Primetime Television Struggles to Launch a New Fall Season
There are only a dozen new shows hitting the airwaves this month.
- The Big Leap. Fox. Monday, September 20, 9 p.m.
- NCIS: Hawai'i. CBS. Monday, September 20, 10 p.m.
- Ordinary Joe. NBC. Monday, September 20, 10 p.m.
Like a vampire in the night, COVID-19 is draining the blood from the broadcast TV industry. (Hey, that could be a new pilot! Count Nielsen, Vampire! Hang on while I call my agent.) Outbreaks and public health decrees are chewing up production schedules, while reruns are on the rise along with TV alternatives like podcasts. The result is that TV ratings—to stick with the vampire theme—are withering away like David Bowie at the end of The Hunger. Some weeks during the 2020-21 television season, ratings were down 15 percent or more. Can the dreaded return of the printed word be far behind?
Whether the times are really as dire as all that, there's no doubt that the fall broadcast TV season is in tatters. Excluding reality and competition shows—and a remake of Fantasy Island that I'll thank you not to mention in my presence ever again—there are only a dozen new show this fall, a bunch of them spinoffs, sequels and reboots. That's the lowest number since sometime in the primordial television ooze of the 1950s.
Not surprisingly, there's little in this batch of new shows to reverse trend. There's one pretty good comedy, one police-procedural clone that will undoubtedly find some fans precisely because it resembles all the other police procedurals, and a thoroughgoing dud in which NBC has ripped off the format, but none of the quality, of one of its own dramas.
The dud is Ordinary Joe, a soapy drama in which James Wolk (Zoo) plays one guy in three alternate time lines. The concept is clearly drawn from NBC's massive five-season hit This Is Us, in which the story of a single troubled family is traced through constant flashbacks. Unfortunately, NBC's clueless programming execs failed to notice what any viewer could have told them: The success of This Is Us is due not to gimmicky chronology but an outstanding cast and piquant screenwriting, none of which Ordinary Joe has.
Ordinary Joe starts out with Wolk's character Joe Kimbreau, an aspiring musician, showing up late to his Syracuse graduation ceremony 10 years ago and literally bumping into a comely political-science-major classmate named Amy (Natalie Martinez, The Stand). Meanwhile, off somewhere in the crowd of caps and gowns lurks Joe's best-friend-with-occasional-benefits, the law-school-bound Jenny (Elizabeth Lail, Freeform's Dead of Summer). Now Joe has a choice: ask the seemingly receptive Amy for a date; accept a casual dinner invitation from Jenny; or have a drink with his uncle, who wants Joe to continue the family cop tradition.
What follows are the tales of three lives Joe might have lived—cop, nurse, rock star—depending on his choice, with Amy and Jenny connected in various configurations, which I would be happy to explain to you if I remotely understood them. Ordinary Joe does an appallingly poor job of differentiating its time-lines (Is this the one with the crippled baby or the twins? The marriage or the divorce?) and the problem is only exacerbated by the blandly generic performances of the three principals. (I can't bring myself to use the word stars.) "Do you ever get that feeling that one choice could change your whole life?" Joe asks at the start of the pilot episode. I do, and I tell you with certainty that choosing to watch Ordinary Joe will leave you tormented with boredom, ennui and the vague but insistent urge to tear out your eyes.
NCIS: Hawai'I isn't quite as mind-numbing as Ordinary Joe, but as they say in horseshoes and hand grenades, close enough to count. Commissioned, apparently, because CBS was canceling Hawaii Five-O rather give its out-of-contract stars a big raise, the new NCIS (the, God help us, fourth edition) show offers the same mixture of gorgeous scenery, cardboard characters and mindless violence. The only differences between the Five-O and NCIS versions are the woke spelling of Hawai'i in the latter, no doubt CBS' idea of a blow against American imperialism and ethnic oppression, and the regrettable absence of the Ventures.
