. Iraq was to be a beacon of freedom, Bush liked to tell us. He said the terrorists hated us for our freedoms.

But those freedoms seem irrelevant to Gingrich and Cheney, at least with regards to torture and Guantanamo.

Republicans deify Ronald Reagan for standing in West Berlin and saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." But Reagan wasn't talking about lousy architecture. Rather, he was saying that on one side of the wall lived the good guys who enjoyed democratic freedoms, and on the other side resided people who had no freedom and lived under the oppression of the bad guys, the Communists. It was the guys in the East that did things, like, say, torturing people and holding them without charging them, while such atrocities would never go on in the West.

But what if the governments on both sides of the wall tortured people and held suspects without trial? What then? Would Reagan's words have meant anything?

That is the very question facing Gingrich and Cheney now. If we torture and hold suspects without trial, where is our moral high ground? Can we torture and be Reagan's good guys? What are we fighting for? I thought the whole point of the war on terror is to defend the American way of life. But if we surrender our values to fight the war, to use a popular saw, haven't the terrorists won?

It seems to me that the Cheney/Gingrich crowd have no interest in protecting this America, the America of freedom and due process. Rather, they want to protect America as one side of a conflict, without regard to the very values that they purport to be fighting for. It's as if they've reduced defending America to rooting for a sports team, where you just want your club to win.

So when Gingrich says, "Do everything you can to protect America," or, "Is it to defend America and protect American lives, or is it to find some way to defend terrorists and to get terrorists involved in the criminal justice system?", he is missing the point completely. If we do everything we can to protect America, including discarding the freedom and due process that is at the heart of American values, what are we protecting?

Of course, it doesn't have to be a choice. As President Obama has said, we don't have to choose between our values and our security.

And as Sen. Dick Durbin noted on the same episode of Meet the Press, allowing fear to drive policy is no way to govern. He said:

"[I]f you, if you step back and take a look at history for a moment, you will find the message we just heard from Mr. Gingrich, from Vice President Cheney and Mr. Rush Limbaugh to be the same, it's a message of fear: 'Be afraid, be very afraid.' And to say that this president is not doing everything in his power to keep America safe is just as irresponsible as anything I've ever heard said on your program."

Durbin went on to say:

"America cowering in fear is not going to be a strong nation. I disagree with Mr. Gingrich. We can understand the threat, we can deal with it rationally, we can be strong and we will be safe with President Obama. But this notion that fear is going to guide us is what brought us to the notion of weapons of mass destruction and this war in Iraq and all that it has cost us. You know, Vice President Cheney said the other day without hesitation, 'I'd do everything all over again.' He hasn't learned any lesson from history."

And our entire criminal justice system is built on the principal of suspects being innocent until proven guilty. Why is it so unreasonable to ask that these terrorists actually be proven to be terrorists, in some way that respects the tradition of our laws? It seems that the major impediment to trials is that the Bush administration's torture and other practices have rendered the government's cases harder to prove. Nobody, not President Obama and certainly not me, is arguing that hardened terrorists be released so that they can go out and do damage to Americans. But there is a huge gap from that idea to holding individuals with nothing more than a "trust me, they're bad guys" from the government. If we really are a nation of freedom, we can find a way to give these terrorists basic rights to contest their guilt, while still keeping them from harming us.

What really bugs me is that the items used by Gingrich and Cheney to perpetuate the politics of fear are a huge pile of garbage. Gingrich can sit on Meet the Press and try to scare the American people for political gain, all while he is surrounded with evidence that his claims are wholly without merit.

The idea that keeping Guantanamo open makes us safer has been debunked over and over again. Even if you reject the point that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have been key recruiting tools for al Qaeda (a point Durbin made over and over on Meet the Press), the support of key leaders for closing Guantanamo and ending torture seems to be overwhelming. None other than Gen. David Petraeus, the right-wing darling who was the architect of the vaunted surge in Iraq, and who currently serves as the Commander of the U.S. Central Command, said last weekend that he agreed with President Obama's decisions to close down Guantanamo and reject torture. Petraeus also endorsed the symbolic value of closing Guantanamo. (Last night, Olbermann showed footage of Petraeus addressing these issues.) Durbin noted that Sen. Lindsey Graham has admitted that we can safely house terrorists in federal prisons in the U.S. And several individuals who have conducted interrogations have related that torture was not -- and is not -- an effective means by which to secure intelligence from suspects, most recently argued by a 14-year military interrogator going by the alias Matthew Alexander.

So, basically, you have Cheney and Gingrich, and others, running around trying to scare the life out of Americans, arguing that President Obama has made us less safe, and if we shut down Guantanamo and stop torturing, the terrorists will run amok. But, at the same time, a vast majority of reputable sources, including Gen. David Petraeus, have completely debunked the Cheney/Gingrich vision of doom.

Of course, I understand the political strategies that underlie the Cheney/Gingrich sky-is-falling claims. As Jonathan Alter pointed out on Olbermann last night, Cheney and Gingrich are "laying a trap" for President Obama, waiting for an attack so they can then say, "See, we were right. Obama made us less safe."

But I think it goes beyond petty partisan politics. People like Gingrich and Cheney (and most of the Republicans in Congress) have a view of America that is completely out of sync with what America has meant over the last century, including what Reagan was drawing on when he made his speech in West Berlin. The America that Cheney and Gingrich see is one in which it's more about us versus them than preserving the very qualities that make America something worth defending.

