Speechless. ABC. Wednesday, September 21, 8:30 p.m.
Designated Survivor. ABC. Wednesday, September 21, 10 p.m.
Notorious. ABC. Thursday, September 22, 9 p.m.
Pitch. Fox. Thursday, September 22, 9 p.m.
As the big rollout week of the fall TV season reaches midpoint, it's a wonderful life for female baseball players, chiefs of dorky cabinet departments, wheelchair kids, sleazebucket pols and the parasitic reporters attached to their veins—and especially TV viewers. The latest batch of new broadcast shows offers a lot of pleasures, even if some of them are guilty—very guilty.
Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs) plays Julia George, the icy producer of America's top cable-news show. "She decides what the country cares about," murmurs a breathlessly awed assistant. "She creates heroes and monsters, victims and villains." Her secret accomplice in this is Los Angeles power lawyer Jake Gregorian (Daniel Sunjata, Graceland), who publicly pretends to feud with Julia while secretly slipping her secrets that make him, if not always necessarily his clients, look good.
Their sleazy good times, however, are interrupted when one of Julia's ex-hooker staffers discovers that Julia's federal-judge fiance is a gourmet consumer of call girls, while a client of Jake's is murdered just before she's scheduled to appear on the show. Homicidal hijinks ensue, including lots of lovably sordid stunts by the show's voracious cougar anchor (Kate Jenning Grant, Frost/Nixon) and its stalkerazzi intern (Ryan Guzman, Pretty Little Liars).
There's probably no single thing here you haven't seen in one TV show or another. What makes Notorious different is that they all happen at once in a 42-minute package. In practically every frame, somebody is suppressing a news story or submarining a client or engaging in gleeful sexual predation, often all at the same time. It's hard to say which comes off as worse or more priapic in Notorious, journalism or the law; or what the reporters and lawyers enjoy more, extortion or squalid sex.
The exuberant and universal cynicism of Notorious makes it a lot of fun to watch, even as your concept of morality shrivels up like a vampire in the sun. Not that the show won't force you to ask some searching questions.
For instance: Notorious is supposedly based on the relationship between attorney Mark Geragos (of Gary Condit and Scott Peterson fame) and former Larry King Live producer Wendy Walker, both of whom get producer credits. Even in a confessional age when murderers post their kills on Facebook, you can only wonder if the lure of television celebrity has done so much damage to the human genetic code that we're on the verge of species suicide when people are willing—even anxious—to make a show celebrating their own feral treachery. If that's too existential for you, then count up all the dressing-room couplings at Notorious' notional network and try to guess how the number stacks up against one of Roger Ailes' wet dreams.
The appeal of ABC's new sitcom Speechless is less sketchy, if somewhat more surprising, unless you're among the avant-garde TV audience that's been longing for the networks to take that long-overdue comic look at cerebral palsy.
But ABC has become increasingly adept in making comedies on hot-button issues ranging from race (Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat) to gay marriage (Modern Family) that play with politically-correct fire without burning themselves. (Though we'll also pause for a moment of silence for Crumbs, ABC's 2006 attempt at a sitcom on mental illness that was ritually put to death by critics after five episodes.) With Speechless, created and written by Friends veteran Scott Silveri, the network has done it again.
Michal Fowler (Labor Day), who in real life shares most of the disabilities of his character J.J., plays—with considerable elan—a cerebral-palsy-afflicted teenager confined to a wheelchair who communicates only via a keyboard. His family—led hair-trigger mom Maya (Minnie Driver), ever sensitive to slights both real and hallucinated—has scuttled around Southern California like a pack of hermit crabs, searching for the perfect environment.
And though their newest digs are too crummy even to be haunted—a train runs behind the place, and a cell tower in the back yard is so powerful that one family members shouts "Thirty bars! I can call God!"—they seem finally to have found the right school, determinedly progressive even by the standards of the Snowflake Generation. "We just changed the mascot from a Viking, with its connotation of pillaging and male sexual aggression, to the sea slug, which has both male and female genitalia," the principal reassures Maya. Then, however, she locks swords with the school's custodian (Cedric Yarbrough, The Goldbergs), who as seemingly the only black person in tony Newport Beach, is immune to PC extortion... .
Speechless deftly blazes trails between irreverence and crudity, topicality and political correctness. Silveri's characters include neither martyrs nor saints, and between the laughs, the show explores the emotional flashpoints in a family where so much of the energy is devoted to the special needs of one child that the others can feel neglected. But it never loses sight of the main objective, which is to be funny. It's hard not to love a show where a classroom rises to its feet to welcome a new kid in a wheelchair, then halts in mortification at its own insensitivity at offering a standing ovation.
If sitting down to watch Speechless requires a leap of conceptual faith, Fox's Pitch—a tale of major league baseball's first female player—looks dead on arrival in its opening moments. Surely there was a better way to make the point that she's a woman than to open the show with a lingering shot of the lead character, wearing only a loose tank top and panties, stretching lasciviously in her bed. It's hard to imagine a more clear statement that the show wanted to have its cheesecake and eat it, too.
But Pitch quickly moves into the strike zone. Neither didactic nor smirky, it's a compelling study not only in character but the frenetic nature of celebrity media culture.
Photo Credit: 'Speechless,' ABC