There are two problems with trying to review the new fall TV shows: 1. The networks, possibly due to infinite greed (okay, almost certainly due to infinite greed,) have stretched this process out over five or six weeks and 2. new TV shows are about as disposable as razor blades or Donald Trump employees. Thus, if you’re like me and wait until pretty much everything has rolled out, you’re either reviewing “new” shows that have already aired five or six episodes or some of the new shows you were PLANNING to review have already died a grisly death. But, on the off chance that you’re like me and prefer your TV viewing to take binge form, I’m going to give you my thoughts on a handful of new shows you may not have checked out.
(BLOGGER’S NOTE: All of these capsule reviews are based on the first episode or two. So if any of these shows have gotten either REALLY good or REALLY bad since…well, what are the odds of that?)
THE MUPPETS (ABC)
One reality of the classic The Muppet Show is that it casts a long shadow. Both the show and the first three movies spun off from it are the reason The Muppets as an entity have endured to this day. Like all great kids shows (Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Animaniacs and viewed from a certain odd angle, The Simpsons), it was able to entertain both kids and adults and those same kids as they grew into adults. The problem is that most of the original creators of The Muppets are gone and have taken a lot of the originality with them.
The premise of the new venture is, similarly, a peek behind the scenes of a TV show. In this case, it’s done in the style of a reality show that looks at the backstage goings on at Up Late, Miss Piggy’s evening talk show. Kermit functions as the show’s executive producer, balancing Piggy’s ego, the insane guests and the wacked out staff (played by the other Muppet characters.) It’s essentially The Larry Sanders Show for kids and those who have never heard of The Larry Sanders Show (which I’m guessing is most of you.) While the new show does a fine job of updating the old show’s premise, it fails to replicate the eccentric, anything-can-happen feel. Instead, it falls back on the same tropes EVERY Muppet project since Jim Henson’s death has fallen back on: the familiarity of the characters and the guest stars. (“Hey, the Swedish Chef is doing karaoke! Oh, there’s a reference to The Electric Mayhem smoking pot! Larry Fishburne’s being a jerk to Kermit!”) It’s hard enough to do anything new or interesting with characters that have become so familiar to the public (witness the hue and cry that went up when Miss Piggy and Kermit “broke up.”) But the creators seem to be searching for what Jim Henson & Co MIGHT have done rather than trying to find their own way. In the end, it’s not a bad show, but not a particularly compelling one. Maybe it’s all time we faced facts: we don’t like The Muppets for what they ARE, we like The Muppets for what they WERE.
(By the by, if you had told me at age 13 that I would be writing a serious review of The Muppets at age 33, I…well, you know, I probably would have believed you.)
John Stamos plays Jimmy Martino, an L.A. restaurateur and serial womanizer, who discovers, in fell swoop, that he has a 26 year old son and that said son has a daughter with a casual friend (proving once again that Rupert Murdoch’s embrace of family values does not extend to his programming department.) Given an instant family, Jimmy goes through the predictable man-child-growing-up moments. Truly, there’s nothing new under the sun here, but then it’s television. It’s been around for more than 70 years and nearly every idea has been tried. The key to a new TV show is generally in the execution and not the inspiration. To that end, Grandfathered is likable enough. I’m not a fan of John Stamos, but strangely, your view of him need not effect your view of this show. If you don’t care for Stamos, his character’s not all that likable in the first place. If you like Stamos, his character’s not irredeemable, either. The pilot is fast-paced, has a few good sight gags (Don Rickles hanging with Deion Sanders and Lil’ Wayne) and is light on the cutesy (though it leaves that particular door WIDE OPEN.) It’s hard to evaluate the supporting cast, as there’s so little of them in the pilot. The show’s main problem, though, was found in this anecdote:
I watched the pilot with my buddy, Mike. At one point, Stamos’ character talks about the one girl he really loved in his life. But, he says, it just ended. Prompting Mike to say, “Because she dumped me for the fat kid from Stand By Me.” That one-liner made me laugh harder than anything actually IN the show. Grandfathered did not get off to a bad start, but it did leave me with the sinking feeling that, push to come shove, it’s going to get cuter rather than funnier.
THE GRINDER (Fox)
Rob Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, an actor whose legal drama, The Grinder, has just ended its seven year run. Dean goes back to his hometown in Idaho while he figures out what to do next. Along the way, he winds up helping his resentful younger brother, Stewart (Fred Savage), a good lawyer who becomes tongue-tied in court. Dean has no such problems performing and knows just enough legalese to be dangerous. Thus, they wind up becoming the perfect team; Stewart with the brains and Dean with the flash and celebrity. In a sense, it’s an legalese update of Remington Steele (I assume. I know nothing about Remington Steele other than the premise and that it cost Pierce Brosnan his first shot at being James Bond.)
