In my column yesterday, I moaned, wailed, and generally gnashed my teeth about the disappointing state of the television business. It was the sort of story that is written in a rush, fueled this time by a deep and sudden pessimism over TV's sci-fi-obsessed, spin-off-chasing, cynical future. It wasn't intended to deny all the perfectly good-to-great things currently on the air, but rather to rattle some cages — especially before we all have to hide in said cages to keep from being devoured by zombies.
This context is important. I need you to understand the way I was feeling about TV on Tuesday, a full 24 hours before a certain conniving editor [Editor's note: Hi!] suggested I spend an evening catching up on Fox's Dads. That happened last night. Suffice it to say, if I were writing my column today, I wouldn't be nearly so restrained.
After returning for what was planned as a four-episode arc, Damon Wayans Jr. is now going to ride out the rest of New Girl's third season. Wayans appeared in the pilot as Coach, then vanished to try keeping the ill-fated ship known as Happy Endingsafloat. According to Deadline, this week's New Girl ratings jumped 11 percent from the last original episode a few weeks ago, and now Coach is back for good(ish). He'll continue being billed as a special guest star — meaning he's free to do pilots for next year, like the one he's executive producing for Fox, Man/Child — but he should appear in the majority of the 18 or so remaining episodes.
It's hard to watch Fox's Sleepy Hollow (which returns tonight on Fox after a brief World Series break) without wondering how it wound up being this solid. An eerie, mystery-laden network drama so soon after CBS burned us with Under the Dome, which happens to film in the same town? Recurring shots of George Washington in the Revolutionary War? Time travel, fish-out-of-water setups, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Yes, yes, yes till infinity. Somehow it's one the biggest hits of the season, and somehow it feels like it deserves to be.
The series comes from three veterans — Underworld director Len Wiseman, Transformers and Star Trek writers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman — and one complete IMDb newb. The latter is Phillip Iscove, a 33-year-old Toronto native who, before coming up with the show that would get a second-season order just three episodes in, toiled for seven years as an assistant at United Talent Agency. Grantland spoke to Iscove about pitching Sleepy Hollow to two of Hollywood's supreme geek-writers/producers, moony Tumblr fans, and the privilege of making a cable-style 13-episode season for network TV.
The book is often better than the movie it becomes, but rarely is the acclaimed television series better than the figure-skating routine it inspires. And inspired is the word: The passion that went into this frosty adaptation from Breaking Bad assistant editor Sharidan Williams-Sotelo is unfathomable. Someone better have a special five-act puppet show ready for the end of Mad Men.
Stand-up comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney has a sorta-autobiographical sitcom that has gone through some ups and downs — mostly with NBC — before getting a series order from Fox this week. Entertainment Weeklycalls Mulaney "one of the most promising-sounding pilots from earlier this year." Splitsider, in an impassioned piece from May titled "Why NBC Will Regret Not Picking Up Mulaney," wrote that "it was a good pilot and … the series had enormous potential." The latter went on to argue that NBC's biggest loss wasn't so much the series but Mulaney himself — co-creator of Bill Hader's Stefon, 31-year-old candidate for prime-time stardom, and deliverer of great joy. So congrats, Fox! You got yourself a John Mulaney!
A new show from Rome co-creator Bruno Heller will focus on the origins of Commissioner James "Never Without a Mustache" Gordon rather than any crusaders who happen to be caped. Some of Gotham's extraordinarily thematic villains will put in appearances, should that soothe your batarang'd heart. Fox won the bidding war in what Deadline, on the night of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere, called "one of the biggest drama deals this season." The network has given a series commitment.
Fox's Comedy Tuesdays are back this week with some new, bro-ier blood, but we decide to take stock of its rhymes-with-Asmorkable flagship show, New Girl, as it enters its third season. This leads us to a discussion of the Friends sitcom model, the appeal of Zooey Deschanel, and whether or not babies are the death of comedy. We then turn to Britney Spears, her new Euro-clubby single "Werk Bitch," and her disastrous Good Morning America appearance. Nobody puts Britney on a helicopter! We take a moment to roll our eyes at Cher body-slamming Miley Cyrus, then finally turn our attention to Heroes of Cosplay, Syfy's reality show about people who dress up as fictional characters for fame and glory. We'll admit, this was mostly an excuse to talk about how awesome we think cosplay is, but we've never passed out at an anime convention because of a overzealously adjusted steampunk corset, so maybe we have it easy.
