If you ever wonder what exactly happened to the dinosaurs, just take a look at the fate of the network drama. Once these predictable, hour-long beasts roamed the airwaves unimpeded, lazily munching on demographics and secure in the knowledge that no matter how strange and misshapen they became, there was nothing in the universe that could threaten them.
Cue a meteor with the shape and girth of a waste-management consultant in New Jersey.
Now the network dramas stagger around a vastly changed landscape. The resources and acclaim they once feasted upon have been gobbled up by faster-thinking, fleeter-footed rivals. While prestige cable shows revel in the luxury of their shorter seasons, serialized stories, and guaranteed airings, the network behemoths lumber blindly forward as they always have. They're designed to be open-ended, newbie-friendly profit generators, not thought-provoking, genre-redefining conversation starters. Comparing the two ends of the dial just isn't fair — something the nominations for next week's Emmys proved rather definitively by not even bothering to try. (Of the six nominees for Outstanding Drama Series, exactly zero aired on one of the traditional Big Four networks. One didn't air on traditional television at all!) Until they evolve, to expect the same sort of quality from a network drama that we get from, say, Breaking Bad would be like expecting a triceratops to cook meth.
In recent years, the Big Four have fought back against this extinction-level event in varying ways — and with varying degrees of success. The most prominent strategy has been to jack up the levels of sex and gore across the board, as if a lack of censorship is the sole reason why HBO and AMC will win so many gold statues come Sunday night. Watching the networks continually react to the rise of rich, compelling storytelling on cable is like taking an 8-year-old to a sumptuous foreign film: You walk out raving about the delicately woven narrative; he's psyched he saw blood and boobies.
But mostly the networks have given up on winning and instead focused on slowing down the loss. ABC (which, like Grantland, is owned by the Walt Disney Company) has kept the lights on by sticking to the soapy body washes it does best — and by sticking with Shonda Rhimes, the superproducer whose ascendant Scandal might have single-handedly saved president Paul Lee's job. Fox has always fancied itself to be a forward-looking institution, and that, coupled with the oddities of its schedule,1 allows boss Kevin Reilly to take chances his rivals can't. This paid off for him last spring with the cable-like, 15-episode "event series" The Following, which managed to connect with audiences despite being dumber than a box of hammers.2 (And he'll do it again in May with a resurrected, pared-down 24.) NBC, as is NBC's wont, is all over the place, simultaneously reaching backward (with the solid but dull Chicago Fire and the touchy-feely Parenthood) and fumbling forward (with the excellent if brand-discordant Hannibal).
CBS alone has survived, even thrived, by building its own tastefully appointed version of Jurassic Park. Under the watchful eye of CEO Les Moonves, the onetime Tiffany Network chugs along by programming exactly the same type of dramas that have worked on broadcast TV since time immemorial: a combination of slick, interchangeable procedurals in which every title sports an acronym and each hour ends with someone in cuffs. But there are limits even to this willfully obtuse, wildly profitable strategy. Even the strongest of the old guard can pretend for only so long that the world-changing dust cloud kicked up by cable, and now Netflix, is a temporary eclipse. This fall, even proud CBS is holding its nose and dipping a toe into the "event series" waters with the ridiculous Hostages, a decision that was no doubt made easier for Moonves by the surprise success of this summer's Under the Dome. Of course, CBS seems to have learned exactly the wrong lesson from said success: Though it was conceived and marketed as a taut, limited series, Moonves is now trying to wring old-media profits from his very first new-media triumph. "Why can't they be under the dome for a long period of time?" he mused this summer. "This is television!" Well, maybe. It sure used to be.
And so it brings me no pleasure to report that the new network dramas of 2013 are a particularly insipid lot, a mediocre mishmash of throwback pablum and attention-seeking crazy. The dominant programming strategy seems to be based on that time-honored tradition of giving up on being one thing and doubling down on being all of the things. Thus we have vampire shows with bullet-time kung fu, romances that cheat on themselves with legal thrillers, and a series that reimagines George Washington as a bible-thumping doomsday prepper with an eye for the occult and a vested interest in a certain pricey New York suburb. It's simultaneously too much and not nearly enough. Yes, it's early. These are just pilots. There's a chance the worst of the lot could improve. But I'm not optimistic. What I am is sympathetic, even as I criticize. It's tough to be a dinosaur, especially in a world that has increasingly passed you by.3
Click here for Andy Greenwald's breakdown of the new network comedies.
Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
Mondays at 9 p.m.
Debuted September 16
A few months ago, when Fox first unveiled its fall slate, I referred to Sleepy Hollow as the Cheesecake Factory of programs. At the time I meant it pejoratively. How else to approach a frantic hour that gorged itself on occult insanity like a starving man in front of an all-you-can-eat buffet? The pilot alone spanned 200 years and featured headless horsemen, the Book of Revelation, a coven of witches, George Washington, John Cho, Starbucks jokes, and the most thrillingly diverse police department in the history of the Hudson River Valley.
Now, after having seen the thing, I realize my mistake. You can't judge a recipe only by the list of ingredients. It all depends on who's doing the cooking. And while I've been skeptical of these particular chefs before — yes, they're responsible for Fringe, but since then, from Transformers to Star Trek, executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci have become the go-to guys in Hollywood for sci-fi excess — Sleepy Hollow is gluttonous and over-the-top in all the best ways. The pilot was my favorite drama of the fall not because it made sense or suggested a long and rewarding future. Rather, I love it because it owns its crazy in a way that most network hours are far too self-important to embrace.
Sleepy Hollow is a mismatched buddy-cop thriller about a roused-from-centuries-of-slumber Ichabod Crane (the devilishly dry Tom Mison) and local lieutenant — Ichabod says "Luff-tenant" — Abbie Mills (the exceptional Nicole Beharie) as they seek to stop the greatest danger upstate New York has faced since the time Don Draper drove home drunk from the last Sterling Cooper Christmas party. Think The X-Files meets National Treasure meets a peyote dealer in a dark alley. There are many directions a show like this could go. Some undoubtedly lead to quick cancellation (although the pilot's big ratings will likely delay that for a time), but thankfully none of them lead toward safety or sanity.
Silly as it sounds, there's real style here. Creator Phillip Iscove and pilot director Len Wiseman (Underworld) seem to have spent time huffing the same loony fumes that made Nicolas Cage's eyes bug out that way in the similarly manic National Treasure movies: Priests are decapitated, demonic skulls are exhumed, and, at one point, a mythical, headless soldier ditches the horse and ax, straps on a machine gun, and goes full Rambo in a colonial cemetery. But all the while the chemistry between Mison and Beharie crackles with just the right frisson of solemnity and self-aware winking. The casting of Beharie earns the show a lot of goodwill, too. It shouldn't be so rare and refreshing to see an African American actress get to play this sort of leading role, but, unfortunately, it is. On both Ironside and The Blacklist (discussed below), the female partners of eccentric, mansplaining heroes are played by blandly beautiful anybodies. Beharie, sly and substantial — and, yes, plenty gorgeous — is decidedly a somebody. Her contribution to Sleepy Hollow alone makes it worth watching.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Debuts September 24
First TV was the new movies. Then movies began to crib from TV. I'd argue that the widespread acceptance of Marvel's multi-chapter, overlapping approach to its blockbuster superhero films owes a great deal to a generation raised on serialized television.4 Now the cross-pollination is complete. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — the clumsy, market-tested name reminds me of the joke video about Microsoft rebranding the iPod — is Disney's attempt to spackle over the space between billion-dollar Avengers-affiliated movies with a weekly series focusing on the less-powered denizens of its high-flying universe.
S.H.I.E.L.D. (the lumpy acronym earns a good joke in the pilot) is sort of the Men in Black of Marvel: They're the guys in the black helicarrier running interference on Thor and tidying up after Loki. If you're going to make a TV show set in the same universe as the colossally expensive Iron Man flicks, it's tertiary characters like this — as I've argued before! — that are your best bet to capture eyeballs without breaking the bank.
