Fall TV Brings Hits, Misses

Television lovers are gearing up for the return of their favorite programs, in addition to the debut of new shows. Tanika Ray, correspondent for the entertainment program Extra, is joined by Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times and The Detroit News media critic Mekeisha Madden Toby about what's on the tube this fall, including the diversity of characters.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, more than 40 years in the business - no sign of stopping - a conversation with veteran journalist Ted Koppel is next.

But first, a drama about sugarcane growers, a sitcom or two, and as always, a dose of reality. They all make up this fall's television lineup. It begins rolling out this week. The networks will offer more than two dozen new shows to vie for our attention.

To help us sort out what's hot, what might be worth the look and what will drive you to read a book, we're joined by three expert TV watchers: Mekeisha Madden Toby is a television critic for the Detroit News. Tanika Ray is a New York correspondent for the TV news magazine Extra, and Eric Deggans is a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

Welcome, everybody.

Ms. TANIKA RAY (New York Correspondent, Extra): Hello.

Ms. MEKEISHA MADDEN TOBY (Media Critic, Detroit News): Thank you.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (TV and Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Great to be here.

MARTIN: All right. Start your engines. It's time for TV.

Eric, you want to start? Is it worth the wait?

Mr. DEGGANS: Is it worth the wait? Well, you know, I'm a little more pessimistic than a lot of people. I was quoted by the Associated Press as saying I didn't like any single pilot that was advanced this year. So - what -so…

MARTIN: Are you just a curmudgeon, normally? Or…

Mr. DEGGANS: I am definitely curmudgeon. But I will say there's a great show called "Pushing Daisies" on ABC. It's the pilot that everybody's talking about. It's about this pie maker who, for some reason, has the ability to bring people back from the dead. If he touches them again, they die forever.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

Mr. DEGGANS: And if he leaves them alive for more than a minute, somebody else has to die. So what happens when he wakes up his childhood sweetheart, who was mysteriously killed? And it's a really interesting show. Now, whether they can make a compelling series out of this is a whole other question.

MARTIN: Tanika, what about you? More than 25 new shows. Anything you're excited about?

Ms. RAY: You know what? I'm a reality freak myself, only because I do get bored with what's on television. They do not sustain your attention. And the thing about the pilots, they have so many months to put it together. It really isn't a barometer for what the series is going to look like.

Somebody who's going to suffer from that may be "Private Practice," unfortunately, with Kate Walsh from "Grey's Anatomy." I don't know if that was the smart move to air the pilot last year, piggybacking on "Grey's Anatomy" or not. See, I think people were excited then, but that was three or four months ago. I think we've forgotten about it, and now, nobody seems to care anymore. So we'll see what happens.

I'm really excited to see the things that - the shows that are going to be midseason replacements, to be perfectly honest. I'm a "Sex In The City" fan to no end. And "Cashmere Mafia," as well as "Lipstick Jungle" are both going to be premiering in January, so I have a little time to wait.

But then there's always the standbys - the "America's Next Top Model," "The Biggest Loser," those kind of fun shows. But as far as like real dramas and sitcoms, I'm always sitting in the pessimistic chair myself, because you just never know.

MARTIN: Hmm, interesting. Mekeisha, the - two dozen new shows, is that a lot for a new season? Is that a reflection of the fact that last season didn't go so well, or is that normal?

Ms. TOBY: That's pretty standard. It's funny, because there are actually more returning shows, which is usually, you know, the smaller amount, or it seems like a lot of shows that are either, you know, reserved for the mid-season or they got cancelled because of low ratings. And a lot of shows are returning this year. So, actually, this week alone, like 43 or 44 shows are back.

MARTIN: I wanted to - go ahead, Eric.

Mr. DEGGANS: If I could break in real quick, too. I agree. This is actually a surprisingly low number of new shows. Normally, we see anywhere from 35 to 38 new shows. But the thing that was remarkable about last year is we had much fewer hits. We have maybe two shows that qualified as hits from the new crop last season, even though we have something like 10 or 12 new shows coming back. Even the show that won for best - the Emmy for best comedy, "30 Rock" is not really a hit. It doesn't have a huge viewership, and that's a big problem for the networks.