If you watched a football game on a Fox network yesterday, chances are you saw this promo between two and 14,000 times, teasing a conflict even more dramatic than Manning vs. Manning. Who are you going to believe, some pasty pointy-heads throwing around judgy words like "offensive" and "morally wrong," or the rapturous preview audience members who are literally holding in the guts they just laughed right out of their midsections? "Don't listen to the critics!" says the lady in the YouTube box with a dismissive flourish of her hand, like she's waving away a swarm of invisible critic-bees trying to sting away her joy. "Reprehensible … this is Fox, baby!" says the guy who really understands branding. When the dust finally settles on this latest skirmish in the Critics vs. Fans war after the announcement of a Season 5 pickup, TCA members will happily borrow one of Seth Green's invisible katanas and run themselves through. There's a fatal nobility in admitting you're wrong.
American Idol was in crisis. Coming off its worst-rated season ever, in which the once-world-beating Nielsen juggernaut was brought to its knees by snowballing audience apathy, the continuing fragmentation of prime-time TV, and novelty-slinging upstarts in spinning chairs offering a marginally fresher take on Idol’s long-stale formula, Fox was finally ready to make some changes. Major changes. Paradigm-shifting, paddles-to-the-stalled-heart-of-a-dying-behemoth changes. Changes that would redefine the very future of televised singing competitions, so that future generations could continue to gather around the holo-stage in their hover-condos and enjoy the off-key warblings of single iMoms just trying to feed their cyborg-toddlers! And so it … fired a couple of executives. Let half of its judges go. Kicked around the idea of decommissioning The Dawg, before ultimately letting him hang around backstage as a mentor, because apparently he just kept showing up for work, eyes welling with the still-fresh memories of his emotional death montage.
Changes. Big changes. Franchise-saving changes.
And then it brought back pretty hug machine Keith Urban, because country music's teddy bear union is ruthless and insatiable.
Last month at Comic-Con, Fox premiered the trailer for Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, a "sequel" to Cosmos: A Personal Journey, the 1980 PBS documentary series created by husband-and-wife team Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. The reboot had been announced last summer and prompted a fair amount of head-scratching, not because of its concept — Cosmos remains one of the most beloved documentaries ever created, and an update that, say, steered the Spaceship of the Imagination into a Higgs-Boson particle would be more than welcome — or even the network that would be airing it, which is more well-known for singing teenagers and evil animated babies than meditative explorations of the foundations of our universe and reality. And certainly not because of its new host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who through numerous TED talks and Colbert Report appearances has proved himself to be a captivating speaker, extremely adept at making even the most abstract concepts digestible to a layperson. Nope, the weirdness was that it was coming to you courtesy of the man who brought you that evil animated baby and an entirely different Ted, Family Guy creator and renowned boob seer Seth MacFarlane.
When we speak of Hollywood excess, what we're usually talking about is materalism: the oceans of coconut water and gallons of Botox necessary for any shoot, the tens of thousands of rare Brazilian red-carpet trees cut down for any gala event. But for decades the most wasteful process in Los Angeles has been one of its most entrenched: the yearly bloodbath of hopes, dreams, and Final Draft pages known as pilot season.
Nearly everyone involved in the television business agrees that it's insanity — expensive insanity — to continue developing hundreds of scripts every year and shooting dozens of pilots only to green-light a handful of them and see all but a very few canceled almost as quickly as they arrived. It's a huge financial cost but an even greater creative one: With very rare exceptions, an idea developed and killed by one network is declared dead for all of them. (One notable exception this year is Rebel Wilson's Super Fun Night, which was developed for CBS last year but was given a second chance — and a prime spot on the fall schedule — in 2013 by ABC.) This is especially crazytown, because it puts undue pressure on writers (and their agents) not only to come up with a worthy idea but to place it, like an alien baby inside John Hurt, within a host able to nurture it to completion. The odds are already against a good show making it on the air. This process takes those odds and then bets any and all prospective winnings on the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series.
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.