That is why I say that Cheney and Gingrich don't love America. Because they don't seem to care about American values as they have traditionally been viewed. At least before Bush took over the White House.

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Glee" Is Worthy of Fox's Interesting Publicity Stunt

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

Fox finished the 2008-2009 season as the highest-rated network in the key 18-49 demographic, and in second position in total viewers. But if you scratch the surface a bit, you see the big hits that drove Fox's success are all getting long in the tooth. The network's biggest success, "American Idol," is showing its age, with the singing contest's finale scoring the lowest rating ever in the 18-49 demographic for any of the seasons' final episodes. And in addition to "Idol" crowning its eighth winner, "24" just wrapped up its seventh season on the air, and "House" will be entering its sixth term in the fall.

So despite Fox's high numbers, the one thing it has had trouble doing lately is launching a scripted hit. (In fairness, it's not like any of the networks are rolling in new hits now.) "Fringe" has been a critical darling with decent ratings and a loyal following, but the network is throwing it into the Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. fire next season, where it will have to battle ratings juggernauts "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI" (plus demographic-friendly comedies "The Office" and "30 Rock"). "Lie to Me" has generated respectable numbers, but the much buzzed about Joss Whedon creation "Dollhouse" didn't find more than a cult audience and barely survived for a second season, and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" was a high-profile disappointment that has been canceled.

One oft-cited reason for Fox's problems with launching new programs is that during the time when most networks introduce their new offerings to the American public, Fox is busy broadcasting the baseball post-season. With later debuts (or worse, shows making early bows and then disappearing for weeks during the games), the network was at a disadvantage.

So you have to give credit to Fox for looking for ways to reach viewers, as evidenced by this week's airing of the pilot of the one-hour musical/comedy "Glee." Knowing that it had the attention of millions of people with the next-to-last episode of "Idol," Fox slotted in "Glee" to follow it (even beginning a few minutes past the hour, further discouraging viewers from clicking to another network after "Idol" was done), even though the program won't begin its run until this fall. The screening thus served not only as a sneak preview, but as a basis for the network to amp up promotion over the summer.

Whether it works or not, the move was innovative and forward-thinking, and Fox deserves credit for giving it a shot. So I thought it was only fair for me to catch the pilot of "Glee" and see if it's worth waiting for.

To be clear: I have never seen any of the "High School Musical" movies. (The closest I got was being in the theater next-door to watch "Zack & Miri Make a Porno," and it was odd to walk through a sea of tweens to get to a film about two friends making an adult movie.) And I am not a big fan of Broadway musicals (I prefer plays). I am in no way the target audience for "Glee." Which is good news for Fox, since I actually liked the program. It helps that I am a big fan of rock music and keep up with which pop tunes are popular, since music is, obviously, a huge part of the show.

What separates "Glee" from the "HSM" franchise is that the true protagonist of the story is an adult, teacher Will (Matthew Morrison, like many in the cast, best known for turns on Broadway), who agrees to pay $60 a month for the right to take over the high school's glee club (that's how low it ranks on the principal's priority list). Will quickly realizes that he has taken on a huge challenge, when only five kids sign up for the group, four of whom are far from ideal candidates: a wheelchair-bound band geek (Arty, played by Kevin McHale, though not the basketball player who is more than a foot taller than him and 30 years his senior); a tone-deaf punk-esque outcast (Tina, played by Jenna Ushkowitz); a fashion-obsessed gay teen, who is regularly harassed by the football team (Chris Colfer's Kurt); and a plus-size diva-in-training who declares, "I'm Beyonce, I'm no Kelly Rowland" (Mercedes, played by Amber Riley). And the fifth, Rachel (Lea Michele), the stop-at-nothing aspiring star (so much so that she affixes a star next to her name whenever she signs it) with a huge voice and even bigger ego to go with it (she is uniformly despised at the school), is threatening to quit unless Will can find her a worthy leading man.

Will's personal life is a bit of a sitcom-friendly mess. He is married to his high school sweetheart, the pretty-but-demanding Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who has an addiction to Pottery Barn that they can't sustain on their meager salaries. (Terri works at the obviously -- but humorously -- named Sheets N Things, and she whines, "I am on my feet, four hours a day, three days a week.") Will and Terri want to have a baby, and Terri would like Will to work as an accountant instead of a teacher so she can have more of the material things she proudly covets.

Meanwhile, at school, Will is the not-so-secret object of a crush by the saucer-eyed, clean-freak teacher Emma (Jayma Mays, who, like several in the cast, did a turn on "Heroes," in her case as Charlie). When Will takes the kids on a field trip to see the school that won the glee club title the previous year, Emma eagerly signs up to chaperon, all to be closer to Will. I couldn't help feeling like Emma, as neurotic as she is (nobody has ever prepared and packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich more precisely than she does), is a better match for Will, since she is so much nicer than the shrill Terri. But just when you think things might be moving in that direction, Terri announces that she's pregnant, and Will gives his two-week notice at the school, setting off a traditional follow-your-bliss final act that culminates in Emma showing Will (and us) video of his performance in the 1993 glee club championships. Yes, high school stud Will was in the glee club, which is why he was so eager to take it over now.

Stephen Tobolowsky, the evil Bob on "Heroes," is very funny as the deeply-in-the-closet Sandy (he claims to have an out-of-town girlfriend in Cleveland, even as he rampages through Sheets N Things like the long-lost sixth star of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," who was kicked out for being obnoxious and tasteless), who preceded Will as glee club teacher, losing his job when Rachel made false claims that he sexually harassed a male student. (He didn't give her the part she wanted, which she thinks justifies the false claim.) Don't worry about Sandy, though. He landed on his feet as a pot dealer, selling his medically prescribed cannabis to teachers at the school, including the football coach.

