Television

Fall's New Primetime Shows Launch with an Inconsequential Whimper

The crumbling remains of network premiere season tumble out of the gate Monday.

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  • Bob (Hearts) Abishola. CBS. Monday, September 23, 8:30 p.m.
  • All Rise. CBS. Monday, September 23, 9 p.m.
  • Prodigal Son. Fox. Monday, September 23, 9 p.m.
  • Bluff City Law. NBC. Monday, September 23, 10 p.m.

For years, observers (though not many participants) have wondered when broadcast television would get rid of its annual fall rollout of new shows. Cable TV manages to do without it. And with programs debuting all year round, the broadcast model no longer leans on it.  Sinking all those promotional resources into a single, highly competitive week doesn't make much sense.

The answer to the question of when broadcast TV will wise up may be, it already has. There are only 22 new shows this season, split among among five networks. And if you start eliminating spinoffs (Mixed-ish, meet Batwoman) and remakes (Nancy Drew, meet Kids Say the Darndest Things), well, it seems the fall rollout already has one desiccated foot in the grave.

If all this is making you feel like you've just been chatting with Debbie Downer, just wait until you've seen some of the shows. Lesbian vigilantes! Self-actualizing choirs! Middle-aged daters! A guy falls in love with his nurse but she's Nigerian! If this TV season had a battle cry, it would be "Death to all American brain cells!"

Monday, the first season's first day, is wretchedly typical. You can choose from that  unfunny-as-it-sounds falling-in-love-with-a-Nigerian sitcom (admit it, you thought I was making that one up); two smugly self-celebratory progressive dramas; and a cop drama about a son of a serial killer who becomes a cop who hunts serial killers that's so weirdly stupid that it might actually be good. Or, then again, just weird and stupid.

The serial-killer saga is Fox's Prodigal Son, starring Tom Payne (The Walking Dead) as Malcolm Bright, an NYPD profiler, and Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex), as his physician pop Martin Whitley, better known as "The Surgeon" for the skill with which he carved up a score or more of his victims. Malcolm was about 10 when his father was arrested.

When Prodigal Son begins, he's 30 or so, and the two have been estranged for a decade.  But back when Malcolm was a wee college lad learning the criminology biz, he used to go by the criminal nuthatch where his Lecter-esque dad was locked up to pick up some tips on serial killers and trade the newest Jeffrey Dahmer jokes.

"It's so much fun to talk shop!" exclaimed his father on one of these festive afternoons. But you know how rebellious kids are. Eventually Malcolm walked out, never to return—until now. A copycat killer is reenacting some of The Surgeon's greatest hits.

Not everybody thinks these consultations are a good idea. The FBI fired Malcolm rather than let him return. "We're afraid you might suffer from certain psychotic inclinations, not unlike your father's," explains a kindly supervisor. It's not out of the question: Malcolm takes half a dozen pills each day to control palpitations and night terrors, unsuccessfully. Could it be that, as a little boy, he knew more about his father's after-hours work than he let on?

However unlikely, Prodigal Son's premise is not uninteresting. (Something quite similar worked pretty well for Showtime's Dexter for eight seasons, after all.) And the show's later scenes have some real power.

But the early going is badly undermined by frequent and hammy flashbacks to childhood scenes between Malcolm and his father. The result is a campy tinge that often makes Prodigal Son play like dinner-theater melodrama.

Even so, it's practically Playhouse 90 compared to its Monday competition. CBS's All Rise and NBC's Bluff City Law are nominally different legal dramas, but I'm surprised their unctuously noble lefty characters are cut from such identical cloth (union-milled and -cut, of course) that I'm surprised they don't get confused and wander into one another's courtrooms to deliver their pompous homilies.

For instance, on All Rise: "There's a constitution to protect!" barks newly appointed Judge Lola Carmichael (Simone Missick, who lately has been playing one-armed superhero Misty Knight in the Marvel Comics TV shows) on her way to her courtroom

Now compare that to Bluff City Law: "The world's running out of heroes!" shouts attorney Elijah Strait (Jimmy Smits) at his lawyer daughter Sydney (Caitlin McGee, You're the Worst), demanding that she stop defending corporate clients and join his poverty-pimping team of class-action warriors.

All Rise is set in Los Angeles, though as much as it makes of Judge Carmichael being black, you'll be forgiven if you think it's actually 1955 Mississippi. Its main conviction seems to be that judges should function not as neutral arbiters of the law but as assistants to defense lawyers and that empathy, rather than evidence, should govern judicial outcomes.

Bluff City Law takes place in Memphis, where Sydney Strait repents and joins the family firm, only to spend every break in the courtroom crying in the bathroom because she just cares so damn much for her new clients, unlike the Darth Vader corporations she used to represent. She and her partners hold hands, exchange little Post-it notes with messages like "Change The World!" and daintily dab their faces with tissues to absorb the integrity oozing from their pores. This is all less enthralling than it sounds.

So is Bob (Hearts) Abishola, an improbable whiff from the shop of Chuck Lorre, whose producing credits include The Big Bang TheoryMike & Molly and Two and A Half Men. Why he thought this show was, well, a show, is the biggest television mystery since who-shot-JR.

