Your TV table (how to tell if a new series is going to make it)

Two new TV shows will run on Wednesday nights this fall.  Back to You airs on Fox at 8:00. It stars Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton.  Life airs at 10 on NBC and stars the lesser known Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi. 

Life has life.  It is a cop show procedural with a difference.  Many differences.  Actually, it renovates the genre almost completely.  Life does to cop show what House did to the medical drama, breaks most of the rules to good effect.  There is a putative reason why Life is genre busting, it’s that the principal character has been rendered more or less insane by 12 years of false and very dangerous incarceration, a cop imprisoned with criminals.  The less obvious reason is that writers and producers have taken up the new freedoms that cable brought to the networks, and mainstream culture. 

Back to You doesn’t…have life, that is.   This is comedy as if ripped from the pages of the genre handbook.  Not even actors as talented as Grammer and Heaton can get it airborn.  It’s like watching a game of ping pong under water.  You can see the jokes coming  long way off.  Vaudeville comedy in an era of improv. 

The good thing is we like Grammer and Heaton.  We care about the show because we liked these actors in Cheers, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond.   And this affection will force us to watch as the show slowly loses altitude.  The first program got over 9 million viewers.  We will watch this number erode steadily.

The secret of TV in our new culture is that it must skillfully defy expectation.  It must work with what we know and take us somewhere we haven’t been before.  Life does this nicely.  Not least because Lewis is a great actor, and the latest proof that in the our new culture, talent counts more than good looks.  (And if this isn’t a measure of how much our culture has changed, I don’t know what is.)

Below, is my "TV table."  (Or you may think of it as one of those fiberglass trays that held TV dinners while Americans watched TV in the 1950s.)  Left to right, the dimension is whether we care about the characters in a new show.  Top to bottom, the dimension is whether we can tell what is going to happen in any given episode to any given character.  Back to You falls in quadrant 1 because we do care about the characters and we can tell exactly what is going to happen to them.   And so on.  (I would offer more exposition, but I really have to get going.  Plus, I respect my reader’s ability to work it our for themselves.  Blogging is part of the new culture too.)


3 thoughts on “Your TV table (how to tell if a new series is going to make it)

  1. Ivan


    I’ve got to say that, while I agree with the basic premise of what you’re claiming about television here, I actually found the first episode of LIFE to be a pretty disappointing experience… not because it wasn’t well-acted, or decent entertainment; it was both.

    The problem for me, as you’ve touched upon in your own comments, is that it was*way* too much like House-in-reverse: take a tired procedural formula, choose a strong lead actor, then have them act quirky as hell. A doctor who hates everyone and spouts biting one-liners? A cop who loves everyone and spouts zen aphorisms? And both of them are tolerated by their (fictional) colleagues and (non-fictional) audiences because they’re just too damn talented and charming not to like.

    Problem is, LIFE feels *too* much like someone at NBC said, “House is a consistent success. People love Hugh Laurie. We need one of those on our network too.” And the result (if the pilot was any indication) is a show that tries too hard to be quirky, and doesn’t take its time establishing both the nature and depth of those quirks, nor provide a solid and plausible explanation for them. We know our detective takes a zen approach gained during his 10+ years of wrongful imprisonment, but nothing we see in the pilot indicates much about *why* that experience would have that particular influence on him. As a result, when I was watching, I felt like the prison-backstory was an excuse, not an explanation.

    But: perhaps I’m over-reading this, or alone in my sentiment. I’d be curious to know your take on this assessment of the show.

  2. Grant

    Ivan, thanks for a great comment. I’m happy when there’s any departure from form, happier still when there is a continuous departure from form, and still happy even when an anti-form form. You are absolutely right. Life is House in a new genre. But it does so much for the genre that…well, as I say, I am happy. In a more perfectly world, every bit of TV (and popular culture) would be unprecedented, neither coming from form, nor helping to create one. Or maybe not. I think we like thinks form, and the thing about popular culture at the moment is that we are, some of us, (perhaps most of us) saying that things don’t have to be as formed as they once were. Thanks again. Hoping to see you at the MIT do in November. Grant

  3. Tom Guarriello

    I’ll definitely check out Life on the basis of that review, Grant.

    As for House, I’m finished with him. He started becoming tedious for me mid-season last year. I knew I’d had it when I found myself hoping he’d run out of drugs and go into withdrawal on air. Oops. No longer appealing. Intellectually the show still had some attraction but emotionally he’d burned too many bridges for me. So, I stopped watching.

    Did the cops every come back into the story? Hope so.

    Now, Vic Mackey, of Shield, there’s a nasty s-o-b I can respect. House just started coming off like an abusive wise-ass punk.

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