Ms. TOBY: Yeah. Critics' choice and what the public actually likes is - has always been in different hemispheres. There is a low number, but at the same time, isn't that nice that the studios are finally giving shows more than three episodes worth of a chance? Yeah, "30 Rock" isn't a big hit, but it does have the lineage of the "SNL" cast and…

MARTIN: "Saturday Night Live."

Ms. TOBY: …yes, exactly, "SNL." We all know the famous story that "Seinfeld" was not a hit right out the gate, so, you know, sometimes, there's hits that need a little bit more time, a little bit more breathing room to sort of spark a fire.

Mr. DEGGANS: Oh, yeah, "Cheers" and "All in the Family," too.

MARTIN: CBS has a new family power drama called "Cane." I want to play a clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Cane")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As Woman) Who was that man at the park?

Mr. JIMMY SMITS (Actor): (As Alex Vega) Business.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Woman) You look strange.

Mr. SMITS: (As Alex Vega) Just some stuff with the cane workers that came over from Cuba in '61, had a record before they left. I got to keep him away from my family.

MARTIN: You can hear all the themes right there. It's fronted by television veteran Jimmy Smits.

Ms. RAY: A Cuban "Dynasty."

MARTIN: A Cuban "Dynasty," along…

Ms. TOBY: I call it Cuban "Dallas."

MARTIN: You call it Cuban "Dallas?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RAY: Okay.

MARTIN: A couple of things…

Mr. DEGGANS: Some people are calling it Cuban "Sopranos," but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But again, again, it's got that sort of, veteran sort of lineage. It's got the Latino aspect, and it's one of the few television offerings that features people of color. It's interesting, because it's such a high-profile project. And yet actually, the number of Latinos in major characters are actually down this year from last season. What do people think about "Cane"? Anybody?

Ms. TOBY: I like it.

Ms. RAY: I (unintelligible) stuff. I heard something, don't sleep - "Cane" would not exist if it weren't for "Ugly Betty." That sort of propelled…

Ms. TOBY: Right.

Ms. RAY: …the pendulum in that direction, and they're like, hmm, the Latinos are watching TV. Let's sort of push it that way, and it's crossing all color lines. So let's see what happens. I think it's a sexy cast. I think the premise is pretty interesting. We'll see what happens.

MARTIN: Mekeisha had something to say.

Ms. TOBY: Oh, I was just going to say that I like it. I mean, it's not perfect, but no drama is. And I think, you know, it has a lot going against it, unfortunately, because of the timeslot. It's Tuesday nights at 10. CBS has not had great success in that timeslot. It's an expensive show to make. Last year, when "Smith" came in and debuted in that timeslot, it tanked because - not because it wasn't a good show, it's just that it's expensive to make a show that looks so cinematic and has such a high-profile, expensive cast, and I hope people give it a chance.

MARTIN: Eric?

Mr. DEGGANS: I've actually spent some time on the set and some time with the producers and with Jimmy and…

MARTIN: He's in the tank now. You hear him, Jimmy. Jimmy now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEGGANS: That's right. Jimmy, you know, Jimmy.

MARTIN: Go ahead. I'm sorry. Can I just tell you, trivia? Jimmy Smits went to my junior high school. Go Gershman(ph).

Ms. RAY: Wow.

Ms. TOBY: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: But, proceed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEGGANS: But I did want to point out that what I like about "Cane," besides the fact that I, too, like the show - although I don't think it really has a snowball's chance - but I will say…

Ms. TOBY: Why is that?

MARTIN: Yeah. Mekeisha wants to know. Why is that? I do, too.

Mr. DEGGANS: I don't think people are going to get it. But what's interesting about this show is that Nina Tassler, the president of entertainment for CBS, self identifies as a Latina. And the person who created the show, Cynthia Cidre, she immigrated to Miami from Cuba when she was young, and she knows Jimmy Smits because they worked on a film together early in her career. And obviously, Jimmy's Latino, too. So you had a really interesting network of Hispanic showbiz folks who very quietly worked together to make sure that this show would land on the schedule when it did.

