Zooey Deschanel is the star of New Girl, one of the few successful new shows of the fall.
Zooey Deschanel is the star of New Girl, one of the few successful new shows of the fall. Greg Gayne/Fox
Now that we're a few weeks into the fall season, things are starting to settle. We've had a handful of cancellations, and yes, there are a couple of breakout hits. The quick takes of premiere week are developing into more serious lessons.
Winner: Spunky girls. Both Fox's The New Girl and CBS's 2 Broke Girls are thriving. New Girl is more modern in style, while 2 Broke Girls is more traditionally sitcom-ish, but they're both doing just fine. Perhaps with Bridesmaids having been so successful this summer, it's truly the Year Of The Female Comedy Headliner.
Loser: Nostalgia. The verdict on the networks' Mad Men wanna-bes was initially mixed, with The Playboy Club taking it in the ears from the word go and Pan Am looking a bit better. But Pan Am is struggling now, too, having sloughed off almost half of its audience from its first episode to its third. Playboy Club is already gone; Pan Am is ... well, you can probably write your own "turbulence" joke. And it's not only '60s nostalgia, but '70s nostalgia as well — ABC's Charlie's Angels (which is, in fairness, also terrible) is sinking like a rock.
Winner: Two And A Half Men. Considering the massive handwringing that went on last spring about whether Two And A Half Men could possibly survive the loss of Charlie Sheen, it's remarkable to note that the show has been essentially unaffected by the departure of its star. It's settled (after the initial period of gawking) into getting about 15 million viewers per episode, which is ... about what it was getting before. If you needed Sheengate to seem like even more ado about even more nothing than before, consider the fact that they apparently could have replaced him a long time ago.
Loser: NBC. There's just no nice way to say it: Nothing at NBC is working right now. Nothing. Not only did it get some of the worst reviews of the season with The Playboy Club and therefore make the season's first cancellation (and its second, as well, with the underperforming Hank Azaria comedy Free Agents), but its very good Thursday comedies continue to be watched by a very niche audience, and the closest things it has to successes are Whitney, which is awful and has spent the fall being beaten severely by critics before performing in a shaky fashion that was nonetheless adequate to get a much maligned fall season pickup, and the new Christina Applegate-Will Arnett comedy Up All Night, which is a success only relative to, say, the network's remake of Prime Suspect, which is — say it with me — tanking. The effort to expand the popular holiday short-run series The Sing-Off into a full 13-week fall show has been a ratings disaster (though it's still a terrific show), devoured by the Dancing With The Stars/CBS Monday buzzsaw. Nobody expected things to turn around immediately, and there's still some hope for midseason shows, but this continues to be the network that can't seem to buy a break in prime-time.
Loser: Legacy serials. This has been a very hard season for some shows that have been, at some point or another, very beloved and very closely followed for their serialized stories. Glee is down, Desperate Housewives is down, Grey's Anatomy is down ... there's a significant amount of viewer flight and audience instability.
In short, it's been a season, thus far, where very unspectacular fall shows have led to unspectacular results. Some of the most interesting shows of the fall, including Showtime's gripping Homeland and FX's nutsy American Horror Story, work on a somewhat different schedule, since cable tends to give a little more time to work on an audience. (Both performed solidly in their first airings.)
The first four network cancellations of the season — The Playboy Club and Free Agents from NBC, H8R from the CW, and How To Be A Gentleman from CBS — were all pretty bad — all but Free Agents were execrable, in fact — and so are some teetering shows, like Charlie's Angels, that could go next. That's a state of affairs that's a lot less depressing than last year, when many of us saw promise in Fox's Lone Star and saw it canceled after two airings.
In a way, we're not in danger of broken-heartedness this fall because there's nothing worth being broken-hearted about, but it does seem like with the exception of the two spunky-girl shows, the networks are going to wind up headed back to the drawing board in search of a real hit. The answer apparently doesn't lie in remakes or throwbacks. And fortunately or unfortunately depending on your outlook, there's only one Zooey Deschanel, and she's only got two giant googly eyes to give to comedy.
P.S. Ten prediction points for me if someone comments that the "losers" are the people who watch television. Just wanted to put that stake in the ground ahead of time.