On a drama or even a single-camera sitcom, Will's cliched lesson of doing what makes you happy rather than what will pay the bills (it's nice to live in TV land, where bills magically pay themselves) would be enough to make you dismiss the show. In fact, all the plot lines in "Glee" come together way too quickly and neatly. But it's all besides the point. In the hands of creator Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck"), the show is in on the joke. It's all about the comedy and the music, and, in a way, exposing the silliness of pop culture. And on that level it works.

I think one of the reasons I related to the show is that the adults are not just there as props for the kids. As you can see, I wrote paragraphs about the plot without even mentioning one of the key teen characters: quarterback Finn (Cory Monteith, who, by the way, is 27, which tells you a lot about the approach of "Glee"). Will tricks Finn (using a pot sample gifted to him by Sandy) into joining glee club (and providing a suitable male lead for Rachel) after Will hears Finn singing in the shower (the so-awful-it's-great REO Speedwagon ballad "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore"). We learn in flashbacks that Finn has secretly been into music, ever since his mom's boyfriend sang Journey's "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'" with him and complimented his abilities. (And it wasn't the last Journey appearance in the episode.)

When we meet Finn, we know he's not like the other jocks, because he makes his teammates allow Kurt to take off his new Marc Jacobs jacket before they throw him into the dumpster. Like Will, he is tempted by another woman (Rachel awkwardly intimates her interest in him) while in a relationship (he is dating a bible-loving, chastity-preaching cheerleader who seems to have forgotten any and all Christian teachings about being nice, as we see her rip into Rachel at one point). And like Will, Finn has a follow-your-bliss resolution to his story arc, preventing his teammates from rolling Arty around in a porta-potty and rejoining glee club so he can connect with his love of music (while continuing to play football).

The final scene, a dress rehearsal in which the club has put together on its own (before Will returns) an elaborate production number to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" (I told you), is a lot of fun. It capped off a full hour of musical references, as the kids sang everything from "On My Own" from "Les Miserables" to Aretha Franklin's (actually, Otis Redding's) "Respect" to a spectacularly awful version of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." And, of course, the inevitable "You're the One that I Want" from "Grease," which let "Glee"'s Sandy and Danny (Rachel and Finn) have their moment. Not to mention the rival school's Broadway-caliber production of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," which left both Will and his charges amusingly dumbstruck.

Two other elements of "Glee" warrant notice. First, the great Jane Lynch (of, well, seemingly everything, from Christopher Guest's improv films to playing the creepily horny store manager in "The 40 Year Old Virgin") is funny and convincing as the drill-sergeant leader of the cheerleading squad. (The first line of the pilot is Lynch yelling through a megaphone to her team: "You think this is hard? Try getting waterboarded.") When Lynch lays out for Will the cruel iron-clad class divisions in high school, she is at once matter-of-fact and entertaining. Second, the score of glee is all done a capella, which is especially impressive since, at times, you wouldn't even realize it unless you listened carefully, while at other times the vocals are played up for effect. It's a neat little creative element that adds to the atmosphere of the show.

In the end, "Glee" is a sprawling, sometimes-over-the-top, fun, joyful hour of silly entertainment, so full of, yes, glee, that even I was not immune to its charm. I'm not proud, but it's true. And just think, if Fox hadn't come up with the sneak preview idea to try and call attention to its new show, I may never have even watched it in the first place.

(You can watch the pilot of "Glee" online here.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

NBC Offering Some Promising Shows Next Season

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

If you believe what you read, "My Name Is Earl" may not make it onto next year's schedule. NBC has indicated it will be producing a prime-time version of the "Weekend Update" segment of "Saturday Night Live," and with "Earl," completing its fourth season this week, older and more expensive, there is speculation that it will be a casualty. (Before the election, the prime-time "Updates" aired on Thursday nights.)

Since I find "Earl" to be clever, creative and funny, my first instinct was to rail against NBC for potentially taking a quality program off of the air. But then I remembered Earl's list and the power of karma. After all, I have not been kind to NBC in recent months, noting how awful "Kath and Kim" was, making fun of the network's approach in putting "Parks and Recreation" on the air, eviscerating the ridiculous and offensive "Momma's Boys" and the insanely derivative "Superstars of Dance," categorizing giving Jay Leno the 10:00 p.m. berth as an admission of failure, and placing NBC shows in all three slots on my list of programs I was not looking forward to this spring, just to name a few of my jabs.

So, taking a page out of Earl's book, I am going to court karma by making it up to NBC. It has decided to buck the tradition of holding onto information about next season until the networks make their "upfront" presentations later this month, releasing last week details on the six programs it has picked up for next season. I took the time to read about all six, and to watch the previews on, and I am happy (and a bit surprised) to report that three of them look interesting to me.

(None of the other three look awful, and might even turn out to be great. I just feel like we have enough hospital/doctor programs on the air, and two of NBC's new offerings, "Trauma" and "Mercy," are medical dramas. And the post-apocalyptic story "Day One" feels like it's two years too late, with sci fi serials a tough sell right now.)