Ms. TOBY: Yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: And you had the same thing with "Ugly Betty" and Salma Hayek's, you know, involvement. So I think, you know, Hispanic actors and people in the industry have kind of learned how to get key projects on to the network's schedule by working together and networking. And if "Cane" works, and I hope it does, that will just increase that more, and we certainly need more of that.

MARTIN: Eric, I just wanted to ask you. You said you don't think people are going to get it. What do you mean you don't think they're going to get it?

Mr. DEGGANS: There's a lot of things going on in this show. Part of it is a family drama, part of it has elements of a crime drama. The family business is sugarcane, which people are not that familiar with…

Ms. TOBY: Yeah.

Ms. RAY: Yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: …and there's this war in the family between a character who wants the family to concentrate on making rum, and Jimmy Smits' character, who wants the family to concentrate on making sugarcane to make ethanol to power cars. And one of the things that struck me in talking with Jimmy and Cynthia and some of the other people involved with the show is that they're all struggling with balancing all these storylines and telling people what is this show about. And when the people who created it have a hard time doing that, I think they're going to have a hard time selling it an audience.

MARTIN: But you don't think it's because it's fronted by Latino leads?

Mr. DEGGANS: I think the problem is that people may feel like they've seen it before, because there's been a lot of Hispanic family dramas on, you know, PBS tried it and…

Ms. TOBY: Right.

Mr. DEGGANS: …you know, Showtime tried it. But if they watch it, hopefully people will give it a chance.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE.

I'm speaking with television critics Eric Deggans, Mekeisha Madden Toby and Tanika Ray about the fall television season.

I wanted to ask what shows do you think the networks should have kept in the vault? And I particularly wanted to ask about "Caveman," which is based on a Geico car insurance…

Ms. TOBY: I cannot believe…

MARTIN: Hold up. What are you saying?

Mr. DEGGANS: You're going to make us go there?

MARTIN: Yeah, we're going to make you go…

Ms. RAY: Oh.

Mr. DEGGANS: Don't get Eric started.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Let - no, we have to go there. Let's play a clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Caveman")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Character) You know, you can't hide your identity under a hat, Joel.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As Joel) I'm not trying to. It's a Western-themed barbecue.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As Character) Thank you, Jamie, for dressing up.

Unidentified Man #5: (As Jaime) Well, I was going to wear this regardless.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As Character) Yeah. I always wondered what McEntire would look like if she was a Cro-magger.

Unidentified Man #4: (As Character) Please, don't use that word.

Unidentified Man #6: (As Character) Magnum P.I.? Maggaroni(ph) and cheese?

Unidentified Man #4: (As Character) I don't know. Just keep them coming.

Unidentified Man #6: (As Character) Jerry Maguire. Ooh, Tobey Maguire.

MARTIN: I'm already turning the channel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It's like, if you keep talking about it…

Ms. TOBY: I just think it's so stupid. It's so one - it's just the opposite of what you were saying about "Cane," where it's so complicated. This is so one notey, I'm already bored. I've seen the commercial and I'm already bored.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, it's on against "Biggest Loser," so I know you ain't watching it in anyway…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOBY: No, I'm watching "Biggest Loser." I want to them lose some weight. Let's be real.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Eric, what - what were you - go where you want to go. Go there.

Mr. DEGGANS: Okay. You know, I sort of gotten trouble because when they had a press conference on this in July, I was the person who asked ABC is this the sitcom about black people that ABC was too scared to make?

Ms. TOBY: Yes.

Mr. DEGGANS: Because every joke in it was really a veiled joke about black people. Now…

Ms. TOBY: Right.

MARTIN: Like what? I haven't - for those of us who haven't seen it.