The NCIS cops include Vanessa Lachey (BH90210) as the grim-faced commander, Yasmine Al-Bustami (The Chosen) as her grim-faced young flunkie, Tori Anderson (No Tomorrow) as her grim-faced DIA rival, and Alex Tarrant (800 Words) and Noah Mills (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) as various interchangeable grim-faced minions. In a nod to diversity, Antoon (Claws) plays a cyber-intelligence specialist who rolls his eyes because he's craaaaaazy.
There's much grunting of things like "I'm not implying anything! I'm only going where the case takes me!" and "Let me do the worrying!"—all of it spoken really fast in hopes that you won't notice how much of the script is meaningless jargon, procedural boilerplate, or leftover lines from other NCIS shows. By the way, if you insist on watching NCIS: Hawai'i in order to dispose of those excess brain cells clogging your neural pathways, never ever miss the first 10 seconds because that's when stuff blows up. The show may not have any money for acting or dialogue, but the TNT budget never seems to go low.
I fully expected Fox's The Big Leap to be at least as mindless as Ordinary Joe and NCIS: Hawai'i. A kind of show-within-a-show, it's about a collection of has-beens, never-weres and oh-god-what-were-they-thinkings? trying out for a TV reality show in which the winning contestants will stage a live production of Swan Lake. And, to my amazement, it's funny, slightly daft, and wonderfully contemptuous of not only the reality genre but the entirety of television. Where else would you ever see brother-and-sister twins dry-hump one another during a dance tryout while a producer screams to his assistant, "Call research and see how incest plays in the Midwest!"
The Big Leap was created and written by Liz Heldens, whose impressive screenwriting credits cover everything from the Texas high-school football drama Friday Night Lights to the underrated modern vampire tale The Passage. Her new show is based on, or inspired by, or malignly influenced by an actual British reality show, Big Ballet, in which amateur dancers whose size may be deduced from the title really do perform ballets. If you're puzzling over who might watch such a show and why, keep in mind that a few years ago, Brits flocked to a BBC show called Fat Men Can't Hunt in which porcine contestants were dumped out in an African desert and left to chase down emus and such.
There are no real people—or emus, either—in The Big Leap, and the contestants are not all overweight. A lot of them are just people who, for one reason or other, got left behind by life and would like to catch up. Gabby (newcomer Simon Recasner) and Justin (TV character actor Raymond Cham Jr.) were hip-hop dance champs in high school before their careers were run off the tracks by her pregnancy. Julia (Teri Polo, The West Wing) is a former ballerina who aged out of the profession and now does a podcast about the joy of, well, not being young. ("We don't use the o-word in this house," she warns the kids. "Aging is a wonderful, wonderful journey," she insists to her listeners. She might feel differently if she knew her husband was locked in his office all day immersed in the website suburbanjugs.com.
Then there's Mike (Jon Rudnitsky, Catch-22), a laid-off auto worker whose wife just left him for another guy—and Paula (Piper Perabo, Covert Affairs), an auto manufacturer bean-counter who, unknown to either of them, sent Mike's job to Mexico. Others include the twincesters, a plus-size S&M pole dancer and a former Detroit Lions tight end whose retirement was accelerated by propensities for alcohol and showing up at practice naked. The contestants are continually whipped into line by Monica Sullivan (Mallory Jansen, Agents of S.H.I.E.D.) one of the show's judges, who's clearly modeled after American Idol's waspish Simon Fuller—except that Fuller, off-camera, is an amiable guy, and Monica is not. "If I got in a car crash, do you think I could get out of my contract?" she whispers to a producer after a particularly excruciating audition.
Consistently funny and with a keen sense of humor about itself—the cast itself muses aloud on the surrealness of elaborate song-and-dance numbers breaking out in bowling alleys and fire escapes—The Big Leap is first and foremost a comedy, and a good one. But it's also a sympathetic pat on the back for everybody feeling battered by COVID, the recession, and the O-word. "It's a hard time to be alive," one of Mike's pals murmurs to him after an angry confrontation with his wife. In The Big Leap, at least for a few minutes, it's not.