NBC hasn't announced yet when the new shows will premiere, and where on the schedule they will reside. But here are three new NBC programs I am actually looking forward to checking out, whenever they do make their bows:

"100 Questions" is a multi-camera sitcom that will, no doubt, be called a "Friends" rip-off. From the five-minute preview on, it appears that the primary cast consists of a group of friends, three women and two men, living in New York ("Friends" minus one?). I have to admit, I had to hold back my initial instinct to mock NBC for trying to achieve success by nakedly copying another hit (and it didn't help that a scene set in Yankee Stadium used the old building for the exterior and what is obviously Dodger Stadium for the video screen), but as the preview rolled on, I started to see some interesting things. First of all, I laughed. There were some sharp punch lines, and some funny running gags (I especially liked how the smoother guy was successful with the worst pick-up lines, while the more uncomfortable guy couldn't succeed with the best come-ons, much to his aggravation). And the cast seemed to have a nice chemistry, avoiding the big comic inflections we too often see in bad sitcoms.

I especially liked the lead, newcomer (to the U.S., anyway) Sophie Winkleman. Granted, as an anglophile, I'm a sucker for an English accent (especially in a comedy), something that the show seems to have fun with (a great bit about Mary Poppins). But Winkleman seems to have the kind of charm and easy-going charisma that will lead her to greener pastures.

The premise of the show is simple enough: Winkleman's Charlotte keeps getting proposed to, but she doesn't say yes. In the preview, we see her turn down her boyfriend's scoreboard-broadcast proposal at Yankee Stadium, only to accidentally later let him think she has reconsidered, so that she has to break his heart again. (I could be wrong, but I think the actor is Travis Schuldt, who played Elliot's ex-fiance Keith on "Scrubs." Maybe he specializes in guys getting repeatedly dumped on sitcoms?) Charlotte goes to a dating agency, at which the cynical rep (Amir Talai of the late "The Ex-List") asks her the titular 100 questions that makes her examine her love life.

The rest of the cast is made up of unknowns, other than Christopher Guest troop member Christopher Moynihan, who is also a writer and executive producer on "100 Questions." Legendary sitcom director James Burrows ("Friends," of course) is at the helm, which at least gives me confidence that if the writers can come up with halfway decent material, he'll make it work.

It's fitting that Talai would be in the cast, since the premises of "The Ex-List" and "100 Questions" certainly reside in the same neighborhood. Let's hope "100 Questions" meets a better fate than "The Ex-List" did, which suffered from network meddling, the loss of the show's executive producer, and an eventual early death after only three episodes. And, more importantly, let's hope "100 Questions" deserves a better fate. If the five minutes I saw online are any indication, it just might.

I also have relatively high hopes for "Community." This single-camera sitcom follows recently disgraced lawyer Jeff ("The Soup"'s Joel McHale) as he goes back to a community college to get his degree (he fudged it the first time around). The setting is described in a speech made by an insensitive dolt on campus: "What is community college? You've heard it's loser college for remedial teens, twentysomething drop-outs, middle-age divorcees, and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity."

Jeff is thrown into the middle of this mess. To get in the good graces of the beautiful "twentysomething drop-out" (newbie Gillian Jacobs) in his Spanish class, he pretends to be a "board certified" Spanish tutor, even though he only knows a few off-color phrases in the language (and, as someone later asks him, what board certifies Spanish tutors?).

Chevy Chase returns to the world of the living as the "old" guy, a hippie-ish buffoon with a penchant for sexual harassment. And John Oliver ("The Daily Show") plays Jeff's confidant, Duncan, who advises him on how to make it in this new world. The two share some funny lines. When Duncan asks Jeff, "I thought you had a bachelors from Columbia?" Jeff responds, "And now I have to get one from America."

From the preview on, it looks like the show is going to embrace on-the-nose, fourth-wall busting comments on pop culture, kind of in the vein of "Arrested Development" (Joe and Anthony Russo of that classic sitcom direct "Community"). For example, when Jeff turns to a total stranger to confide his feelings on something, she looks at him in confusion, which leads to him telling her, "I'm sorry. I was raised on TV, and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor." There is also a riff on "The Breakfast Club" that made me laugh.

The roles all seem perfect for the personas of the actors. Jeff's smarmy con-man appeal fits nicely with McHale's "Soup" duties. And a supporting part as a seemingly normal but actually nuts older guy is a smart move for Chase at this stage in his career, where too much Chevy might be deadly.

With Thursday nights seemingly filled ("The Office," "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" have been picked up for next year, "Earl" might still be, and "Update" is on the way), I'm not sure where "Community" will end up on the schedule. But it might just be broad enough to garner some mass appeal. I look forward to seeing if the humor in the preview can project out to a bunch of full episodes.

"Parenthood" looks like the kind of television project that can be great, or end up as an unmitigated disaster. Neither would surprise me. Based on the 1989 feature film with an accomplished cast headed by Steve Martin (and, hopefully, nothing like the 1990 failed television adaption that featured before-they-were-known turns by Leonardo DiCaprio and Thora Birch), NBC is classifying the show as a drama, but the preview on the network's site does contain some comedy, in the same tone of the original movie.

Peter Krause ("Dirty Sexy Money," "Six Feet Under," "Sports Night") steps into Martin's paternal shoes, with Maura Tierney ("ER," "NewsRadio") taking over Diane Wiest's role as his single-mother sister. Craig T. Nelson fills the Jason Robards part of their son-of-a-bitch father, while familiar faces like Monica Potter, Erika Christensen, Dax Shepard and Bonnie Bedelia round out the cast.