Mr. DEGGANS: Sure. "Caveman" is - takes the cave man characters from Geico ad - insurance ad commercials, and moves them into a series. And so they're Cro-Magnons in the modern world. And, you know, there's rumors that they're sexually very, you know, potent. And we see one of the cavemen, you know, enacting that. There's rumors that they are athletically very advanced. There's rumors that they're stupid, intellectually.

MARTIN: I haven't seen the commercials - which they play constantly, you know, where I live - I thought that the trick of it was that there are these stereotypes that they're pushing against. So…

Ms. RAY: Exactly. I mean, that was the thing. The commercials are nothing like the show. I mean, I like the commercials better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh.

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah. And they are pushing against the stereotype, but they're also validating them. You know, there are characters that are shown to be sexually potent. There are characters that are shown to be good at physical activity, like playing horseshoes and dancing…

MARTIN: So they're promoting it, even though they're pretending they're pushing against - okay, so…

Mr. DEGGANS: So…

MARTIN: …what do the executives say when they asked the question…

Mr. DEGGANS: They didn't want to admit.

MARTIN: Did they just deny it? They just said no.

Mr. DEGGANS: But the other thing that was obvious - the other thing that was obvious was they filmed this pilot very quickly. It came very late in the pilot season. It, basically, was a deal before it was a show…

Ms. RAY: Absolutely, which is always a mistake.

Mr. DEGGANS: …before it was script. And it was put together mostly by people who didn't know television. It was the people who were involved with the ads. So they brought in some guys from - who had written for "3rd Rock from the Sun" and "In Living Color." And now they're involved, and now the pilot that all the critics saw isn't - is supposedly they're not going to air until the fifth or sixth episode. I'm putting next week's pay down that it never airs, because it's so horrible.

Ms. RAY: I hope not. No, they admit it now.

Mr. DEGGANS: And hopefully, they've found a new direction, and the new commercials indicate that.

MARTIN: Interesting.

Ms. RAY: They admit now that it is about race. So…

MARTIN: They do?

Mr. DEGGANS: Oh, they do now.

MARTIN: In what - Tanika, how? In what context did the…

Ms. RAY: A quote from - who is this? Josh Gordon, executive producer, in making an allegory, quote, "about race relations that stars three cavemen automatically puts it into a stranger category." They're into having people sort of out of their box. And they think that's hilarious.

MARTIN: It's interesting. This whole thing about talking about race but pretending you're not talking about race is something that surfaced, I think, last season during the reality shows. And now, Tanika, I know you're dying to talk about the reality show thing. So let's - no, let's go there, because you want to go there.

Ms. RAY: All right.

MARTIN: Reality's been such a big story in television. Is it over, or is it still the big thing?

Ms. RAY: No, it's, I mean, is rap going to be over? It's never going to be over. I think as long as it's interesting and it sort of capitalizes your attention span, I don't have a problem with reality. I know actors do because it takes away from the dramas in the sitcoms on television. But if they make more interesting than dramas and sitcoms, then I'd be watching those.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, you know, you're missing the main reason why it's popular.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. DEGGANS: It's cheap.

Ms. RAY: It's cheap, honey.

Mr. DEGGANS: Seriously, it's cheap.

Ms. RAY: People are getting rich off of it.

Mr. DEGGANS: You don't pay writers.

Ms. RAY: No.

Mr. DEGGANS: If the main characters become popular, they're not actors. They're not going to demand - they don't have agents. They don't have managers.

Ms. RAY: They don't get paid.

Mr. DEGGANS: They won't demand huge salaries, and they sign these onerous contracts - they're are at least two inches thick - in which they indemnify the network, even if they get killed during production.

Ms. RAY: Yup. Hence, "Kid Nation."

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah, hence "Kid Nation."

MARTIN: "Kid Nation" being, Mekeisha, tell us.

Ms. TOBY: "Kid Nation" is a show where 40 kids are in a Western town, kind of raising themselves for 40 days and to see if they can…

MARTIN: Survive.

