This is the biggest premiere week in some years, because most of the networks except the CW have elected to begin most of their shows around the same time — no more talk of slow rollouts or trying to end the traditional season structure. So lots of shows, new and old, will kick off their seasons this week in an inflation-adjusted Thunderdome: four enter, and at least one doesn’t leave.
We don’t know yet which of these shows will be good, though if a show’s pilot is bad enough (see Outlaw, below) it’s a fair bet that it will never get good. So instead of reviewing pilots, I’m just going to provide some notes on the shows premiering tonight on the “Big Four” networks and what we might expect — or hope — as the season continues.
ABC: Dancing With the Stars
CBS: How I Met Your Mother
It starts off with an all-returning-shows, all-the-time lineup. Chuck is the only one of these that doesn’t qualify as a hit, so much of the attention will be focused on this show as it makes its last try at going from bubble show to long-running success. How I Met Your Mother managed it thanks to Britney Spears; tonight’s Chuck guests are stunt-errific (Linda Hamilton, Harry Dean Stanton, Dolph Lundgren) but may not have the same impact. My personal issue with this show has always been that it simply can’t, or at least doesn’t, pay attention to beefing up its weekly spy plots and action scenes. The creators’ real interest is in the chemistry-free romance and other stuff that is really secondary in an action show. It reminds me a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a far better show with far better weekly stories, but one where the plan to defeat the villain often seemed a little half-assed compared to the stuff the writers really cared about. A veteran writer once went off on this, saying Buffy had great dialogue but terrible, amateurish plotting — and from his point of view, given his training in episodic plotting, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Buffy had the benefit of being on a network that didn’t need high ratings; Chuck, on the other hand, puts so much of its passion into the arcs and so little into the episodic plots that they may not be able to attract the kind of audience you need even on NBC: the viewers who tune in and are grabbed by the storytelling or the action. This season could be different, though it’s in an unbelievably tough time slot.
How I Met Your Mother and House are both trying to bounce back after sub-par seasons. I can see HIMYM pulling it off if only because the previous season suffered from Creator Abandonment Syndrome: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas spent a chunk of the season working on a pilot (in a similar format, except with talking to the camera replacing Bob Saget narration) that didn’t get picked up. Sometimes a show experiences an uptick after the creators have to come back to their bread n’ butter work. House may have had a similar problem because of David Shore’s work on the failed Rockford Files pilot, but since NBC apparently wants him to re-make that pilot, House might not be out of the woods yet — besides which, it and Dancing With the Stars just have the usual issues associated with long-running formula shows.
CBS: Rules of Engagement
The survival of this show has been kind of extraordinary: no one really loves it, no one really hates it, it’s hardly ever managed a full season, yet it could get into syndication if it survives for two more seasons. It’s somewhat similar to How I Met Your Mother and therefore very compatible with it; and so as long as the network can’t come up with better shows, it will stay there. This sets a good precedent for Parks & Recreation, which could theoretically survive the same way on NBC — little parts of seasons and replacement runs can add up to a healthy run.
NBC: The Event
Fox: Lone Star:
CBS: Two and a Half Men
Here’s where the series premieres begin. Of the two new shows, Lone Star has to be the one two check out: it’s the kind of pilot that makes you wonder if they have anywhere to go, but it is a really good pilot, and that’s not nothing. As many people have said, this is Fox’s attempt to do high-end cable on network TV: the influence of shows like Mad Men and Big Love is more pervasive than the network soaps that the premise was originally compared to. The thing is, of course, that these cable shows do not have a lot of viewers; if Lone Star gets three times as many viewers as Mad Men it’ll be a flop. (Also, because the Emmys are so totally dominated by cable at the moment, I suspect that networks have less of an incentive to keep shows on for Emmy glory: in a previous era, Fox might have seen Lone Star as its Emmy front-runner, while now it’s probably just going to lose to Boardwalk Empire or something.) On the other hand, if it lives up to the pilot, the good reviews and word-of-mouth might give it some extra chances, and it does have one thing going for it that Friday Night Lights didn’t: as a melodrama about a double-crossing rich guy, it has enough elements in common with network successes (like Dallas, most obviously) that it’s not inconceivable that it could be a hit. It’s just that the premise is so high-concept that as with Prison Break, you can barely see it sustaining itself for 22-episode seasons — and yet, Prison Break didn’t do badly for Fox, even though it burned out early. This kind of show, when it hits, can hit really big, and that’s worth it even if its popularity doesn’t last.
The Event is the latest big serialized show that wants to be the new Lost, and we were burned so often last year by shows like that (Flashforward, V) that all I can really say is that if it turns out good, I’ll come back to it. But this isn’t the sort of show I feel compelled to watch from the beginning; if it’s good, I’ll catch up.
And then there’s Two and a Half Men, still rather impressively the most popular comedy in the world. This has never been a bad show at any point, but a mixture of age, Creator Abandonment Syndrome and the real-life unappealingness of Charlie Sheen have made it harder to bother defending. (I do find it weird that people who hate Men are often likely to love It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; those two shows have a lot in common, except Men is edgier because it doesn’t offer the escape hatch of reassuring yourself that it’s all just a live-action cartoon.) I suppose it has a chance to get better now that they’ve abandoned the arcs that dragged down the last season, but the real problem is that the two leads have crossed over from “funny dysfunctional” to “genuinely horrible people” and they’re probably not coming back.
CBS: Mike & Molly
You’ve probably heard enough about this already: the pilot has two very appealing leads and a lot of appalling fat jokes, and therefore there’s absolutely no way to know how good or bad the series will be. They could focus on the appealing stuff and have a nice show, or on the mean-spirited stuff and have a bad one, or they could wind up going for some mushy middle ground that pleases nobody. I fear that the need to fit in with Men as a lead-in may drive them to amp up the meanness.
CBS: Hawaii Five-0
Two more premieres and one more season premiere (Fox and the CW don’t broadcast after 10). The 10 o’clock slot is tricky to program because it has to be older and edgier almost at the same time: the people watching at that hour tend to be older, but the censorship restrictions at that hour are traditionally less strict. So you have to come up with something that’s old-skewing, but not family-friendly — which is why CBS, with its gruesome procedurals, has often done well in the hour. Chase, like all NBC’s 10 o’clock shows, has a certain inherent interest simply because it represents the network’s attempt to rebuild the hour they gave up to Jay Leno last year. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer production, though the Bruckheimer name is no longer a guarantor of success. Given that it and Hawaii Five-0 both have the same durable premise — an elite team that plays by its own rules in bringing bad guys to justice — the glitzier setting and stronger lead-in of Five-0 would seem to give it the edge.
The returning show is Castle, which has turned itself into a struggling show to the kind of show that’s a solid success as long as it has a good lead-in. Somewhat surprisingly given the cult cred of Nathan Fillion, it is one of the oldest-skewing shows on all of television: the time slot, the lead-ins and the format all make it more of an “old people” show than you’d guess by the description or the cast. Not that there’s anything wrong with a show that skews older, and I generally like its Remington Steele-ish style, though like all ABC dramas it could do with less music. The premiere features (I can say this because it was in the official listings and isn’t considered a spoiler) Castle getting framed for murder himself, a plot that every mystery show seems to be required to do at some point in its run. One of the better lines from NCIS is a character saying “And to think, I almost made it an entire year without being accused of murder” after this plot happens for like the fifth time in the run.