Hour for programming hour, Mike Darnell may be the most intelligent, imaginative, and beguiling purveyor of television shit who’s ever lived. Darnell’s exit as head of “alternative entertainment” for the Fox network, announced last Friday, isn’t so much the end of an era as an occasion to take stock of a man who altered television every bit as much as any producer of adventurous TV. Over the past two decades, Darnell, 51, has proven to be the grotty Grant Tinker; the David E. Kelley of kitsch; the Matthew Weiner of wince.
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the agents are drinking. It's upfronts season in New York! This is the week the broadcast networks throw fancy parties to announce the new shows they'll be canceling in a few months and celebrate the returning veterans whose survival was brokered through a bruising backroom combination of studio strong-arming, dumb luck, and blind optimism. Over the next few days I'll be posting my thoughts on all of the announcements, with the giant caveat that I haven't yet actually seen any of the new shows in question. Which isn't such a big deal because, odds are, you won't be seeing them for very long either.
Next up: Fox
Fox established itself in the '80s by acting brash, but it's only in the past few seasons that it began to seem cocky. Aided, as always, by its reduced schedule (Fox programs six fewer hours per week than its competitors), abetted by the stability of its Sunday-night animation block, and rocket-fueled by the dominant presence of American Idol — a ratings brontosaurus in a post-meteor world — Fox was able to take chances, make mistakes, and still come out on top. Not in terms of total viewers, of course — CBS owns that metric like its viewers own Life Alert alarms — but in terms of the much coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. When network chairman Kevin Reilly successfully launched New Girl in 2011, he was not only thumbing his nose at his former employers at NBC (New Girl is precisely the kind of smart, urban single-cam sitcom that the Peacock used to make hay with), he was suggesting that Fox's brand was no longer a savvy mix of action-packed hours, reality singing, and general coarseness. He was suggesting that Fox's new brand was success.
"Yo! Yo! Yo! To put all of the speculation to the [sic] rest, after 12 years of judging on American Idol I have decided it is time to leave after this season. I am very proud of how we forever changed television and the music industry. It's been a life changing opportunity but I am looking forward to focusing on my company Dream Merchant 21 and other business ventures." —Randy Jackson to E! last night.
And with those words, delivered a few hours before last night's American Idol results show, Randy Jackson, indefatigable stalwart of all 12 seasons, tendered his resignation.
Whatever doesn't deafen you makes you stronger: Grantland's Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have returned, bowed but not broken, to tackle another season of American Idol. With a potential top-to-bottom shakeup on the horizon, are these the last days of Idol as we know it?
Who gave the best performance of the night?
Kang: They all seemed nervous last night, didn’t they? Angie sounded shrill for the first time this season (although I suppose the strain of giving two hours of live performances, recording five Ford commercials, and doing whatever other silly crap they put the singers through might be catching up with the vocal cords) and Kree looked about as happy as my cat does when I pick her up and scream “Who’s a cutie? Who’s a cutie?” in her face. Candice kept up her boring march toward the finale, so I guess I would rate her “Somewhere” as the best performance of the night because it didn’t make me want to shove crayons up my nose.
Whatever doesn't deafen you makes you stronger: Grantland's Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have returned, bowed but not broken, to tackle another season of American Idol. They don't think they can make it, and with the judging panel in crisis, they may never have that recipe again.
Is there any way Angie doesn't win this? She got not one but two "In It to Win It"s from Randy Jackson last night.
Yoshida: Hey, Mark. While I won’t say that getting an “In It to Win It” from Randy is NOT a meaningful thing, I’d like to also point out that Randy whipped out a new catchphrase last night, and Angie was not at the receiving end of it. “Ten out of 10 out of 10.” Think about that for a second. No, really. Try to picture it in your mind.
Every January, the five broadcast networks place orders for roughly 100 new projects — two-thirds of which will never be aired — in hopes of finding a couple of shows that can plug holes in their prime-time schedules, and a few more to which they can affix the ignominious title of “midseason replacement.” It’s called pilot season, and it's kind of like the draft, but for TV. All the networks are flush with optimism, feeling great about their new pickups' potential — still months away from the harsh realities that come with the start of the fall season, when they learn that their veterans have nothing left in the tank, their promising rookies can't stay on the court, and that project they passed on is averaging a triple-double in the ratings for a rival.
Of course, at this point there’s not much to go on, since few details about the project are released to the press. For the vast majority of pilots, the only info we get is the log line — a one- or two-sentence summary of the plot that is often vague and sometimes downright perplexing — and the names of the writers and producers. Casting is now under way on nearly all pilots, and the caliber of talent a project attracts can be a major clue as to the quality of the script. But that's pretty much it. By the end of this month, most pilots will be in production, plodding inexorably toward failure.
Pilot season comes for us all, and today, it's come for the stars of the 1980s.
James Spader. The former stopgap solution at The Office has been cast in NBC's spy drama The Blacklist.
The pilot will be written by Jon Bokenkamp, who wrote the Bruce Willis/Halle Berry thriller Perfect Stranger. If the show gets picked up, Alias’s John Eisendrath is set to be showrunner. Spader would play a former Army intelligence officer turned master criminal who ends up turning himself in to the Feds and working with them to catch criminals.
Hey, remember that cop comedy Andy Samberg is doing? The one that's coming to us on Fox? From the mighty brains of Parks and Recreation’s executive producers Mike Schur and Dan Goor? Well, now it's also got Andre Braugher, who's the kind of guy you could wake up in the middle of the night, blindfold, drop in a burlap sack, drive to an abandoned field, make act alongside only animatronic Chuck E. Cheese creatures, and still get a pitch-perfect "tough cop oozing professionalism" performance out of. Which means all signs here point to "slay."