But what makes sense from a corporate perspective doesn't always fly from a creative one. The amount of heavy lifting required to get this thing off the ground requires the delts of the Hulk and the vision of … well, this guy; a few quick cutaways to a more familiar shield only gets you so far. This S.H.I.E.L.D. finds itself in the odd position of needing to transform the most recognizable non-heroes in the Marvel movie universe, a group of shady government interlopers, into compelling, sympathetic protagonists. I'll be honest: Clark Gregg — the mysteriously resurrected Agent Phil Coulson — is a charming guy, but it's still a tough sell. Are we really meant to be cheering for the top-secret extra-governmental organization with unlimited funds and zero oversight? Launching this show in 2013 is like making a wacky comedy about the NSA with Edward Snowden as the Colonel Klink figure.
Luckily for everyone, Avengers director (and all-around nerdcore godhead) Joss Whedon is around to make the action figures move like real people. Whedon's knack for story-advancing, non-infuriating glibness remains remarkable — I imagine the music in Whedon's dialogue is similar to what Aaron Sorkin fans hear in his overly zippy scripts; the added bonus being that Whedon's quips don't make me want to punch myself in the face5 — and he keeps the tone winningly self-aware and light. ("This is a disaster!" says one character. "No, it's an origin story," replies another.) Whedon also wisely tilts S.H.I.E.L.D. a little to the left: They're not the bad guys, they're the guys who try to help before the bad guys arrive. (And when the movie stars are otherwise engaged.) And he introduces a dubious — and I quote — "pseudo-anarchist hacker type" named Skye to be an outsidery voice of skepticism. (A voice, I should add, that is quickly subsumed into the ra-ra chorus.)
I liked the pilot; didn't love it. J. August Richards contributes a nice turn as an ordinary joe with great power but struggling with great responsibility. And Brits Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge liven things up considerably as Fitz and Simmons, two wide-eyed techno geniuses who together comprise a quasi-Q to Coulson's Almost Bond. The major drag here isn't the absence of big-name characters, it's the casting of the tiny ones chosen to take their place. Ming-Na Wen scowls and stalks effectively as Agent Melinda May, but the rest of the cast seems hand-selected from the back pages of an Abercrombie catalogue. As the studly Agent Ward and the aforementioned "hacker" Skye, Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet make less of an impression than my fist would into a wall made of solid vibranium. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could be diverting fun if Joss stays involved (the show will be run by his brother and sister-in-law),6 if Marvel can refrain from micromanaging,7 and if some of the punching budget is saved for punching up the tepid supporting cast. That's a lot of ifs. But there was a time not too long ago when people weren't sold on Robert Downey Jr. in a tin can, either. Times change. And if this show takes flight, TV will too.
The Blacklist (NBC)
Mondays at 10 p.m.
Debuts September 23
Thirty years ago, James Spader was (in)famous for his ability to play the preening scions of old money. In films ranging from Pretty in Pink to Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his was the smug, punchable face of preppie '80s excess.
Now Spader is just money. Five years on from his last regular TV gig — he and William Shatner treated the scenery of Boston Legal like the plate of spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp — and just two seasons removed from his odd, performance-arty dalliance with The Office, Spader's stock has suddenly never been higher. He swaggered through Lincoln, just bagged the lead villain role in 2015's Avengers 2, and now, with The Blacklist, he's been charged with personally resuscitating a bruised and barely breathing peacock. It's a remarkable ascent for the slithery, performative 53-year-old, but one I wholeheartedly support. The Blacklist is a slick and stylish hour of highly cynical nonsense, but Spader takes to his role — as master criminal turned government informant Raymond Reddington — as if it were Hamlet. Or, better yet, a delicious roast ha —
Look. I'll refrain from comparing Spader to a popular form of sliced luncheon meat, but casting him in this show is the equivalent of wrapping 10 slices of bacon around a slab of tofu. Yes, it's an indulgence, but god if it doesn't make the thing taste a million times better.
