Everything Old Is New (And Back On TV) Again: The Winners And Losers Of This Week's Network Upfronts
The broadcast networks gave us a sneak peek at the fall and winter’s new shows this week at their annual "upfront" presentations to advertisers, and there were a lot of stars but precious few projects to get excited about. Apart from a strange glut of time-travel shows, the networks largely stuck to what they’ve been doing with few surprises -- unless you're surprised that they're committed to recycling old movies and TV series into mediocre-looking adaptations and reboots. Here’s who seems to have come out ahead in terms of quality and creativity based on the trailers the networks have provided, and who should be roundly ignored.
Bad news seemed to rock Shondaland this week when Olivia Pope went on hiatus until next year to accommodate Kerry Washington’s pregnancy and Rhimes’s Thursday block was broken up by the Scandal knockoff Notorious. But don’t cry for ABC’s top creator yet. She’ll have a total of five shows bearing her imprimatur next season, including the lavish-looking historical soap Still Star-Crossed. The title’s a mouthful, but the race-bent sequel to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, taking place after the teenage lovers’ double suicide, has an intriguingly novel premise. That the warring Montagues and Capulets are of different races adds another level of friction, and in a decade that’s seen increasing interest in historical fiction, it’s nice to see people of color get to participate in those stories, too.
Bell hasn’t found a project worthy of her talents since Veronica Mars ended nearly 10 years ago (let’s just forget the movie ever existed), so it’s exciting to see her team up with Mike Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), one of the most reliable comedy producers working today. Bell’s angelic looks and lacerating wit are a great match for the heaven-set The Good Place (NBC), where her not-so-nice character discovers that it’s only because of a bureaucratic screw-up (probably by a genial Ted Danson) that she’s there. It’s hard to know where the story will spin out from there, but I’m ready go wherever Schur takes me.
While 24 is rebooted with Straight Outta Compton standout Corey Hawkins on Fox, its erstwhile star restarts his career in the fall’s most anticipated drama. In ABC’s Designated Survivor, Sutherland will play a low-ranking cabinet member thrust into the presidency after a terrorist attack takes out the rest of the White House during a State of the Union address. Homeland already did a similar story line, but at a time when we’re all wondering, "How unprepared for the presidency is too unprepared?," Designated Survivor seems uncannily timely. Plus, it’s great to see costar Kal Penn back in the Oval Office.
After more than a decade of unheralded comedic genius on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (and seeing her male costars find mainstream movie and TV success), Olson finally gets a vehicle of her own in the Fox comedy The Mick. Olson plays Mickey, a con woman whose old tricks come in handy when she’s asked to care for her niece and nephews after their wealthy parents are jailed for white-collar shenanigans. Created by Sunny writers John and Dave Chernin, The Mick fits in perfectly with the rest of Fox’s younger-skewing, slightly grimy sitcoms.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street directors expand their burgeoning TV empire with two visually inventive, originally premised comedies on Fox. Making History is the far more promising of the two, transporting Adam Pally and Yassir Lester’s 21st-century professors back to colonial Massachusetts, where they work with Paul Revere’s daughter (Leighton Meester) to spark the American Revolution. Buzzier but less interesting is Son of Zorn, a mix of animation and live action, in which Jason Sudeikis voices a He-Man-like paleolithic warrior whose caveman ways don’t exactly jibe with the modern world. Now if only one of Lord and Miller’s projects could finally feature a well-developed female character.
The Diversification of Diversity
For all the talk in the last couple of years about TV’s racial diversity, there doesn’t seem to be any significant progress on that front among the fall’s pilots. CBS announced a nearly all white male slate, while people of color seem mostly relegated to supporting roles on the other networks -- in other words, it looks like business as usual. One exception is ABC’s slight but significant diversification of what diversity can be -- a programming philosophy that seems to consider what life actually looks like in all its complexity. In addition to the racially flexible Still Star-Crossed, there’s Speechless, a Minnie Driver vehicle that focuses on a family with a developmentally disabled child, and Downward Dog, a (probably doomed) Alison Tolman comedy centered on the relationship between a woman and her (narrating) hound. So, yeah, one of these shows features a talking dog, but it’s still refreshing to see women’s stories that wander beyond romance.
Stuff You’ve Already Heard Of
Familiar franchises seem like they should belong in the winner's circle since there are so many of them next season, including adaptations or reboots of Training Day, MacGyver, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Prison Break, and 24. (Note that they all star dudes.) But the recent cancellations of the small-screen versions of Rush Hour, Minority Report, and The Muppets should remind network execs that TV doesn’t need to copy the film industry in cannibalizing itself. At a time when there are literally too many shows for one person to take in, none of these trailers provide a compelling reason to watch something we’ve already seen.
There’s nothing remarkable about Fox’s preview of this mid-season limited series about a racially charged police shooting — and that’s what makes it the most disappointing trailer I’ve seen this upfronts season. Coming from director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball), whose projects always have a special glow and a generous soul to them, Shots Fired just looks like every other mystery on TV, albeit with the hook of a possibly racist black cop shooting an unarmed white teen. I’ll withhold judgment until it debuts -- and perhaps my expectations were too high -- but fingers crossed that Shots Fired doesn’t squander Prince-Bythewood’s considerable talents or its opportunity to make meaningful entertainment.
How much do you love history? Probably not as much as the fall pilot season hopes you do, judging by the fact that nearly every network boasts a new chronology-jumping series. The aforementioned Making History looks auspicious, but the other three -- NBC’s crime-fighting Timeless, ABC’s H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper mash-up Time After Time, and The CW’s family-oriented Frequency (another film adaptation, by the way) -- look just plain terrible.
As if CBS’s moldy old programming wasn’t depressing enough, we’ve now lost Community’s Joel McHale — at least for half a season — to a laugh track and tired mockery of young people and their crazy Internets with The Great Indoors. The elfin snarkmeister is eminently miscast as a rugged adventurer (was Patton Oswalt not available?) who hangs up his REI gear to teach the interns at his travel magazine about the real world or whatever, because we should all learn life lessons from someone who takes forever walks to nowhere and survives on rancid goat milk and belly-button lint. I’ll stay home staring at my multiple screens and not watching this show, or probably any other on CBS, thank you very much.