Fox's serial-killer drama The Following — as good an excuse as any for Kevin Bacon to get into that that primo steady TV paycheck action — premiered last week, but our dude Andy Greenwald wasn't feeling it. "The Following is a toddler playing Halloween dress-up with a jug of karo syrup and a used copy of the DSM," he wrote. "Calling it intelligent or adult does a disservice to those who happen to be both. It turns out pushing the envelope solely to shock doesn't make something edgy; it makes it quite dull." And now, also not particularly enthused? An actual serial killer!
So, apparently there's a show on Investigation Discovery called Dark Minds, and apparently on this show there's a serial killer. He's in prison and everything; the folks over at Dark Minds are not — just not — telling the cops about him so as to more effectively entertain the viewers of Investigation Discovery. His identity is hidden, and his stage name is Raven. Also, he gets cable in his super-max. He gets cable! So, according to the New York Post, Raven "decided to watch [The Following] after seeing all the promos leading up to its debut last week." Also a factor in Raven's decision, presumably: the fact that it is a show about serial killers, and that he, in fact, is a serial killer.
People die on television every day. They die of old age or cancer on tear-jerking dramas; occasionally they tumble down elevator shafts. On cable, they're bitten to death by vampires and zombies or gunned down by mooks and molls. Even high school shows reach for the reaper, with teens dying from bullets, boats, or embarrassment. On a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, a character very nearly expired from a vicious fart attack. The body count of the Law & Order franchise alone rivals that of most land wars in Asia. Death is as much a part of life on the small screen as it is off it.
But I'm not sure if death's ever been portrayed with such despicable glee as it is on The Following, Fox's loathsome stab at gritty relevance that premieres tonight at 9 EST. The story of a charismatic serial killer and the murderous cult he inspires, The Following traffics in the sort of explicit gore usually reserved for midnight airings of assorted Texas chainsaw massacres. But Fox is after more than the grindhouse crowd: With its high-profile stars (Rome's James Purefoy; everything's Kevin Bacon), and drippy gloss of psychological insight, The Following represents the suddenly struggling network's attempt to reclaim a generation of eyeballs recently lost to the prestige licentiousness of cable. That this attempt involves the onscreen fetishizing of violent eyeball removal should tell you all you need to know. The Following is a toddler playing Halloween dress-up with a jug of karo syrup and a used copy of the DSM; calling it intelligent or adult does a disservice to those who happen to be both. It turns out pushing the envelope solely to shock doesn't make something edgy; it makes it quite dull.
For reasons still not entirely clear to them, Grantland editors Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have decided to track the second season of The X Factor. This is where things get hairy. You're going to tell your kids about this one. (You are not going to tell your kids about this one.)
Last night, on the October 23rd of our Lord, we finally reached the edge of the tundra. How many frozen bodies we left behind atop the frozen ground without the decency of a good Christian burial! How many strong horses we lost to the unrelenting snows! Only 16 soldiers lived through the ordeal.
Unlike his aggressively unmotivated New Girl character, Nick Miller, Jake Johnson is proving to be quite the industrious type. Along with Max Winkler, scion of the Fonze (note: "He was just a regular dad. It wasn't like he drove me to school on a motorcycle in a leather jacket, while I was in a little side car with my hair gelled back"), Johnson has sold a comedy pitch to his current home, Fox.
The last time we checked in on Andy Samberg he'd just signed up for a low-risk, short-run BBC show called Cuckoo, and his Adam Sandler movie hadn't yet bombed. Meaning: It wasn't really clear yet how his post-SNL run was shaping up. These days, though, the picture is a bit clearer — and things are looking good! Deadline reports that Samberg has been cast in an untitled Fox comedy pilot from Mike Schur and Dan Goor, the Parks and Recreation executive producer duo. He'll play the lead detective of a diverse precinct on the edge of New York City (but, like, in a comical fashion, and not in a Darkness on the Edge of Town fashion?). This seems like a real juicy situation for Samberg: The Parks and Rec pedigree speaks for itself, but the clout of Fox — which, with New Girl and The Mindy Project, has a recent track record of supporting sharp comedies — means the show has true (as in, not in the NBC cult-style) hit potential.
There's a nugget buried deep within today's THR interview with Mike Darnell, the Fox reality-TV mastermind who brought us such civilization-ending classics as The Swan, Moment of Truth, and Let's See Which Fifth Grader Lasts Longest Wearing a Basket of Hungry Cobras on His Head, that hints at a better world than the one in which we live, one where two rejected pitches were green-lit, ran for 10 cycles, and revolutionized semi-scripted television as we know it:
The X Factor spaceship blasted off last night with a heavily medicated Britney Spears lashed to the windshield like a gut-shot trophy buck. And although Idol broke our faith and left us curled up on the floor of the Grantland offices, Lisanti and I decided to sign on for another season of singing competitions. Why? Well, you know when you were a kid and your friend peed on one of those low-wattage electric fences and you peed on it, too, because that friend was going to call you a gigantic pussy if you didn’t? That was Idol. But remember when your friend looked at his watch and said, “Internet porn still hasn’t been invented yet, so what should we do with ourselves?” Remember how this lack of meaning led you and your friend to pee on the electric fence again? That’s X Factor. This time, we’ve brought along Emily Yoshida, who will hopefully provide moments of levity and intelligence to the Kang and Lisanti Pee-and-Electrocution Show. Long live Emily Yoshida.
We will be reviewing four performance videos per week, one for each of The X Factor’s categories — Boys, Girls, Groups, and Olds. We will also be bringing you up-to-the-minute Britney analysis. Sound simple enough?