Created by Jon Bokenkamp — the Nebraskan recently responsible for terrorizing Halle Berry at the box office — The Blacklist is a precise and shiny jewel box of a procedural. After years on the lam, ex-military man Reddington turns himself in and demands to be partnered up with a fresh-faced n00b of a profiler, played with spunky adequacy by Megan Boone. Reddington has arrived bearing gifts: a "blacklist" of all the criminals too crafty for the government to get its hands on. He'll trade names for suites in nice hotels — and a chance to cozy up to Boone's Elizabeth Keen. The pilot revolves around all sorts of hot nonsense: There's a Serbian war criminal, some light torture, and a coterie of Slavic thugs saddled with nicknames like "The Innkeeper" and "The Chemist." This is the sort of show in which cars ram into other cars with abandon, concussions don't exist, and a character stabs another in the neck with a ballpoint pen to make a point. (Her punishment for attempted murder? "Official review." Can I get a minute with the HR rep, please?) The exposition hums, the score swells, and everything is buffed and polished to a metallic, unnatural gleam.
But there's something to be said for shiny. And, in NBC's case, there's something more to be said for competence. This is the rare network pilot that has no difficulty at all communicating just what to expect in Week 5 — or Week 55. And as long as that something involves Spader — his head smooth as an eight ball, his eyes dancing with mockery and malice — it's not a bad way to pass the time.
WAIT FOR IT
Almost Human (Fox)
Mondays at 8 p.m.
Debuts November 4
Almost Human is set in the not-too-distant future, a tech-draped dystopia in which crime runs the streets, Asian noodles are for sale on every corner, and creepy, humanoid robots are everywhere you turn. Unoriginal as that concept may seem, particularly to Ridley Scott fans, there are far worse things to be called than Blade Runner: The Series.
Almost Human, from King of All Media J.J. Abrams and Fringe showrunner J.H. Wyman, has a way to go, both in style and substance, before it can actually be compared to that 31-year-old masterpiece. But it's off to a pretty decent start. Star Trek's Karl Urban stars as the very futuristically named John Kennex, a tough-minded cop whose entire squad was wiped out in a battle against one of those vaguely anarchist syndicates that seem to have replaced flying cars and councils full of old men in robes as science fiction's favorite trope. Kennex lost a leg in the fight (he's got a flashy synthetic one that his body keeps rejecting) and gained an even bigger chip on his shoulder about the presence of "MXs": sleek, unfeeling robo-police who are now assigned as mandatory partners for every human officer. Urban does gritty just fine, but it's a real shame he left his surprisingly dry sense of humor onboard the Enterprise.
The lack of humor is certainly familiar. (Jokes will apparently be outlawed, perhaps along with twerking, in 2029.) Too many of the show's specifics seem cut-and-pasted from Total Recall fan fic — nosebleed-inducing memory machines! Designer DNA! — but no matter. The real reason to watch Almost Human is to see Michael Ealy as Dorian, Kennex's new partner and the only operating MX from an earlier generation, one built not only to analyze but to feel. Yes, this is also something we've seen before — and we've seen it get worryingly thicker beneath the pancake makeup over the years — but never like this. Ealy is a tremendously sensitive actor. He plays Dorian not as a robot nor as a human but as a shy alien. He's Clark Kent finally asked to join the softball team: afraid to show off his strength, too proud to avoid hitting anything but home runs. Lili Taylor is an inspired choice for Kennex's captain, and Mackenzie Crook (the original, British Office) and the almost human Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights) round out a fine cast.
So why the hesitation? Well, for one, high-concept science fiction shows like this don't tend to survive too long on network air. (It's worth noting that Wyman's Fringe was an exception.) And even with the marvelous, surprising work being done by Ealy, I'm not convinced a future this grim is worth visiting, let alone saving.
Lucky 7 (ABC)
Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
Debuts September 24
I have to be honest: I have no idea why this show exists. It's unclear who the target audience is, what the long-term story goals are, or how it plans to achieve them. But I was mildly charmed by Lucky 7 just the same. Adapted from a (wisely limited) British series called The Syndicate, it tells the story of a motley crew of coworkers at a Queens auto repair shop who split the winnings when their lottery pool hits the $45 million jackpot. And here's the thing you won't believe: It seems that money doesn't solve all of life's problems!