The film's director, Ron Howard, is an executive producer on the program, and he is interviewed in the online preview, which I hope means he will have some involvement with the television adaptation. I really enjoyed the film, and it would be nice if its spirit was kept alive on the show. It's also good news that Jason Katims, a stellar writer on "Friday Night Lights" and "My So-Called Life," is a writer and executive producer of "Parenthood." He has demonstrated that he knows how to tell a good story, and how to harness emotion without wandering too close to the land of soap opera.

For those who remember the movie, there are some familiar scenes in the preview, involving little league games, mother-daughter blowups, and a commitment-phobic boyfriend. But everything has been updated for 21st century sensibilities (the loser boyfriend to the rebellious teenage daughter, once inhabited by the dumb-but-sweet Keanu Reeves, is now a vacant, shirtless, tattooed bad boy, for example). And while I'm a big fan of both Krause and Tierney, I wouldn't have thought of either of them to fill these parts. Krause seems too confident to me to play the nervous wreck inhabited by Martin, and I don't see Tierney as the past-it spinster Wiest embodied in the film.

If it all feels too cloying and sappy, lacking the bite of the movie, "Parenthood" could be a train wreck, another example of NBC playing follow-the-leader rather than innovating programming that will capture an audience. But if the show can capture what made the movie work well, viewers may come in droves. After all, the battlefield of family dynamics is something most people can relate to. With Howard supportive, Katims running the show, and solid actors like Krause and Tierney on board (despite my concerns on their appropriateness for their roles), I can really see "Parenthood" pulling it off and being a good one-hour dramedy. And since this column is all about karma, I'll take the glass as being half-filled and look forward to watching the program when it airs.

So that's three new NBC shows that I have committed to check out when they debut. "Bashed NBC programs repeatedly in my online television column." Can I cross this item off my list now?

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Choosing Souter's Replacement, Obama Should Follow the Lead of ... George W. Bush?

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

If someone asked me what was the single most important thing I learned in law school, it would take me all of a nanosecond to answer: U.S. Supreme Court justices are far more powerful in shaping American society than the average person realizes. As these officials are appointed and not elected, and serve for life, the selection of a justice to the Court is one of the most important decisions a president will make during his time in office.

As a former constitutional law instructor at one of the top law schools in the country, I have full confidence that President Obama understands the immense importance of selecting the right replacement for David Souter. My hope is that as he goes through the process, he uses as his guide the most unlikely of mentors: George W. Bush.

No, of course I don't want Obama to opt for the kind of right-wing, religiously conservative, out-of-touch-with-the-values-of-the-American-people jurists that Bush selected. But there are (at least) three important lessons Obama should take from Bush's two forays into choosing a justice for the Supreme Court:

1. The Younger, the Better
When we elect a president, we know that in four years, if we think we've made a mistake, we can take a do-over (just ask George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter). And no matter how popular a chief executive is, after eight years, that leader is gone.

But Supreme Court justices serve for life. Consider, for example, that William O. Douglas was sworn into office before the U.S. entered World War II (April 17, 1939) and served until after the fall of Saigon (November 12, 1975). During Douglas's stint on the Court, he watched the beginning and end of three wars, and the country went from radio to color television, from ship service to Europe to trans-Atlantic flights, and from segregation to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act (not to mention from African Americans not allowed in the Major Leagues to an African-American player becoming the all-time home run leader).

In other words, if a president plays his cards correctly, his choice of a justice can leave an impact on the country for decades after he or she leaves office.

This is something that Bush seemingly realized. Chief Justice Roberts was only 50 when he took his oath of office, meaning that it's plausible he will serve for 25 years or more. Bush's second appointment, Samuel Alito, was a bit older, 56, but that means that 20 years on the bench is entirely possible for him. So two of the Court's nine votes will be in the hands of right-wing extremists when Malia Obama becomes eligible to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2023.

Obama can go Bush one better and appoint a justice in his or her early to middle 40s, giving the candidate the opportunity to shape American policy for 30 to 40 years. This approach would not be unprecedented. Extreme right-winger Clarence Thomas was a mere 43 when the first President Bush selected him in 1991.

If George W. Bush was able to influence the Court for the next 20 years, Obama certainly should do the same.

2. The Further to the Left, the Better
I'm all for Obama's bipartisan efforts, even if they have yielded little in return. That's because I'm all for taking the high ground. In the end, I feel like it pays off, with the electorate, it would appear, increasingly able to sniff out nonsense. And I fully realize that whenever critics (and I've been guilty of this) have urged Obama to act more confrontationally than he has, in the end, his measured approach has usually paid off.

But this is different. And yes, I'm sure observers have written that about every issue Obama has faced. But the selection of a new Supreme Court justice really is objectively different.

Unlike Congress, which has some balance to it, with an ideological breakdown that is at least somewhat in sync with the ideological outlook of the country, the Supreme Court has been completely skewed by the Republican domination of the presidency over the last 28 years. Right now, there are four extremely conservative justices on the Court (Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Antonin Scalia) with values that are, based on virtually every poll and recent electoral results, far to the right of the average American. A fifth justice, Anthony Kennedy, votes with the four arch conservatives more often than not. And these justices are on nothing short of a crusade to remake the country in their narrow-minded image, running roughshod over decades of precedents in the process. (A sampling: In the last two years, the Court has overturned a handgun ban in Washington, D.C. while finding, for the first time, an individual right to bear arms in the Second Amendment, reversing a 70-year-old precedent to the contrary; explicitly overturned a 90-year-old antitrust precedent in a decision favoring big corporations; and essentially gutted the long-held exclusionary rule for using evidence in criminal trials obtained during illegal searches; not to mention issuring very conservative decisions on issues like campaign finance reform, partial-birth abortion and collective bargaining.)

