Arrested Development star Will Arnett plays a wealthy playboy in the Fox series Running Wilde. David Bianculli says he's not impressed by the pilot, but out of an excess of hope, he'll stick with the show for a few more episodes.
One of the current network executives was just quoted as saying that this week was the first time all of the broadcast networks were going head to head during premiere week in such an aggressive fashion. He can say that because he's young. I'm not, so I remember when the networks did this sort of thing every fall. But it is the first time in a long time that every network has come out swinging at the same time, hoping to build momentum and get attention.
But this year, more than in any year I can remember, the new shows are positively underwhelming. Every year at this time, the question I'm asked most often is, "Which new series do I have to watch?" And most years, there's at least one easy answer. Glee and Modern Family. Lost and Desperate Housewives. 30 Rock. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though few people believed me at the time.
This year, the easy answer is Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night on HBO. But if you restrict the question to broadcast TV — to ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and the CW — I have a different answer.
Nothing. Nada. And I'm not just being cranky. As a TV critic, I've evaluated the new fall season output for 35 years now, and never before — not once — have the broadcast networks come up completely empty.
How does this happen, when they need viewers more than ever, and when the risky creativity of such shows as Glee and Modern Family were amply rewarded last year with audiences and Emmys? I don't have a clue. But clearly, based on this year's 2010 fall roster, neither do the broadcast networks.
The best I can do, in an effort to be supportive, is point to a handful of shows that might improve significantly after the pilot episode, and that feature actors and producers whose past work led me to expect a lot more in the first place.
So in that spirit of half-hearted recommendation, let's start with Running Wilde, a new Fox series premiering Tuesday. It comes from Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development, which ought to be enough.
But it isn't. Even though this series, about a wealthy playboy and a passionate environmentalist, stars Will Arnett and Keri Russell, there are few laughs — and fewer sparks. Series creator Hurwitz says he's making a lot of changes after the first episode, and he's certainly earned some slack, so I'll stick around for a few episodes to see if things improve.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Samantha Bloom and Boris Kodjoe as Steven Bloom in the not-so-exciting new spy series Undercovers. With J.J. Abrams behind it, it may pick up.
The same goes for a new show from J.J. Abrams, who made Keri Russell a star with Felicity. Since then, on TV, Abrams has given us both Alias and Lost, so there was every reason to believe his new effort, a spy series called Undercovers (premiering Sept. 22), would be a major romp. It isn't — at least not at first. As spy series go, it's not even as lively as USA's Covert Affairs; still less does it show any of the wit and style of Alias. But Abrams has entertained me in the past, so I'll try, try again.
However, that's not my reaction to The Event, the drama series that NBC is trying to build up as the next Lost, with echoes of FlashForward and Fringe and every other complicated conspiracy-theory drama on TV lately. The star is Jason Ritter, who is immensely likable — but the series isn't. In the pilot, the whole convoluted mess is an effort to build a cliffhanger exciting enough for us to want to return for the second week. But for me, once was plenty. Will the plane crash? What is the event? I don't care. NBC coming up with an interesting new show — now that would be an event.
In any other year, The Event might qualify as the bottom of the barrel — but in 2010, that barrel already is filled with The Defenders and Bleep My Dad Says on CBS, and Outlaw on NBC, and Detroit 1-8-7 on ABC.
But there is good news: Ignoring all these new shows leaves more time to watch new episodes of the returning series that deserve to be seen. On Mondays, that means House and Chuck. Tuesdays, it's Glee. Wednesday, Modern Family. Thursday, 30 Rock, Fringe and, on its new day, The Big Bang Theory. And the weekend ends Sunday with new installments of The Simpsons, Desperate Housewives and 60 Minutes.
This year, don't bother playing with the new toys. Just stick with the old stuff.