Fox's new fall shows: A snap judgment
When Ryan Seacrest kicks off the upfronts by welcoming Pitbull to the stage with his entourage of booty-dancers, you know that Fox isn’t catering to your mom. (Unless your mom is one of Pitbull’s booty-dancers, in which case, lucky you!) So it’s no surprise that Kevin Reilly, Fox’s chairman of entertainment, followed Pitbull’s performance with the announcement that Fox is branding itself as “America’s Next Generation Network,” focusing on a youthful audience. That might also explain why Andy Samberg was there, making some decent quips for the benefit of his fellow Next Generation Americans — and a few self-aware advertisers, too. (“Who’s ready to laugh? Who’s ready to pretend that we weren’t all forced here by the invisible hand of capitalism?”) When he wasn’t dreaming up joke shows that sounded real (X-Men Origins Days of Future Past Collectors Cups — the Show), he was doing a pretty good job introducing real shows with jokes. “Is this the best lineup of shows that Fox has ever assembled?” he asked. “I’m not gonna lie to you. Moving on!” And, yet, a few projects looked promising, even for very old viewers — like, say, anyone over 22.
Comic book nerds, it’s time to start ironing your capes: The most anticipated drama of the fall 2014 season is here. Gotham tells the origin story of Batman’s hometown, back when the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), and Poison Ivy (Clare Foley) were young, and Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) was just some kid whose parents got murdered. But — BAM! POW! KABLOOEY! — there’s a twist: It’s all told from the perspective of Batman’s crime-fighter friend, Det. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), and Gordon’s partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). That’s either a smart creative move for revamping a franchise that’s been done to death, or a savvy way for Fox to avoid rights infringement, since nothing here overlaps with the Batman films. Either way, there’s a lot of potential: It’s a fun idea to make Batman into something like a gritty young adult drama, since most people experience their formative traumas during their early years. (Will Poison Ivy get Facebook-bullied by Catwoman?!? OMG!!!) And it’s easy to expect good things from showrunner Bruno Heller (The Mentalist), who knows his way around a good detective story. And Taylor stands out as the Young Penguin, playing the role with such frenetic, bloody-nosed energy, you’d think he was one cocaine bump away from going full American Psycho. So maybe we should just try to ignore a few things. Like the over-expository dialogue. (“There is a war coming! A terrible war!” “That was war!” “This is war! Ground war!”) Or the scenes where McKenzie suggests that playing “angry” just means thrusting out one’s underbite (check him out at 0:31). Or the fact that the Inception horn plays three times in the first 15 seconds of the trailer. Whatever you do, don’t think about Christopher Nolan! Batman would prefer it that way.
Why did Fox need to make an American version of Broadchurch, the fantastic U.K. whodunnit that ranked pretty high on my Best New Shows of 2013? Why wouldn’t people just watch the original instead? Both versions star David Tennant as a detective who moves to a small seaside town to solve the murder of a young boy. Both versions feature the work of James Strong, who directed multiple episodes of the original and of the Fox version, including the opening hour. It’s not like we need someone to translate British into English for us. (Though Tennant does switch from a Scottish accent to an American one, just in case you can’t understand him.) And yet, there’s one really compelling reason to watch Gracepoint: This might be the best cast anywhere in the fall 2014 lineup. The role of local detective Ellie Miller, made iconic in the U.K. by the great Olivia Coleman, has been reimagined by Anna Gunn in her first leading role since Breaking Bad — and judging by the trailer, her talent for door-kicking is almost as impressive as her acting. Nick Nolte is perfectly cast as a crusty, semi-confused old man. (Is he even acting?) And Jacki Weaver ramps up the mystery as a darting-eyed woman who lives in an RV. Also, if you’ve never seen the original, rest assured: You’ll know who did it by the end of the 10th and final episode. And, no, it wasn’t “the British.”
It’s hard to remember a time when reality TV was bent on creating a better world — unless you count doing body shots as a greater societal good. So I’m cautiously optimistic about this smart-looking new series, which was created by Big Brother mastermind John De Mol, based on the Dutch series of the same name. While it might not be the “bigger, bolder, more groundbreaking” social experiment that it claims to be (more groundbreaking than what? Brook Farm?) it does look like a more philosophical version of Survivor, which could be awesome. Utopia is still in production, so there’s not much footage yet, but the trailer tells us that it follows 15 people who give up their families, their food, and their heat for a year in order to live on three acres of land and build a “dream reality,” which means many different things to many people, whether it’s eliminating all religion, electing a woman president, outlawing monogamy, or just, y’know, partying, brah. And the voice-over puts the stakes into the type of hyperbolic language that reality TV fans have come to appreciate: “Will they descend into chaos or realize their dream?” Chant it with us: Chaos! Chaos! Chaos!
This multi-camera comedy comes from SNL writer and comedian John Mulaney, who joins Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Andy Samberg to fill out Fox’s lineup of Lorne Michaels-Approved Goofballs. (Michaels serves as an exec producer. “SNL,” Samberg quipped during Fox’s upfront presentation, “churning out almost-handsome white dudes for 40 years.”) Set in New York, it focuses on an aspiring comedian (Mulaney) who’s trying to make it big with help from a megalomaniac comedian and game show host (Martin Short) who hires him as a writer. So: Will he or won’t he sell out? Mulaney gets points for casting real-life comedians as his character’s friends, including Seaton Smith and SNL‘s Nasim Pedrad. And his mix of clean, observational stand-up and wacky encounters with his neighbors suggests that his influences are good ones: He’s working so hard to become the next Seinfeld, he has even tapped Seinfeld‘s own Andy Ackerman as a director and executive producer. But his stand-up is better than his sitcom writing, which runs too broad, based on this trailer. Be warned: There might be some hugging and learning.
RED BAND SOCIETY
It’s the oldest rule in manipulative TV: If you want to make your viewers cry, show them a sick child. So why does this Steven Spielberg-exec-produced dramedy about kids who meet in the pediatric ward of a hospital actually look like it might be good? Maybe it’s because there’s no melodramatic string quartet music playing in the background, and no over-the-top scenes of parents breaking down — nothing that signals, in the universal language of tearjerkers, that this is a Sad Show. Instead, there’s a sarcastic cheerleader who smoke cigarettes, and the teenagers talk like real teenagers (“Your breath smells like toenails”), maybe because they’re played by real kids, too, including Ciara Bravo (Big Time Rush), Griffin Gluck (Back in the Game), and Charlie Rowe (Neverland). The adults don’t look bad, either: Check out Octavia Spencer (The Help) shooting everyone her best don’t-you-even-give-me-that-look! look, and Dave Annable (Brothers and Sisters) growing a sensitive-guy stubble-beard for the role. Plus, the return of Wilson Cruz, a.k.a. Rickie from My So-Called Life! Yes, it’s narrated by a boy in a coma, which might feel like a little much. But the pilot was written by Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire), so there’s potential for real poignancy, especially at a time when The Fault in Our Stars is already resonating with so many young people. Consider those tears jerked.