To be fair, this group has some serious ones. Leanne (Anastasia Phillips) is a single mom. Samira (Summer Bishil) wants to go to Juilliard, while her cabbie father dreams of an arranged marriage. Denise (the excellent Lorraine Bruce) is struggling to lose weight and stay in denial about her floundering marriage. Owner Bob (the great Isiah Whitlock Jr. — that's state Senator Clay Davis to you!) hopes to keep the business afloat. New dad Matt (Mad Men's Matt Long) and his younger brother, ex-con Nicky (Stephen Louis Grush), face long odds in convincing America that (a) they're related, (b) they've ever set foot in New York City, and (c) they have even a passing knowledge of the insides of engines. The best story line — and the best performance — falls to Luis Antonio Ramos as Antonio, a good-guy mechanic who thought he was doing the responsible thing for his family when he saved his dollars instead of kicking into the lotto pool. Now he has to watch as his pals start shopping for sports cars and Stradivarius violins.
It's extremely gratifying to see a network try to launch a series devoid of serial killers, robots, domes, or other gimmicks to try to draw attention away from cable — and its own lack of ideas. Lucky 7 is plenty gimmicky, but it does try to stay focused on the people caught up in the craziness of said gimmick. But the probability of this working long-term is slight; about the same as winning the New York Lottery or finding customer service this friendly near CitiField.
Mondays at 10 p.m.
Debuts September 23
As outlined above, Fox's Sleepy Hollow is an insane show that has no problems admitting how crazy it is. By contrast, Hostages is a lunatic wedged into the world's most boring straitjacket. There's nothing staid or remotely serious about the show, in which FBI hostage negotiator Duncan Carlisle8 (Dylan McDermott) infiltrates the family of presidential surgeon Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) in order to force her to assassinate the leader of the free world while he lies unconscious on the operating table. This is an undeniably cuckoo concept, but Hostages plays it suffocatingly straight. It's like being forced to eat Cheetos with a knife and fork.
By limiting the show to 15 episodes, CBS is seeking to tap into the same breathless, tightly wound enthusiasm that has fueled cable hits like Homeland or Breaking Bad. But unlike those shows, both of which used their high concept as a launching pad, Hostages treats its premise like a club and beats the audience over the head with it. McDermott is an especially egregious cartoon character, a walking Simpsons parody of a hard-boiled antihero. When we first meet him, he's shooting a suspect point blank in the chest on a hunch. Later he hugs his daughter (Sawyer — he calls her "Soy Soy." As one does) and leaves flowers on the bedside of his comatose wife. "Sometimes you have to do a bad thing for a good reason," he mutters to his masked associate after beating Ellen's philandering husband (good-natured Tate Donovan, truly the Olivier of philandering husbands) with a metal rod. If special agent Duncan Carlisle realizes he's just spat out the SparkNotes version of the Golden Age of TV, he doesn't seem to realize it.
The producers — one of whom is zillionaire flash merchant Jerry Bruckheimer — are desperate to convince us that on Hostages, nothing is what it seems. But everything is thuddingly obvious. Who is the audience meant to care about on a show like this? Surely not the president. Or Ellen, a wan, professional cipher. How this will spin and twist itself for 14 more hours is anyone's guess. Why anyone would even bother to try to do so is another story entirely.
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Debuts October 2
On the comedy side, NBC boss Bob Greenblatt is desperate to turn the clock back to the glory years of the '80s and '90s. For drama, he's willing to go back even further. Ironside starred Raymond Burr as the titular hero, a cop's cop who's forced to use his mind when a criminal's bullet traps his body in a wheelchair. It ran for 199 undistinguished episodes between 1967 and 1975. It has rarely been thought of since, not even by hacky TV critics looking for an easy punch line.9
Now Ironside is back for no discernible reason. This updated version has an impressively starry cast, headlined by the eerily ageless Blair Underwood as the smooth-talking, rule-breaking cop. (Also onboard are The Killing's Brent Sexton — still grieving, though for different reasons — and Orange Is the New Black's Pablo Schreiber, whom I hope is being paid very, very well for the next to nothing he gets to do here.) The model seems less the 40-plus-year-old original and more House: The new Ironside has a "special team" of quirky detectives whom he oversees with gruff, egomaniacal disinterest.
There's a case to be made that Ironside, with its lingering shots of Underwood howling with inner pain, its dubstep breaks, its complete lack of interest in plausibility or the rule of law, is inadvertently the best comedy NBC has made in years. But I'm not going to make it. A show this minor and ephemeral deserves a review to match.
Sundays at 10 p.m.