Ms. TOBY: …create their own government, so to speak. And the kids - their parents signed these crazy, like Eric was saying, these crazy contracts that indemnifies the networks and says, basically, if your child dies or gets maimed or is, like, severely burned, we're not liable. It's on you, because you let us have your kid for 40 days.

Mr. DEGGANS: I love the clause about sexually transmitted disease.

Ms. TOBY: Oh my God, that was so scary.

MARTIN: Oh, no. Ow. Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOBY: It's on Smoking Gun. The smokinggun.com has all these stuff like, if your child, you know, gets a sexually transmitted disease, if your child gets burned or - I mean, it's just craziness.

MARTIN: That is good. But let me ask you this. Does anybody think that diversity is part of the reason reality shows are so popular? I'm looking at a piece written by the Associated Press that pointed out that - they're really -there are these high profile shows like "Ugly Betty" that the number of characters of color and gay characters on television really hasn't changed or that much. Whites makes up 77 percent of network series regular characters. I don't know. Does anybody think that reality - part of it because it's - for whatever reason, is a more diverse environment? Eric?

Mr. DEGGANS: You want to talk about diversity. It's more of the black best friend syndrome.

Ms. TOBY: Uh-huh.

Ms. RAY: Oh, yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: And Greg Braxton of the L.A. Times did a great story about all these shows that basically feature black best friends. And it's particularly a problem for African-American actresses, because these are the only roles they can get. And if you look at the two shows that do have minority leads, "Cane" and "K-Ville," they're both males - a Hispanic male and an African-American male.

MARTIN: What about "Grey's Anatomy"?

Mr. DEGGANS: So I think that's the big problem with - well, "Grey's Anatomy" has two black best friends. So, you know, "Grey's Anatomy" is an ensemble cast, but the lead character is Meredith Grey. "Private Practice" is an ensemble show, but the lead character is Kate Walsh's character, and she's surrounded by, you know, she's got Taye Diggs and she's got Audrey McDonalds.

MARTIN: She has two black best friends.

Mr. DEGGANS: She got - yeah, she got two black best friends in there. And so there's - Chi McBride is on "Pushing Daisies." He's a private eye. So, you know, that's the big trend that I've seen in diversity, is that characters of color are no longer the lead. They're the best friend or they're the sidekick or they're the supporting actor, and they're not stepping up.

MARTIN: What does that mean? What do you think that means?

Mr. DEGGANS: The networks think people won't watch actors of color when they're stars of the show.

Ms. RAY: And that's happened forever. As soon as they see a black lead, they think - a white American may think, oh, that's not speaking to me so we shouldn't turn to that channel. I think it's just playing the game - Shonda Rhimes with having Ellen Pompeo as the lead, even though she's not clearly the lead when you watch the show. I think it's more ensemble. But I do think you have to play the Hollywood game. And as much as minorities might be a little bit more open-minded to say, of it's a white lead character, but there's other minorities in it, I'll watch it. It seems that white America doesn't do the same thing. And so…

MARTIN: Yeah, but what about the reality shows? I mean, people of color have done really well on these shows.

Ms. RAY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Whether we like it - I mean, I'm not - some of them I like, some of them I don't particularly love the way the characters that some of these people play as, you know, themselves.

Ms. RAY: Well, that would technically be an ensemble cast.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. RAY: There's nobody's who's in the lead. So it's an organic, ensemble cast.

Mr. DEGGANS: And I'm going to start a little something here, and say, again, if you look at the network of Hispanic actors and producers who made - who brought "Ugly Betty" to the fore and brought "Cane" to the fore, they did not let white people star in those shows.

MARTIN: That's true.

Mr. DEGGANS: And so to have black producers bring forth shows that don't star black people, you might want to look at them and sort of say, it is possible.

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. DEGGANS: I mean, Latinos are doing it.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we're starting something, Eric.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. Tanika Ray is a New York correspondent for Extra. She's in Glendale, California. And Mekeisha Madden Toby is a television critic for the Detroit News. She joined us from NPR West. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DEGGANS: Bye.

Ms. RAY: Bye.

Ms. TOBY: Bye.

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