Frequent readers of this space will know that every fall, I try to review the new shows hitting network TV. There are two problems with trying to do this: 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’s wives. Thus, if you’re like me and wait until pretty much everything has rolled out, you’re either reviewing “new” shows that have aired five or six episodes or 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 in 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 GOOD PLACE (NBC)
Back when the Fox show Prison Break first came out, I had the misfortune of spending an afternoon watching football with my father. When an ad for Prison Break would air, my father would shake his head and say, “I just don’t know how they’re going to make a whole series out of that thing. A movie, sure. But I don’t see enough there to be a TV series.” Saying that once was perfectly understandable, but my dad said it EVERY time a commercial aired for that show (and as you’re probably aware, Fox is not subtle about hawking its tawdry wares.) By the end of the afternoon, I was ready to hang my father with his own necktie (and he wasn’t even wearing one.)
Fast forward to this past summer and the number of times I was hit with ads for The Good Place (if you were watching the Olympics, trust me, it was A LOT.) And I found myself wondering the same thing my father did about Prison Break: cute idea for a show–woman goes to the afterlife, has trouble fitting in–but I didn’t see how they were going to make a series out of it. Turns out I was wrong.
Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a recently-deceased young woman who finds herself in the afterlife’s “good place” (it’s not exactly heaven as we picture it. The pilot lets us know that every religion on Earth only gets about 5% of it right.) Turns out it’s a very exclusive place, peopled by only the truly good. It’s divided into cozy little neighborhoods in which you meet the “soul mate” with whom you’ll spend eternity. For Eleanor, though, there’s just one problem:
She doesn’t belong there.
Turns out that in life, Eleanor was at best mediocre and at worst (which appears to have been most of the time) light-speed awful. Her presence in the good place has to be some kind of mistake. She confesses this to her soul mate, Chidi, a former ethics professor and humanitarian. Chidi is then caught in his own dilemma: does he rat Eleanore out or does he assist her in becoming a better person; one who’s worthy of being in the good place? And given that Eleanor’s every thoughtless action has repercussions on the entire neighborhood, just how long can they keep this a secret?
The first two episodes of the show aired back-to-back and were filled with sharp writing and excellent performances. Bell is perfect at showing us both sides of Eleanor’s personality: the selfish shrew from her worst moments and the decent person lurking inside if she could only focus on something other than herself. Ted Danson (who’s been doing network TV so long, I’m beginning to think he first teamed up with Milton Berle) plays Michael, the entity who created this neighborhood after a 200 year apprenticeship. While Michael originally seems to be a calm, fatherly guide, he’s revealed to be an insecure schmo who’s convinced that his creation must be horribly flawed (not realizing that it’s Eleanor who is causing the trouble.) Danson is a welcomed presence, aptly showing both sides of the character. William Jackson Harper, as Chidi, is given less to do early on, but shows definite potential (he had my favorite line in the pilot, responding to the stress of his situation with Eleanor: “I have a stomach ache. I’m in a utopian paradise and I have stomach ache.”)
The premise leaves plenty of room for character development (Eleanor’s journey toward, hopefully, being a better person) and dramatic tension (how long can she keep the mistake from being discovered and what was the cause of it in the first place?) I’m not sure how they can get multiple seasons out of this concept, but I’ve been wrong about the show up to this point. I’d be glad to be proven wrong again.
Sight unseen, it would easy to dismiss Speechless as another slightly-edgy family comedy, brewed from the same kettle that’s given us Modern Family, The Middle and Blackish. And it certainly has elements of those; centering on a family that, despite their differences, must stay together because, really, who the hell else would want these people? It’s a formula that allows quirky humor and genuine emotion to run side-by-side without either of them feeling forced. Speechless not only grasps that formula, it has the potential to take it to deeper levels.
Speechless follows the DiMeo family: Maya, the domineering mother (Minnie Driver), Jimmy, the easy-going father (John Ross Bowie), J.J., a high schooler with cerebral palsy (Micah Fowler), Ray, the neurotic middle kid (Mason Cook) and Dylan, the athletic daughter (Kyla Kenedy). In the pilot, the family moves into a rundown house in a better neighborhood, allowing the kids to attend the latest in a string of schools. While the school prides itself on being inclusive, the way the staff and students fawn over J.J. and the way his mother fiercely protects him undermines J.J.’s desire to be a regular kid. Meantime, the rest of the kids, particularly Ray, struggle to fit in and to get their parents’ attention. On top of that, J.J. must find someone to speak for him after the family runs off his latest helper.
Like Modern Family and the other ABC comedies, Speechless veers back and forth between outlandish comedy and family drama. In the case of Speechless, it works because the characters feel grounded in reality. Everyone in the family has been shaped by raising a special needs child, but nobody dreams of asking for sympathy or pity. Even in the kids, their complaints seem to be a convenient excuse for the usual teenage angst (you’re left with the impression if it wasn’t this, it would be something else.) The lack of cheap pathos gives the show a depth of feeling that brings the audience closer to the characters.
The cast is uniformly terrific. Fowler provides a range of expression that overcomes whatever physical limitations he might have. Driver consistently undercuts Maya’s domineering tendencies right at the point where we might lose sympathy for her. Cook’s and Bowie’s contrasting personalities turn their father-son relationship into a good comedy team. Cedric Yarbrough, as J.J.’s new helper, Kenneth, provides an avuncular likability and dry humor that makes him the perfect audience conduit into this family. If there’s a downside, it’s that the show hasn’t found a use yet for Kenedy, though there certainly seems to be potential.
