Fall is my favorite season for many reasons, but probably the biggest contributor to that is it marks the beginning of the new TV season. Each fall the many TV networks premiere a bunch of new series, in addition to new episodes of returning shows. And now that we’re midway through September we can finally say the 2011-2012 TV season has officially started. In honor of this occasion I will be writing various short pieces on the new shows that particularly interest me. I won’t watch every pilot (hello The Playboy Club), but I’ll try my best to sample a bunch and put my early reactions down here so you can find out which new shows should be of remote interest.
This year networks seem to be spacing out their series more than usual, rather than the typical blood bath that occurs when all the new shows start within the same two week period. Next week is the full start of the new TV season, where the majority of new shows will first air, but I want to talk about two series that have already been released. One has just begun airing on television (Up All Night), while the other was made available online early as a sneak peak to gain word of mouth (New Girl). Lets begin.
Up All Night (Wednesdays at 8pm on NBC)
After last fall’s disappointing Running Wilde, Will Arnett is back and this time on an NBC comedy created by [now] former Parks and Recreations writer Emily Spivey. I was completely sold on that sentence when the show was first announced, but as details about the pilot, and later, clips of it came out I found my enthusiasm lessened greatly. A series about the struggles of parenting a baby didn’t sound exactly like the most original or entertaining premise, especially since two years ago we got that plot in Modern Family and then a year ago in Raising Hope. Throw in a cast consisting only of Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolph, I found myself quite unsure of what exactly this show would turn out to be. And after watching the first episode I can say I’m still not exactly sure what this show will be like in ten episodes down the line, or even in five, but I’m willing to wait and see. Arnett’s performance is wisely toned down and for what feels like the first time since before Arrested Development is actually playing a character that isn’t a G.O.B. Bluth ripoff. It’s honestly quite refreshing to see him play a character that uses subtle humor for once, rather than the broad wacky comedy he previously focused on.
Nothing within the episode is especially laugh out loud funny, but there are a few small chuckles here and there. Like all the other new sitcoms this year, comedy isn’t the pilot’s strong suit, but where it does succeed is in creating two main leads (and a baby) that you can instantly care about. Perhaps its the rare case of television portraying a married couple that appears stable and realistic, but by the end of the episode I enjoyed Regan (Applegate) and Chris (Arnett) as both people and parents. They argue briefly, but it’s a realistic dispute over the lack of sleep a new born baby brings. There’s little tension to the scene with no fear of the squabble being made into a bigger deal than it actually is.
It’s when the series transitions from it’s parenting plot to a workplace comedy that the show hits uneasy waters. It’s here that Maya Rudolph introduced as an Oprah like inspirational talk show host, with Regan being her best friend and executive producer. None of the work stuff is noticeably bad, but none of it is particularly funny. While the workplace element was originally planed to be a smaller part of the show, after the success of the film Bridesmaids Rudolph’s role was increased dramatically causing half of the pilot to be reshot in order to incorporate her more. Perhaps in the long run this might be proven to be a good move, but like most pilots the writers haven’t quite figured out how to use Rudolph, despite her recent comedic success. Her character comes off over the top and intrusive to what is otherwise a fairly low key, mellow comedy. With time she may gel into being a natural addition to the series, but till then she feels like exactly what the network made her, an addition.
The opening scene of Up All Night where Regan and Chris whisper to each other semi-frantically in hushed tones is pretty indicative of the tone the series seems to be going for. It’s fairly light and breezy, mellow and low key, yet sweet and caring. As pilots go Up All Night was a pretty good one. Not must see TV, or even very memorable TV, but good TV with the potential to improve. The question remains if the two realms of the show will be able to mix into one, and if this small, yet talented, cast will be able to hold a series on their own. For new comedies this year I’m sticking with Up All Night and hoping that once Whitney fails (which may not even be because of quality but rather its awkward placement as the only multi-camera sitcom) this can take it’s natural spot on Thursdays amongst the main NBC single-camera comedies.
