Thursday, January 14, 2010

Three Pleasant Surprises in the First Half of the TV Season

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

Publications and websites are filled with previews of the bevy of new prime-time television shows to be launched over the next month. While I have a few I'm looking forward to checking out (The Deep End looks fun, and, as a Gilmore Girls fan, I'll have to give Life Unexpected a try, although I expect to find it too schmaltzy), this is also a good time to look back at the first half of the TV season. There were an unusual number of successful new programs (like The Good Wife, Glee and FlashForward, all of which I thought were strong in their genres, just to name a few), but I want to highlight three pleasant surprises. In reverse ranking order:

3. Parks and Recreation (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
I have a bad habit of hanging with a show for too long, but once I give up, my decision is usually irreversible. And on the rare occasion that I do give a program a second look (as I did with The New Adventures of Old Christine last season), I generally end up affirming my decision to stop watching. But Parks and Recreation turned out to be the exception to my rule.

Towards the end of last season, I gave up on Parks and Recreation. In my mainly negative review of the show last April, I lamented that it was a knock-off of The Office, only with a far less likable and relatable lead character, and as the season wore on, I cared less and less about what happened to Amy Poehler's clueless public servant, Leslie Knope.

Luckily, thanks to my basic sense of inertia (which sounds better than calling myself lazy), I allowed my TiVo to continue to record Parks and Recreation, not only for the final two episodes of last season, but also as this season launched. And then I started to read that the program had improved and, most importantly, that Poehler's Leslie had developed into a less cartoonish character. By Christmas, my curiosity was piqued enough to see what was going on, so I embarked on a two-day Parks and Recreation marathon, during which I watched all of the episodes I had missed. And I was surprised and pleased to find that the program had, in fact, improved.

I wouldn't put Parks and Recreation on my list of top-five-favorite sitcoms, but the show has gone from boring and off-putting to entertaining. Rashida Jones's Ann has developed from a doormat into a stronger presence, dumping her worthless boyfriend (the only element of the program I still don't like, Chris Pratt's Andy) and becoming integrated into the social circle of the parks department. The office workers (Aziz Ansari's Tom, Nick Offerman's Ron, Aubrey Plaza's April, Jim O'Heir's hapless Jerry, and Paul Schneider's Mark) have all been more fleshed out and have developed into a solid comedy ensemble. But most of all, the way the writers have humanized Peohler's Leslie has allowed the audience to invest in the wacky goings on that surround her.

The result has been a funny half hour that fits neatly into one of the last remaining non-disastrous areas of NBC's schedule: The two hours of critically acclaimed and decently rated (at least in the key 18-49 demographic) single-camera comedies on Thursday nights. In my April review, I expressed hope that with a solid cast and a top-notch show-runner like Greg Daniels, Parks and Recreation could find its way. While I wouldn't have bet on it happening at the time, I'm happy to report that the show has, in fact, improved greatly. I now watch it each week. There will be no need for any catch-up marathons anytime soon.

2. Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (NBC, Mondays through Fridays at 12:35 p.m. Eastern)
Let me start out by saying that I fully understand that there are many people out there that just don't like Jimmy Fallon. They didn't like him on Saturday Night Live (despite characters like this, this, this and this, all of whom I thought were very entertaining), and they didn't like him in the handful of movies he's done (even though he was great in Almost Famous and funny in Whip It), so they are not going to like him now that he has a late night talk show. If you fall into this group, I would advise you to skip to the last item on my list, since nothing I say is going to convince you otherwise.

But if you can take or leave Fallon, or if you are a fan of his gee-aren't-we-having-fun persona, and you haven't stayed up to watch his show (or set your DVR to record it), you are really missing out. While I still think David Letterman's Late Show is the gold standard for late night talk shows, to me, Fallon's Late Night is a strong number two and an entry in the genre that is actively expanding its constraints.

I kind of like Fallon's approach to his show, which is upbeat and joyful, like he's really, really, really happy to have the gig (whether true or not, that's the vibe that comes through the screen). His persistent use of "you guys" when talking to the audience and his penchant for calling individual audience members (and, on occasion, guests) "buddy" can be off-putting to some, but they don't bother me. Fallon's enthusiasm sets a positive tone for the show. And while there is nothing special about his monologue, I think Fallon recognizes it, since the segment is shorter than most late night openings.

