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.)