The Republicans love to talk about the sins of liberal "activist judges," but the Roberts court has shown what a dishonest farce that charge really is. In its disregard for precedent and its completely open pursuit of a right-wing agenda, the current four extreme conservatives on the bench are every bit as "active" as any progressive judge in crafting the law to attain the result they are looking for. What Republicans really don't want is judges who don't share their conservative views. They are certainly allowed that point of view, but to attach an epithet to the progressive position is nothing short of a gutter campaign strategy. Conservative judges have no moral high ground; they are no less advocates for a point of view than their progressive colleagues are.

Only, thanks to 20 years of Republican presidential rule since 1981, there are a lot more conservatives than progressives on federal benches. And it's time for that to change. To balance the extreme-right slant of the Court, an injection of some strong, progressive voices is needed. A moderate approach here just won't work.

Bush didn't look for any moderation at all in his selections. He chose two extremely conservative federal appellate court judges to continue their right-wing ways on the Supreme Court. Obama should take the exact same approach, instilling progressives to balance out Bush's conservative picks.

3. He/She Better Be Qualified
Once someone is nominated to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court, that person has only won half the battle. To actually make it to onto the Court, the nominee has to secure approval in the U.S. Senate. There is no doubt that senators opposed to a nominee's political slant have tried to keep that nominee off of the Court, but the experiences of Bush's selections are instructive as to what a minority in the Senate can and cannot accomplish when the president shares a party with the majority.

When Bush nominated Roberts, it was pretty clear he was a conservative in the Scalia mode. Sure, the nominees always do a song and dance about having no set ideas on issues like abortion or other hot-button topics, but it's not like there is much of a mystery as to what the nominee believes, especially when, like in the case of Roberts, the nominee is a sitting federal appellate judge who had written and joined in opinions.

But Roberts had a stellar record of career achievement. He is a graduate of Harvard, for both undergrad and law school, and he clerked for Judge Henry Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (a major court that covers New York) and then-Justice William Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court, before working for the Justice Department and eventually making his way to an appointment as a judge on the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, an important court in examining big federal issues.

When another opening on the court came up shortly thereafter (Roberts had originally been nominated to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but when Chief Justice Rehnquist died less than two months later, Bush shifted Roberts to that position), Bush went for someone with far less impressive constitutional law credentials, White House Counsel Harriet Miers. A graduate of Southern Methodist University Law School and a former commercial litigation partner with a Dallas law firm, before becoming part of Bush's inner circle, Miers's career had certainly been successful, but it was not the kind of background one would look for in a Supreme Court justice. The result was that there was an opening for the Democrats to oppose the appointment of Miers. And less than four weeks after the nomination, she was forced to withdraw when it was clear her approval by the Senate was far from certain.

Bush's next selection, Alito, was more like Roberts. With more than 15 years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and a resume that included serving as a clerk for a Third Circuit judge and working as an assistant U.S. attorney, assistant attorney general and assistant solicitor general, Alito was unquestionably qualified to be a Supreme Court justice. So he was able to make it through the Senate, with four Democrats joining all but one Republican in confirming his selection.

The lesson is that Bush was able to get a candidate that was ideologically repugnant to Democrats through the confirmation process, but he could not succeed with someone not viewed as qualified.

(As an aside, I am not defending Alito and Roberts. If I had been a senator, I would have voted against both of their appointments based on their extremely conservative approach to the law. My point is strictly one on strategy: That it's harder to oppose a qualified candidate based on ideology than it is to go against a nominee based on a lack of credentials.)

With Democrats controlling 59 votes (and maybe 60 if Al Franken is seated) in the Senate, the lesson of Bush's appointments is clear: Obama needs to select someone with an unassailably qualified resume. While a progressive candidate should be able to make it through confirmation despite angering the Senate minority (as Roberts and Alito did), a lack of qualification is the only lifeline to the Republicans in bringing the choice down.

If President Obama follows George W. Bush's lead in choosing a replacement for David Souter -- a young progressive with a traditionally impressive resume -- he will have done a good job in carrying out his responsibilities. And it may be the last time he will ever be able to look to Bush for help on how to do something right.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Networks Vie for "Christine," But I Honestly Don't Know Why

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

Yesterday I read a small item that grabbed my attention: "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (CBS, Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) will be back for it's fifth season next year, since the show's production company has cut a "back-up" deal that will place the sitcom on ABC if CBS decides not to pick it up. In essence, ABC and CBS are tussling for "Christine." My initial reaction was, "Why?"

From a business point of view, I kind of understand why ABC might be interested, since while "Christine"'s ratings are nothing spectacular (in the 8 million range for new episodes), it routinely kicks ABC's competing sitcom "Scrubs" in the butt (the audience for "Scrubs" is usually between 5 million and 6 million). But from CBS's point of view, "Christine" loses to Fox's "Lie to Me," and has barely edged out a rerun of "Law & Order" on NBC on its last two airings before last night. Also, "Christine" is not on CBS's high-profile night for comedy, Mondays, which features hit "Two and a Half Men" and buzzy entries like "Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother." And "Christine" seems to be antithetical to ABC's "anything different" programming ethos, so I don't see how such a conventional sitcom would be a fit for the network (it's not a throwback like "Surviving Suburbia").