I really like Fallon's audience segments, which tend to be a bit more off-center than what you see on other late night talk shows. I like the wacky games he hosts, whether it's a contest to see who can dance vigorously enough to send a winter hat and gloves flying from his or her body, or a game in which a contestant's prize is determined by the image captured by his or her cell phone camera.

But where Late Night really excels is with the celebrity interviews. I like Fallon as an interviewer. He treads a narrow line between excitement and ass-kissing admirably, and his questions can be quirky, concentrating on interesting points that may not have come up in other interviews. It's a necessity, since being based in New York (where stars with a project to plug will often make a quick trip and hit a ton of Gotham-based programs in a short period of time) and on at 12:35 means that Fallon is often getting guests who have already appeared that day, or a day or two earlier, on a ton of other talk shows.

But Late Night seems to have found a way to take that weakness and turn it into a strength. Rather than just allow the celebrities to rehash stories they've told elsewhere, Fallon often gets them involved in a game or contest. Michael Cera, a day after appearing on Late Show to promote Youth in Revolt, visited Fallon, so after a one-segment interview, Cera and an audience member played against Fallon and another audience member in a game of Taboo that was very entertaining. Similarly, when Amy Adams appeared on Late Night during a New York swing, she and Fallon spent the second segment of her visit singing karaoke ("Livin' on a Prayer," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," and "Bust a Move," in case you're wondering). She proved to have a great voice, and the segment had a loose fun to it (especially given the humor of watching the pregnant Adams perform with Fallon). A Fred Armisen visit included him teaming up with his wife, Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men), for a charades game against Fallon and Amy Poehler (who was not a regular guest on that episode). And Anthony Anderson and Freddie Prinze Jr., both currently playing police officers on TV, competed with Fallon in a paint ball shooting contest.

And how does a 12:35 talk show with a novice host land a Beatle as a guest? Easy. The week before his new album is set to be released, offer him the entire show. Ringo Starr played two songs off his new album, two Beatles classics, and sat for two interview segments, including answering three queries recorded by viewers via their webcams. Late night talk shows can have a cookie-cutter quality to them, but can you imagine any of them dedicating the entire hour to one guest?

Late Night's gimmicks and experiments don't always hit the mark (I haven't warmed to the wheel of carpet samples, for one), but I admire how Fallon and his crew are constantly trying to expand traditional notions of what a late night talk show segment is supposed to look like. Responding to the mess in NBC's late night schedule this week, Fallon related that both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien advised him when he started the show to have fun and try new things, and I think it's fair to say that those two elements define Late Night perfectly. When I reviewed Fallon's debut week last March, I said he was fine, but that the program was just like any other late night talk show. Nearly a year later, I am amazed at how far Late Night has come. Simply put, the program has gone from something I caught on occasion, to something I TiVo every night.

(Besides, how can you not love any show that would produce this?)

1. ABC's Wednesday Night Comedy Lineup
I realize that it might seem strange that after regularly lambasting NBC (you can read about how they botched the whole late night disaster here), two of my three top pleasant surprises for this season came from the network. But don't let that fool you. The fact that Parks and Recreation went from poor to solid isn't going to save NBC, and considering that the network was ready to push Jimmy Fallon to 1:05, it's not like executives are maximizing that asset. Rather, while NBC's two minor successes took up the third and second spots in my roundup, in a way, ABC's victory in taking the top position is indicative of the larger problem facing NBC.

Simply put, while the other networks seem to have solid plans for targeting specific audiences with certain types of programming, NBC appears to be in an anarchic death spiral. From the outside, it would seem that NBC management's overriding goal is bankruptcy. A series of predictably bad decisions and a penchant for badly ripping off existing successes (in such a way that fails to attract audiences) has allowed NBC to go from the highest-rated network to the lowest in less than a decade.

While NBC appears rudderless, it's easy to identify what the other networks are doing: CBS has given up trying to court the 18-49 demographic, concentrating on programming high-quality, older-skewing one-hour dramas, mostly police procedurals, while offering a night-and-a-half of (mostly) quirky multi-camera sitcoms and occasional reality programs to moderate its otherwise exceptionally older median viewing age (for CBS, it's about total viewers, not viewers of any one age group). Fox looks for edgy programming to attract younger viewers while building around its handful of sturdy successes.