Speechless creator Scott Silveri knows of which he speaks, having grown up in a family with a special needs child. As a result, there’s something that feels very real about the show and where it could potentially go. We could find ourselves taken to places both funny and heartfelt by a collection of characters we grow more fond of each week.
DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (ABC)
For those not in the know, when the President of the United States delivers the State of the Union address, one Cabinet member is left out of the proceedings in case a catastrophic event wipes out the President, the Vice-President, the Cabinet and all members of Congress. (I’m guessing that such an event is starting to sound good to all of us right about now.) It’s done to ensure the line of succession and prevent the country from falling into chaos. (Personal note: I first found out about the existence of the designated survivor while watching The West Wing a number of years ago. A show based off such an event feels like my fictional Presidential chickens coming home to roost.)
Kiefer Sutherland plays Thomas Kirkman, the lightly-regarded Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. How lightly-regarded? He finds out on the morning of the State of the Union that he’s going to be sacked from the Cabinet and offered a lightly-regarded U.N. Ambassadorship as a golden parachute. It’s implied that his status as the designated survivor is a mark of how far he’s fallen in the President’s eyes. When a bomb devastates the U.S. Capitol, killing everyone inside, Kirkman suddenly finds himself President of a United States in crisis.
The pilot of Designated Survivor unfolds, more or less, in real time (with a few flashbacks thrown in) covering the first hour of Kirkman’s Presidency. As one might expect, there’s a fair bit of chaos, with some pathos and intrigue thrown in for good measure. Sutherland reacts to all of this in a most un-Jack Bauer-like manner, looking largely overwhelmed by the sudden responsibility thrust upon him. He makes good (if too frequent) use of his 1950’s style nerd glasses as a way of illustrating his attempts to overcome his timidity. Sutherland does an excellent job of conveying the character’s panic without being over the top.
There are, of course, logistical issues with Designated Survivor. If hit by a bomb powerful enough to blow it up, the U.S. Capitol would still be burning by morning. There certainly wouldn’t be time enough for first responders to find another (dummy) bomb. It would probably take more than about five minutes to ascertain that the President, the Vice-President, all 15 Cabinet members and all 535 members of Congress have been killed and a new President must be sworn in. In such an emergency, it’s unlikely that the Secret Service would let the new President out of their sight long enough for him to have sidebar conversations with his wife and kids. In the flashback sequences, the life of a Cabinet Secretary looks pretty cushy. Kirkman has time to lay in bed with his wife and bother her for sex, make breakfast for the kids and get home in time for an evening cocktail. I know insurance salesmen who put in longer days. Also, when Kirkman gets the call letting him know what he’ll be doing during the State of the Union, he responds by saying, “What’s a designated survivor?” Really? The show indicates that Kirkman’s been a Cabinet Secretary for three years and he’s never heard of a designated survivor?
Now, those things aren’t bothersome in and of themselves. Compressed time, for example, is a narrative device going back to Shakespeare. But taken on the whole, they create a potential problem for the series. While watching the pilot, I couldn’t help thinking back to In The Shadow of Two Gunmen, the extraordinary second season opener of The West Wing. While dealing with a national crisis on a smaller level (the attempted assassination of a President) that episode’s pace, urgency and attention to detail made it feel genuine. Designated Survivor, on the other hand, plays rather fast-and-loose with the details, leading me to think it will be nothing more than a high-end soap opera like Scandal or Quantico. That might be fine for some, but with a premise as gripping as this, it would be a real let down.
THIS IS US (NBC)
This Is Us follows four seemingly-random people, beginning on their 36th birthday. Jack, whose wife Rebecca is pregnant with triplets, Kate, who’s struggling with obesity, Kevin, Kate’s twin brother, an actor starring in an air-headed sitcom called The Manny and Randall, a successful businessman who is given the name of the biological father who left him outside a fire station as a baby. Each of them deal with a crisis of sorts on their birthday. Rebecca goes into labor six weeks early. Kate meets someone she likes at an obesity support group, but doesn’t feel worthy of him. Kevin’s had enough of the idiotic sitcom he clearly feels is beneath his talent. Randall tries to come to some sort of resolution with his biological father. Without giving anything away, the people and events in the pilot are not as random as they seem. Fans of Modern Family may be familiar with the twist and will know that it’s been taken to another level.
Certainly, the pilot for This Is Us presents a ton of possibilities…largely due to the twist I don’t want to give away. PRIOR to the ending, it felt rather hit-and-miss. Jack and Rebecca’s storyline has the most consequence and benefits from the presence of veteran actor Gerald McRaney, playing a doctor called in to deliver the triplets. (The shame, of course, is that McRaney, who’s terrific in the pilot, won’t be a regular on the show.) Randall’s storyline is emotional and well-acted. Kevin’s and Kate’s storylines, though, seem to have the same poor me self-indulgence of your typical family drama. Kate’s segment is enlivened by the presence of Chris Sullivan as Kate’s potential love interest, Toby. Sullivan’s dry humor runs counter to the attempts at pathos and is one of the best things in the pilot.
While the pilot wasn’t perfect, there’s plenty to like about This Is Us. The twist ending provides rich storytelling possibilities. The cast is very solid, frequently providing performances that transcend the material. Some of the scenes are quite affecting. It will be a matter of exploring these characters in a way that truly connects to the audience. Certainly, there’s potential. And that, ultimately, is what you most need from a pilot.