By retaining "Christine" (as the article indicates many industry observers think will happen), CBS would be keeping a modest hit at a potentially high cost (the amount of money it takes to retain a show as it gets older goes up), and if ABC were to dive in, it would get some ratings improvement on "Scrubs," but without any chance of the show becoming a huge hit.

Put another way, it's not like it would be colossally stupid for either network to program the show, but I just don't understand all the fuss over what is an exceptionally ordinary comedy.

I had watched the first two seasons of "Christine," mainly to watch the talented "Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But the show just wasn't funny enough to me, and when it conflicted with something else to start its third season, I just let the program go. Since "Christine" is on before "Gary Unmarried," which I do watch, I let my TiVo record "Christine" this year, but I didn't bother watching a single episode. That is, until I read the story about the sitcom's dual suitors, which led me to watch last night's installment, to see if I was missing something.

And after 30 minutes of "Christine," I was left with the same thought: I don't get it. Why are these two networks fighting over this program?

For those who haven't seen it, "Christine" is built around a wacky extended family. Christine (Dreyfus) is divorced from Richard (Clark Gregg), who, as the program launched, was dating a younger woman also named Christine (thus, New Christine, played by Emily Rutherfurd, and no, that's not a typo). Since Christine and Richard have a son, Richie (Trevor Gagnon), who they are raising together, they both make an effort to get along, forming a kind of dysfunctional family unit, too close at times, too competitive at others. Christine's laid back brother Matthew (Hamish Linklater) lives with her to help with Richie, while Christine owns a gym with her best friend Barb (Wanda Sykes). Richie goes to an upscale private school, and two snooty blonde mothers (Tricia O'Kelley and Alex Kapp Horner) there look down on Christine, taking any chance to belittle her.

To me, again, the adjective that best describes the show is ordinary. The plots are ordinary (last night, Christine tries to get Matthew into shape, only to find that he loses more weight doing nothing than she does working hard, while Richard reconsiders his engagement to New Christine when Richie says he doesn't want them to get married). The jokes are ordinary (Christine tells Matthew she can be sensitive to his weight gain, then immediately puts her hand on his stomach and says she "felt a kick"). And the characters are ordinary (the blondes' act grew thin three episodes into the first season, Richard is the kid-at-heart Peter Pan all the time, and Christine is always shooting herself in the foot). It just makes for a mildly amusing, but certainly not memorable or interesting, half hour.

To be clear, I don't affirmatively dislike "Christine" in the way that I am actively bothered by "Two and a Half Men," "According to Jim" and "The Bill Engvall Show." There is nothing offensive or blatantly pandering about "Christine." It's just, well, ordinary.

I think the problem at the heart of "Christine" is Christine. She isn't only unlikable, you don't really give a crap about her. Sure, the "Seinfeld" lot were pretty self-absorbed, but the show had an edge (and, not incidentally, laughs) that made spending 30 minutes with them worthwhile. Christine is just annoying. She's insensitive to those around her and completely self-directed. She's not a great mother, sister or ex-wife, and she's not even good at her job (something made clear when she tries to help Matthew lose weight and talks about working his core as his "coral system"). Sykes's Barb is the voice of reason, taking control after Christine messes up, but as I watched last night's show, I couldn't help wondering, Why does Barb hang around Christine? Why does she like her? It just doesn't make sense. I'm not blaming Louis-Dreyfus. She occasionally wrings laughs from hackneyed set-ups by sheer force of will. But Christine is just not a character I want to watch.

(As an aside, if you are a fan of the deadpan, cranky character Sykes has specialized in playing, which I am, then you may find Barb to be the one funny aspect of "Christine," as I do. I also like some of the lines Linklater's Matthew delivers. Linklater is good at not overplaying to get a laugh.)

So an uninteresting main character, who is not given genuinely funny things to do (last night, the done-to-death bit of the out-of-shape shlub, in this case Christine, being knocked over by a thrown medicine ball was employed), does not add up to a great sitcom.

And certainly not one worthy of being fought over by two networks.

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Southland" Is Worthy of the "ER" Time Slot

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

"Southland" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) is a sprawling, dark cop show that throws you, verite style, into the day-to-day lives of a handful of Los Angeles police officers and detectives. It features a large cast and eschews simple crime-resolution plot lines in favor of character development and mutli-episodes stories. So it's challenging, and not the most commercial approach to a tried-and-true genre. Why am I laying all this out up front? Simple. The shocking thing about "Southland" is the network it airs on: NBC.

Yes, NBC. The network I have often chided for unimaginative programming, and the network that waved a surrender flag on new-show development by handing its entire 10 p.m. block over to Jay Leno. How did "Southland" end up on the air, then? Well, there is a cut-and-paste element here, since the show is the time slot replacement for "ER," and John Wells is an executive producer on both. Much in the way that "Parks and Recreation" was the network's attempt to fill a Thursday comedy opening by asking the guys behind "The Office" to come up with another half hour of similarly themed programming, it seems that NBC figured they could swap in one John Wells show for another.

The difference is, here it works. Or at least it does for now. With Leno taking over 10 p.m this summer, where does a show like "Southland" go this fall? It is made for the 10 p.m. time block, which is in the FCC's "safe harbor" for programming, as it features bleeped-out cursing, harsh language and no shortage of edgy thrills and violence. This is not a 9 p.m. program. Is this a case of NBC finally figuring it out after its too late?