But for my number one pleasant surprise of the season so far, ABC takes the honors. Its approach has been interesting, in that even though the network is not averse to airing reality schlock (it is the home of The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover, after all), its executives are also not afraid to take chances on programs they view as being of high quality, even if the business prospects may not seem especially bright in conventional terms. And nowhere has this approach been more visible--or produced more unexpected success--then on Wednesday nights.

Comedy has been a bad business bet for networks in the last several years. While NBC has captured some younger viewers with its Thursday comedy lineup, legitimate new sitcom successes have been few and far between. CBS struck gold with the idiotic Two and a Half Men, and the network was rewarded for sticking with the quirky-but-quality comedies Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, both of which have blossomed into hits (Big Bang has found a large audience this season). But on the whole, viewership for comedies has fallen, and new sitcoms have fared poorly.

And yet, ABC decided to program two full hours of new comedies on Wednesday nights this season. The network slotted in the Kelsey Grammer vehicle Hank at 8 p.m., following it with the family comedy The Middle, the multiple-family single-camera comedy Modern Family, and Cougar Town, about a newly divorced 40-year-old woman on the dating scene. Six weeks into the season, Hank was gone, a victim of low ratings and critical pans, but the other three comedies have not only garnered critical acclaim, they have generated strong ratings. And all three have already been picked up for a second season.

It would have been hard to predict ABC's success on Wednesday nights, especially with the second hour. Modern Family would be a tough-to-impossible pitch to sell to any of the other broadcast networks. The story of three linked families (the clan's patriarch, married to a much younger Colombian woman, who has a precocious son from a first marriage; his daughter, who has three kids, four if you count her adolescent-like husband; and his son, who, with his significant other, adopted a baby from Vietnam) is offbeat and lacks any major recognizable stars. And its sensibility is much closer to Arrested Development than Two and a Half Men.

Meanwhile, Cougar Town comes from Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs. While I am a huge fan of Scrubs, for most of its run, it hasn't generated a large viewing audience. And Cougar Town is very much in the Scrubs mold, quirky, challenging at times, and all over the place, which is usually a formula for a devoted cult following, not a wide audience. At least Cougar Town has a legitimate sitcom star, Courtney Cox, as its lead, but as Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc can attest, being a former Friend doesn't guarantee success.

The success of Modern Family and Cougar Town is well-deserved. I feel the same way now about Cougar Town as I did when I gave it a glowing review in September. And Modern Family, created by sitcom veterans Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, is every bit as good. The three marriages at the heart of Modern Family all feel real, although none are ideal. You can't help think that Gloria (Sofia Vergara) married the much older Jay (Married With Children's Ed O'Neill) at least in part for his money, but you also feel the real affection she has for him, being one of the few people to look below his prickly exterior to see the well-meaning man below. I like how Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson of The Class) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) are not given an idealized relationship just because they are gay. Mitchell is easily embarrassed by Cameron's emotional displays (in a recent episode, Cameron's sympathy for their crying Spanish-speaking landscaper leads to him letting the poor guy marry his fiance in their house), while Mitchell's neuroses would be enough to drive away most potential mates, leading you to appreciate Cameron's patience and good nature.

I especially love the interplay between Claire (Julie Bowen of Ed) and Phil (Ty Burrell) and their three kids (ranging in age from 10 to 16ish). On the one hand, you wonder what they see in each other, as Phil is out of Claire's league, and Claire is often not especially nice to Phil. But at the same time, you feel that these two really do love each other, even if it's not in the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy sense, and they especially love being parents, even if they are often dysfunctional in the handling of their very different kids (a pretty, popular oldest daughter, a bookish middle daughter, and a not-too-bright youngest son). And they make a good match, as Phil's immaturity balances out Claire's by-the-book stiffness (and vice versa).

Modern Family, like its families, is funny and entertaining, while also feeling emotionally honest. ABC's risk has paid off in a new hit, and one that is sure to be a competitor come Emmy time.

ABC's success with new comedies on Wednesday nights is not only a pleasant surprise, but for those who want to see sitcoms endure on prime time, it might be the most important story of the season.