Debuts September 29
Have you ever been in love? I mean really in lurrrrrve. Like, the sort of instant physical and emotional connection that'll make you forget your marriage, the wine goblets stacked neatly in your Pottery Barn kitchen, and lead you to pull a near-stranger onto the mattress that you for some reason keep smack dab in the middle of your otherwise pristine photography loft for some sweaty — but tasteful! — soul-rattling bonking? Well, have I got a show
for about you!
Betrayal, based on a Dutch series called Overspel, is an extremely vacuous Harlequin paperback smeared with ABC's trademark, fauxmantic gloss. There's nothing inherently wrong with a little adult-on-adult adultery — on TV, I mean! — but when you don't care too much about the inner lives of the people in question, it's pretty thin gruel to sustain an entire series. And so Betrayal, in true keeping-up-with-the-cable-Joneses fashion, takes curious photographer Sara Hanley (an appealing Hannah Ware) and her down-low beau Jack McAllister (played by a possibly embarrassed Stuart Townsend, Jack is the sort of guy who actually says "I'm not that into art." He prefers "things you can feel and touch." Noted!) and then plunges them into smotheringly soapy bathwater. Everything winds up needlessly busy and pointlessly connected. Jack is a lawyer but mostly a consigliere/fixer type for cartoony tycoon Thatcher Karsten10 (James Cromwell, still under the impression he's on Boardwalk Empire). When Karsten's brain-damaged son T.J. (a … committed Henry Thomas) gets into some legal trouble, Jack winds up facing off against Sara's husband, a go-getting prosecutor, in court. And, you know, in life.
There are flash-forwards of gunshots, business meetings held in ornate ballrooms. Thatcher offers two police detectives a crystal tumbler full of scotch. This could all be written off as high fluff11 if it weren't so doomy and in lust with itself. Worse, the profound passion between Ware and Townsend — two dull, bored rich people who deserve each other — is about as exciting as a meet cute between an overcooked noodle and a salad fork. Wake me when it's over. (I don't expect to be snoozing for long.)
Fridays at 10 p.m.
Debuts October 25
You want more? OK, let's see. The one billionth retelling of the world's hoariest vampire tale begins with our fanged friend being roused from a century of slumber by what appear to be grave robbers. As one of them soon learns, it's often a better idea to leave old, dusty things alone — a lesson I wish had also been heeded by Dracula's producers. The show is a transatlantic collaboration between NBC and Carnival Films, the London-based class warriors responsible for Downton Abbey. But rather than do the sensible thing and just bring the dread count back to life smack dab in the middle of the dying embers of the Edwardian era, it explodes into nonsensical excess.
Our new Dracula — played by human smirk Jonathan Rhys Meyers — has a naturally plummy English accent but has arrived in London posing as an American for no evident good reason other than that some executive in Burbank probably red-flagged the idea of an entirely British cast. Drac is posing as a bourbon-swilling industrialist named Alexander Grayson, but our vampire king is really thirsty for … well, blood, yes, but also renewable energy. And the defeat of some sort of secret, Illuminati cabal that we're led to believe are actually worse than a demon race of unkillable blood drinkers mainly because they have fancy airs and rapacious business interests. Grayson plans to defeat these villains in two ways: one, by putting them out of business thanks to his steampunk innovations, and two, by fighting them, slow-mo kung fu style, on CGI rooftops.
All this nuttiness doesn't take into account Dracula's most dangerous weapon: boredom. Bosoms heave, teeth are gritted, fangs are bared — but every moment of pulpy excess is drowned in interminable scenes of speechifying and ballroom dancing. (Seriously: The scene in which Drac basically invents electricity feels longer than the thousand lifetimes our quasi-hero's been chasing after Mina Murray.)
Dracula represents all the worst impulses of the broadcast networks in 2013: It's shamelessly chasing old trends (Twilight!) and fading success (Downton Abbey got 12 Emmy nominations this year!); it messily mashes up bad ideas with worse ones like a toddler left to eat his dinner alone. And it does it all with an off-putting patina of violence and self-importance, as if the main lesson to be drawn from the last decade of television is that smiling is for suckers. If that were the case, everyone involved with this show would have grins so bright they could incinerate the undead.