"Southland" is definitely an ensemble affair, but our entry into the world is rookie police officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie of "The O.C."). When we meet him, he is experiencing his first day on the job, paired with no-nonsense veteran officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who often hangs out with politically incorrect loud-mouth Billy Dewey (a nearly unrecognizable C. Thomas Howell) and ace officer Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis of "The American Embassy"). Chickie and Ben have a vibe together that reminded me of the pairing in "Life on Mars" of Gretchen Mol's Annie and Jason O'Mara's Sam, with Chickie acting as a calm guide for the new cop encountering some rough waters. As we learn early on, Ben is not from a working class background, having grown up with money in Beverly Hills. (On an early bust of a teenager in a Ferrari, the driver recognizes Ben and is shocked that he is a cop.) Cooper and Dewey have real reservations about Ben, wondering why someone with his means would choose to be an officer. Chickie is more open to him.

These characters would be enough to staff a show, but they make up only half the cast of "Southland." The detectives in the precinct get equal time. Lydia Adams (Regina King, doing some of the best work of her career) is a smart and authoritative detective who nonetheless takes a heartfelt approach to her work. Over the course of the first two episodes, we see how her job has affected her life, as she cares for her mother and, in a heartbreaking scene, goes to see her ex-husband to confess that she was wrong to think that she didn't want children. Adams is one of the best-written female characters on television, similar in complexity to Chandra Wilson's Dr. Bailey on "Grey's Anatomy" (at least the old Bailey, from the first couple of seasons).

Another strong character is Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy), a young detective who works the gang unit with his partner Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro). Bryant feels for the victims of the mayhem he sees, so much so that he pays for a hotel room for a gang-banger's young girlfriend and her grandmother after she is targeted by killers for agreeing to testify in a gang-slaying of an innocent kid. A county official tells him there is no funds in the budget to move them, so after they are shot at, he does it himself. But as good as Bryant is at his job, he has trouble making things work with his somewhat unstable wife (Emily Bergl, wonderfully unhinged). Tom Everett Scott plays an empathetic detective who hasn't had much to do over the first few episodes, and works with "Sal" Salinger (Michael McGrady), a well-meaning but gruff father doing the best he can with his kind-of-out-of-control teen daughter. Salinger isn't getting much help from his wife, who seems to be checked out of the family. He isn't perfect, though, having strayed with the beautiful television news reporter that we see covering the crimes.

Clearly influenced by the movie "Crash," "Southland" tries to follow this huge cast of regulars, as well as others who pop up again and again (like meth addict Barry, who always seems to be near the scene of the crimes the officers work). "Southland" has adopted the unfortunate "Crash" device of coincidences (and the idea that the same small group of cops seem to be everywhere in Los Angeles), and, like the film, the show sometimes stoops to cliche, been-there-done-that devices to make its points (the close up of a rolling ball to signal that the little girl playing with it will meet a bad fate, the sister of the innocent guy shot by the gang-banger ends up next to Sherman in the hospital waiting room and asks him if he's a cop, the tough officer writes positive things in his report about the rookie he had been hard on, etc.).

But if you can look past these missteps, "Southland" is a powerful cop drama. Creator/executive producer/writer Ann Biderman ("NYPD Blue," feature films "Primal Fear" and "Smilla's Sense of Snow"), creates vivid characters and gives them realistic and smart dialogue to work with. I liked when the grizzled Cooper tells the green Sherman that their job is "like driving down the sewer in a glass-bottom boat." Even when things get serious, Biderman's words manage to be affecting without slipping into melodrama or self-importance. When Cooper talks to Sherman after Sherman kills a gang-banger who had shot Dewey, his speech is matter-of-fact and direct, but you still know that he is looking out for his new protege. It is also revealing of what police work does to the men and women on the beat. Cooper says that sometimes, "You get to take a bad guy off the streets for good. Then that, my friend, is God's work." His mixture of heroism with an admitted taste for the thrill is interesting, and it is a theme that runs through many of the characters in the program.

But it is the cast that makes "Southland" tick. King's nuanced performance is fantastic. Hatosy is believable and engaging. McKenzie inhabits the role of the troubled rich kid well. Cudlitz, Howell and McGrady nail the veteran cops without making them into stereotypes. There isn't a bad performance in the bunch.

Make no mistake: "Southland" is by no means a light walk in the park where everything turns out okay. Even "happy" endings can be depressing, as in the second episode when Adams works hard to convince a jaded family services worker to allow a mother to keep her baby boy after her ex abandons him on the street while babysitting. The mother, a recovering junkie and former prostitute, desperately wants to do the right thing, but it is clear that she is one bad break or lapse in judgment from disaster. When she walks away with her son at the end of the hour and thanks Adams for her help, and Adams tells her to "take care," it's clear that she knows, as we do, that even though the mother got what she wanted, it may very well not work out well in the end.

But as heavy as "Southland" is, it also offers a lot of thrills and action. There are bad guys seemingly around every corner, and the gritty, hand-held camera work often throws you into the chaos, not completely sure of what is happening (or will happen), just like the officers and detectives on the scene. The program manages to be entertaining and observant, all at once.

The first episode of "Southland" ends with a series of scenes set to the darkly beautiful "Fake Empire" by the Brooklyn-based band The National. The song is a perfect match for the tone of this show, mixing beauty and pain in a way that works. Any program smart enough to put The National into its debut is okay with me.

"Southland" is a worthy heir to "ER," and it just may be the perfect show to air on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. It's a shame that in a couple of months, that slot will be taken by Jay Leno, and "Southland" might be without a viable home. NBC made its bed. Let's see if it can find a way to lie in it.