Enjoy the Tiny Scraps of the Fall Premiere Season
At least television networks have COVID-19 to blame for the dire state of shows this year.
- World's Funniest Animals. The CW. Friday, September 18, 9 p.m.
- L.A.'s Finest. Fox. Monday, September 21, 8 p.m.
- Filthy Rich. Fox. Monday, September 21, 9 p.m.
- Manhunt: Deadly Games. CBS. September 21, 10 p.m.
Autumn has always been broadcast television's spring, the time when new life—however Frankensteinish it may be in some years—bursts into bloom. But in 2020, The Year of the Plague, it's more like the dead of winter. Television production has largely been shut down by the coronavirus, and the usual fall banquet of TV is more like a light snack, and of leftovers at that.
Of the dozen "new" shows debuting over the next month (down from 20 to 30 in a normal fall), a mere five are truly new productions. Everything else is a remake, a reboot or a refugee from the distant corners of the cable-TV gulag. Not since the days when television mainly consisted of test patterns and barn dances has new programming been less prized.
You can get a neat summation in the fall season's very first week, when two of the four debuts are drama series that have already run in their entirety on the Spectrum video-on-demand service.
That doesn't exactly make them Gilligan's Island or Happy Days, aired so much that American babies are seemingly born with the scripts imprinted on their brains: Spectrum, still in its infancy, has relatively few viewers and isn't even available in every state. But it takes a little gumption to label them premieres.
They are, however, solid entertainment. The stupidly-titled Manhunt: Deadly Games is a crisp, absorbing recounting of the search for the bomber who killed two people and injured 150 others at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. And L.A.'s Finest is a female-buddy cop drama that shows a deft touch in mixing tart humor with impressively violent action sequences.
Comparisons between CBS' Manhunt and Clint Eastwood's film Richard Jewell, which largely follow the same story of law-enforcement and media screw-ups during the investigation of the Olympics bombing, seem inevitable. But I won't be making them; I was in process of moving across the country in December when Eastwood's film had its brief and disastrous theatrical run, and missed it. (Reason's Kurt Loder, however, didn't.)
The two, however, shared the same general story line: How the FBI, with generous help from a grotesquely careless news media, first framed an innocent and heroic man—Richard Jewell, the sharp-eyed security guard who actually spotted the bomb and triggered an evacuation that saved hundreds of lives—for the crime, then dithered ineffectually for five years until apprehending the real bomber.
Veteran producer-director Michael Dinner does a good job identifying and defining his numerous characters (Eric Rudolph, the right-wing-militia bomber, doesn't even appear until the third episode, and doesn't get much screen time until the sixth), which helps clarify what might have been a confusing mélange of story lines.
Dinner's aided immensely by winning turns by Gethin Anthony as a steely FBI agent who values arrest box scores vastly ahead of actual guilt or innocence, a performance the polar opposite of his wild-eyed portrayal of Charles Manson in NBC's Aquarius, and Arliss Howard (Rubicon) as a homey BATF bomb expert who resists the FBI juggernaut.
Best of all is Cameron Britton (Stitchers) as Jewell, who manages to make his character at once a self-important and prickly would-be Rambo and yet also a vulnerable ordinary guy, confounded being flattened by indifferent and incompetent institutions.
If there's a criticism to be made of Manhunt, it's that the show is invested with a certain paranoia, with the FBI and the mayor of Atlanta almost openly plotting to come up with a quick arrest of anybody at hand. "We need a suspect, and we need him before the Olympics close," barks one senior FBI official at a meeting in Washington. Evidence? We don't need no stinking evidence.
Maybe. But the fact that the FBI and BATF guys, as far as I can tell, are fictionalized characters makes me wonder how much evidence there really is. Enjoy Manhunt as a compelling cop drama, not as history.
Fox's L.A.'s Finest has moments as grim-eyed as anything in Manhunt, but they're leavened considerably by the badinage between robbery-homicide detectives Syd Burnett (Gabrielle Union, reprising a role she originated in the 2003 film Bad Boys II) and Nancy McKenna (Jessica Alba) as they crash cars and shoot perps. Everything from book clubs to the emailed photos of on-line dating candidates. ("Hey, is that a Toblerone?") Also as amusing: McKenna's teenage daughter Izzy (Sophie Reynolds), who reads woke tomes like A Feminist Guide to Female Serial Killers while brooding about the intersectionality of having a cop and a prosecutor for parents— "It's like I live in a surveillance state."
The bang-bang in L.A.'s Finest is long and loud—two car chases and two shootouts in the first 12 minutes—but it's too well-staged to complain about. And the lurid back stories of the detectives—even their secrets have secrets—keep things interesting even in the infrequent moments when nobody is being tortured or killed.
The two shows swiped from Spectrum look even better when contrasted with the authentic network fare of the week. Fox's Filthy Rich is based on a New Zealand nighttime soap of the same name that enjoys the twin distinctions of being the most expensive TV show in the country's history as well as the most-heavily subsidized, consuming $10 million (U.S.) in taxpayer money before sinking without a trace.
It seems unlikely that remaking the show as a Southern gothic, drawing heavily on the Jim and Tammy Bakker scandals of the 1980s, will make it any more successful. Kim Cattrall and a don't-quit-your-day-job supporting cast play members of a wealthy and secretly scandalous televangelist family whose secrets are exposed when the patriarch's plane crashes and three scruffily illegitimate heirs surface. The only thing more hacky than the script is Cattrall's wayward Southern accent.
Then there's World's Funniest Animals, The CW's attempt to elevate surfing cat videos on the internet into the status of an actual TV show. Dogs skateboard! Ostriches dance! A Canadian cat tries to fiercely pounce on his own butthole, which seems metaphoric! A lemur eats a banana, which, God help us, is even less interesting than it sounds. And baby elephants wrestle teenage girls, but forget it, dude, it's not in a back seat, and only the elephants are naked.