Rob Lowe is excellent as a parody of Rob Lowe. He’s managed to take his standard earnest lawyer character and turn it slightly to the left. While his cluelessness could be obnoxious, he’s undercut it with a layer of neediness that makes the whole character palatable. Savage is also excellent as the put-upon younger brother, one who refuses to realize just how much he seethes at his sibling’s notoriety. William Devane is their father, an avuncular goofball who’s a lawyer himself. Devane is oddly suited to the role, even if it runs against his usual type. Mary Elizabeth Ellis plays Stewart’s wife, Debbie. While the role could be thankless, Ellis turns the Cheryl Hines-in-Curb-Your-Enthusiasm trick of being a surprisingly funny sounding board.
The performances of Lowe and Savage, though, clue in the show’s central difficulty. Savage’s character is grounded in reality while Lowe’s has one foot in the absurd at all times. The pilot didn’t really figure out how to make those contrasting styles work and as a result, it felt a little jumbled. A show with great potential that hasn’t quite found its way. Still, it’s a cast of solid pros and the pilot provided plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Hopefully, the show finds a groove that’s worthy of its potential.
DR. KEN (ABC)
Ken Jeong, best known as the dude with the amazingly small wang in The Hangover movies, stars, writes and executive produces this show. Jeong plays Ken Park, an occasionally abrasive, but brilliant doctor, who faces challenges at home and in the office. The show tries to be an Asian-American update of The Cosby Show and it mostly succeeds. By which I mean, it totally fails.
I hate to admit it, because 6 year old me would punch me in the nuts if he heard this, but The Cosby Show was fairly terrible. It was a hit at the tail end of the time in which a bland, inoffensive comedy could be the biggest show on television. Jeong rolls the same dice here, hoping that audiences will flock to a half-hour of him mugging and cracking terrible jokes. The show itself is an amalgamation of ideas that were done better elsewhere. I’ve already mentioned Cosby. The goofy, iconoclast doctor comes straight out Matt Frewer’s sadly forgotten, Doctor, Doctor. Even Dave Foley’s boss character is a thinly-disguised ripoff of Gary Cole’s classic Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. The supporting cast is fine, but everyone seems to stop just shy of cringing every time they tell a joke; as if they all know how terrible the material is, but nobody has the heart to tell Ken. The laugh track is in full effect, as I can’t imagine anyone laughing at this unless they were strapped to a chair and being tortured like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.
On the bright side, it was a half an hour of my life I’ll never get back.
BLOOD AND OIL
I’ll confess: this thing had me at Don Johnson. In fact, it had me ONLY because of Don Johnson. See, whoever programmed the local TV station in my hometown apparently believed they stopped making new programs after about 1987. So I grew up with more 60’s, 70’s and 80’s TV repeats than the average guy my age. Though I have vague memories of Miami Vice when it first aired, I got hooked on it years later, even when the show was hopelessly out of date. And my Don Johnson man-crush didn’t stop there. When I was in high school and college, I would barricade myself in my room and watch Nash Bridges, a secret I carried around like I’d killed a guy. I’ve been hoping for YEARS that Don Johnson would get back on my television screen. So obviously, I was going to jump at this.
Sadly, the show isn’t worthy of him. While Johnson’s great as the hard-edged, but charming oil tycoon Hap Briggs, the show around him has some issues. First, the thing is set in the booming North Dakota oil business. Within the first ten minutes, I saw mountains, moose and African-Americans; three things I’ve never actually seen in North Dakota. Research for the show seems to be the result of ten minutes on Wikipedia. Chace Crawford and Rebecca Rittenhouse play a young couple who move to the state with dreams of (and borrowed money for) opening an appliance store. (Yeah, they somehow hoodwinked their family and friends into this. I have to assume they have a lot of alcoholics in their lives.) At the beginning of the pilot, a truck accident wipes out their appliances. By the end of the pilot, they’ve leveraged their way into the oil business and have become millionaires. I’ll be honest, this is the least plausible thing I’ve ever seen on television and I frequently watch shows involving space aliens and warp drive.
There’s nothing here that you won’t see on your average repeat of Dallas. And, based on its early ratings, the show’s not going to be around very long. This is kind of a bitter disappointment for me. I would have liked my latest visit from Don Johnson to last a little longer. Even if it means sitting through dreck like this. Oh well, we’ll always have Miami.