The premise of Bob (Hearts) Abishola is simple: A white Detroit shoe manufacturer (Billy Gardell, Mike & Molly) has a heart attack and wakes up in love with his Nigerian ER nurse (Folake Olowofoyeku, Transparent).

What happens after that is, pretty much, nothing. They have zero chemistry. They do not go on a date. They do not say anything funny. Though the laugh track does go bonkers when Olowofoyeku asks Gardell, "Would you like me to insert a catheter in your penis?" At least, I hope it was a laugh track.

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  1. >>Bluff City Law

    figured was about a firm in the Quad Cities and Jimmy Smits was going to tell us how to be all Midwestern … your story is worse

    1. Sᴛᴀʀᴛ ᴡᴏʀᴋɪɴɢ ғʀᴏᴍ ʜᴏᴍᴇ! Gʀᴇᴀᴛ ᴊᴏʙ ғᴏʀ sᴛᴜᴅᴇɴᴛs, sᴛᴀʏ-ᴀᴛ-ʜᴏᴍᴇ ᴍᴏᴍs ᴏʀ ᴀɴʏᴏɴᴇ ɴᴇᴇᴅɪɴɢ ᴀɴ ᴇxᴛʀᴀ ɪɴᴄᴏᴍᴇ… …….. Read More

  2. Has Trump named a replacement for Madame Secretary yet? I suggest he go with Roseanne Barr.

  3. CBS’s All Rise and NBC’s Bluff City Law are nominally different legal dramas, but I’m surprised their unctuously noble lefty characters are cut from such identical cloth

    Let’s try this again, while my first attempt awaits moderation:

    This is just like fall 2002, when CBS and ABC rolled out two equally imbecilic shows about the Supreme Court — First Monday (starring James Garner, who should have known better) and The Court (with Sally Field as Justice Kate Nolan).

  4. What’s happening to broadcast television and cable right now is an excellent example of creative destruction–and what that means for consumers.

    There should be a show about broadcast and cable executives being forced to eat their own shit on a reality show to stay in business, but that’s pretty much what we’re seeing in real life anyway.

    We dreamed of a day when the broadcast networks and the cable companies would implode for lack of interest, and looking at the state of their collapsing market positions, it looks like our dreams are coming true.

    Imagine if someone came in and tried to save the broadcast networks and cable companies from competition at this point, and you’d basically have the argument against international trade in a nutshell. Can you imagine?

    I’m paying $25 a month for live TV at this point. We’ve never had so many options available–and for such a low cost. Consumers of television entertainment have never had it so good, and who’s crying for the likes of CBS or AT&T? We should celebrate their collapse–like Margret Thatcher enjoying the closing of an inefficient coal mine–and for all the same reasons, too.

    1. “There should be a show about broadcast and cable executives being forced to eat their own shit on a reality show to stay in business, but that’s pretty much what we’re seeing in real life anyway.”
      Gotta wait until Trump is out of office. Have him host it and use the new catch phrase, “You’ve been dumped”. Then we see the television executive walk off the set with a shit-covered mouth. Then Joe Rogan makes him eat bugs and sloth testicles before throwing him out of a speeding vehicle.
      I’d watch an episode or two.

    2. I am basically getting all of broadcast and tv shows for free. Since I pay for the highest speed internet + phone bundle, both of which I need for work anyway it would cost more to drop the cable channels. I have Roku and the only thing I pay extra for is Netflix.

      Curious about the new Disney streaming service coming out this fall.

  5. “If all this is making you feel like you’ve just been chatting with Debbie Downer, just wait until you’ve seen some of the shows. Lesbian vigilantes! Self-actualizing choirs! Middle-aged daters! A guy falls in love with his nurse but she’s Nigerian! If this TV season had a battle cry, it would be “Death to all American brain cells!””

    Poor Garvin’s anguished cries on the Satellite of love are audible all the way down on the surface of the Earth.

    Is he in fact the only one watching network TV today? Him and some of the most hardened prison inmates with particularly sadistic guards.

    (But how do the guards protect themselves from the effect of these programs? They can’t very well put cotton in their ears, they wouldn’t hear the suicide attempts of – wait, I think I have a hypothesis on the Epstein case – too soon?)

  6. The best shows this year have been Perpetual Grace Ltd. and Pennyworth.

  7. Why are there so many shows on TV glorifying cops and useless Firepeople?

    1. I think there was a Jetsons episode where every show on TV was about lawyers and doctors. Who knew Hanna-Barbera were prophets?

      1. Which one was hotter Jane Jetson or Betty Rubble?

        I’m going Jane.

      2. Hanna and Barbera.

    2. Soap operas for women. They are ‘hunky’ cops and firefighters. Like the ER shows. The females are just there for the drama.

  8. Watch BBT on youtube without the laugh track, and see how unfunny it really was. Mostly it was haha NERDS like Ogre screaming from the balcony.

    1. I’ve never seen the appeal of that show. Laugh tracks feel out of place these days. The characters always felt too fake to hold immersion and the pacing is too choppy. Maybe the biggest problem for me was that it is constant cringe for anyone who grew up as a nerd.

    2. BBT didn’t have a laugh track, it was filmed before a live studio audience. Chuck Lorre may play to the lowest common denominator, but nobody ever went broke underestimating the public’s taste.

  9. Television? What’s that?

    I haven’t watched television in fifteen years. What a colossal waste of time.

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