New Girl (Tuesdays at 9pm on FOX)
I’m going to be honest on this one: I love Zooey Deschanel. I typically fall for her whole Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) routine in movies and I’m quite the fan of her band She & Him, which I’m actually listening to as I write this sentence. That being said I did my best to separate my feelings for the actress from the critic in me while watching. The pilot isn’t exceptional by any measures, but like Up All Night it has potential for real growth. Though where I can’t picture what Up All Night is like down the line, it’s easy to see where New Girl can go and what it’ll be like in say ten episodes.
The pilot is all set up explaining how Jess (Deschanel) ends up living in an apartment with three guys (Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, and Damon Wayans, Jr.), spending all its runtime introducing the various characters and their quirks at a basic level. It’s all standard stuff with an attempt at being hip/clever with jokes like the Douchebag Jar, which the characters must place a dollar into if they make a jerky comment. In that sense it feels Happy Endings-esque (a show that tried too hard at first at being clever but soon jelled into a reliably funny and enjoyable sitcom). The key to the show working, like all good comedies, will be figuring out how to play to the strengths of each of the actors
Take for instance the character of Schmidt, who (Max Greenfield) plays a lot like Barney Stinson in the pilot of How I Met Your Mother with the character’s qualities coming off too strong, dialed up to eleven. If dialed back enough both characters can work, but too much of the shtick becomes a turn off. The Douchebag Jar if toned back a bit works, but Schmidt making motor boat jokes so candidly doesn’t. If that character remains at the same “douche” level then as a viewer the pay off to all that money going into the jar better be good.
Of course one of the problems of playing to the actor’s strengths here is that one of the actor’s wont be returning. Damon Wayans, Jr. starred in the pilot thinking his other show, the formerly mentioned and tonally similar Happy Endings, was going to be cancelled, but last minute ABC surprisingly renewed the series forcing him to leave New Girl after just one episode. Rather than go the costly route of reshooting like Up All Night did, FOX decided to leave the pilot as it is and just have his character replaced in the second episode. While I find Wayans to generally be a funny actor, I didn’t like his character Coach here, who is abrasive and easily prone to yelling unnecessarily due to his job as a personal trainer. He’s much better employed on Happy Endings, so I’m not sad to see him go. A lot rides on the chemistry between the three boys and Deschanel, so we’ll have to wait to see how Damon’s replacement, Lamorne Morris, fits in amongst them.
In what I promise to be my last comparison to Happy Endings, New Girl also uses cutaways and in both shows it feels like a tacked on addition each time they flashback. Unlike 30 Rock, the series just don’t seem fully dedicated to the cutaways. They’re used only a few times throughout the pilot and come off as too strong of a tonal shift between scenes to feel natural. The show would be better off deciding to either fully commit to the flashbacks or just drop them altogether rather than using it randomly here and there purely to get an extra joke in.
However the area that confuses me the most in the show is how none of the characters seem to recognize Zooey Deschanel, or rather, Jess is both beautiful and awesome. Adding glasses to Deschanel does not make her look ugly, but rather adds to her hipster charm. And making general, straightforward Lord of the Rings references doesn’t make her exceedingly geeky or lame. The Lord of Rings trilogy was one of the biggest film series of the past decade and made millions of dollars, it’s within the realm of basic modern pop culture knowledge. Rather than admitting all this qualities are aspects of what makes up Zooey Deschanel’s MPDG appeal, the character’s act as if she’s lame, geeky, and annoying (ok maybe the constant singing would get annoying at some point). Schmidt is played off as a big womanizer and yet not once in the entire show does he hit on Jess. It isn’t the prospect of living with Jess that excites him, but rather the fact that her best friend is a model. It’s only at the end of the episode when she puts on a little black dress that the boys realize “hmm maybe she is beautiful and awesome”.
As a pilot New Girl is decent. Can’t recall any big laughs from watching it, but I did smile at a few points. Deschanel was on the verge of being too Deschanel at times, but I still found her entertaining. To me New Girl is the new sitcom with the most potential this fall. Right now it’s not great, but once the writers figure out the actor’s strength and the actors get comfortable with each other, who knows. Maybe it will be.