Monday Morning Critic: The Good, Bad and Ugly of the Fall TV Season
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment, I look at the premiere of The USA Network’s upcoming comedy ‘Benched,’ plus take stock of the Fall season of TV thus far.
The USA Network isn’t officially premiering its newest comedy ‘Benched’ until October 28th. But it’s available now for streaming on USA’s website, which points to the network’s faith in the quality of this show. And that faith is earned: while ‘Benched’ doesn’t remotely rewrite the television sitcom as we know it, it has a shaggy, well-worn feel right from the outset that offers up a new perspective on the all-too familiar world of the law.
By shifting focus from a high-powered, well-funded law office to an overburdened public defender’s office, ‘Benched’ instantly sets up its characters as underdogs, which helps earn audience affection right away. It also doesn’t hurt that this comedy (co-created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones) has Eliza Coupe and Jay Harrington as its two leads. As Nina, a former corporate attorney whose nervous breakdown lands her in the public defender’s office, Coupe primarily deploys the comedic moves that worked so well for her on ‘Scrubs’ and ‘Happy Endings.’ But in pairing her with Harrington, ‘Benched’ also offers a glimpse of a softer side that Coupe has rarely employed.
For his part, Harrington’s scruffy, cynical lawyer feels miles away from his time as the lead on the prematurely cancelled ‘Better Off Ted.’ His character Phil feels like Ted Crisp gone to seed, with almost all of the optimism beaten out of him through a broken legal system and far too many trips to the bar after days spent in overcrowded courts. Nina and Phil have a “will they/won’t they” vibe, but it’s hardly the primary driver of their interactions. Rather, both are people who need the other in order to remain focused and do some good with the cards they have been dealt.
Putting all this inside a standard office-as-family comedy yields a winning start for ‘Benched.’ It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but should put a smile on most faces. This is the type of show that relies on the audience getting to know its characters for a few weeks before the belly laughs truly come. ‘Benched’ takes elements of a “hang-out” comedy and marries it to the strong story engine that drives legal procedurals. That combination has worked in the past for shows such as ‘Night Court’ and ‘Barney Miller,’ and it shows promise here as well.
As we are now a few weeks into the Fall TV season, I thought it time to take stock of the “Good, Bad, And Ugly” of television thus far. This is a woefully incomplete list, but hopefully serves as a good starting point.
‘Jane The Virgin’
I praised this show in this space last week, but that was based on the pilot episode alone. A single episode is hardly a strong predictor for future success. Luckily, The CW subsequently sent the next three episodes for review, and I’m happy to report the show actually exceeds my already lofty expectations. The best comparison I can make is to the first season of ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ which leaned into its inherent lunacy yet still provided grounded characters that kept everything from flying into space. Things get very complicated very quickly for lots of people on ‘Jane,’ but there’s a consistent focus on character over plot that makes this the most continually surprising shows of the Fall. I can’t recommend the show more highly at this point.
Pete Davidson on ‘Saturday Night Live’
Talk about making the most of an opportunity. Davidson scored big in his first appearance this season, and was essentially the star of last week’s Bill Hader-hosted episode. ‘SNL’ has something special here, and it’s not wasting time in sharing Davidson with the world.
Bellamy Young on ‘Scandal’
Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope is still this show’s lead, but the writers of ‘Scandal’ have consistently giving Young’s character Mellie Grant the most compelling material since the beginning of season three. Mellie was a character I openly despised in season one, but both Young and the show have discovered the potential in this character in subsequent years. Nowawdays? I’m forming the “Why Doesn’t Bellamy Young Have An Emmy Yet” Committee. You’re all invited to join. We meet on Twitter during every episode of this show.
Alicia Keys on ‘The Voice’
The guest coaches on ‘The Voice’ are often serve as stuntcasting, with artists looking for the type of exposure that this show’s ratings can deliver without any real interest in developing the show’s contestants. But Keys, paired with full-time coach Pharrell, has been actually improving the pairings during The Battle Rounds. She’s so good that she has actually made Pharrell look slightly poor in comparison. If the show is looking for new blood in the rotating red chairs in future seasons, they should be begging Keys to join.
The rise in quality of ‘Doctor Who’
Peter Capaldi has been a winning Doctor since moment one, and pairing him with Jenna Coleman almost instantly solved all of the show’s Clara Oswald issues. But the episodic writing never quite lined up with this season’s thematic through lines until the one-two punch of “Kill The Moon” and “Mummy On The Orient Express,” in which all of the show’s interesting ideas about the nature of The Doctor’s recent regenerations finally merged with strong in-show storytelling. Everything about the season-long “The Promised Land” mystery still feels grafted onto a show currently best served with standalone adventures. But given how the final seasons of Matt Smith’s tenure saw Steven Moffat consistently choose “clever” over “character,” this season has brought welcome relief.
A show that doesn’t have a darn clue what type of tone it wants to have, ‘Gotham’ throws everything but the kitchen sink at this attempt to show the rise of Jim Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Batman’s rogues’ gallery. Camp sits awkwardly next to grit, and the whole endeavor has more whiplash mood swings than a typical episode of ‘Glee.’ As a film or even a videogame, this might have worked. As a television show, it’s a hot mess.
The future of standalone TV subscription services
Announcements by HBO and CBS of standalone services for its programming feel like a watershed moment, and it certainly is…but possibly for the networks, not the consumers. What feels like a win for customers might actually end up costing more in the long-term, and will almost certainly prevent certain types of programs from ever seeing the light of day. No one is exactly a fan of the current cable model, but the heavy hitters there lift the less-viewed networks, which in turn allows for the “too much good TV” phenomenon that some actually deem a “problem.” (That’s an awesome problem to have, so near as I can tell.) Getting ‘Game Of Thrones’ without a heavy cable subscription is nice, but might be the type of Trojan horse that encourages cable stations to actually overreach and exploit fan bases to the point where the entire ecosystem collapses faster than you can say, “Valar morghulis.”
The State’s Attorney race on ‘The Good Wife’
On one hand, I can’t hate this too much, since it’s put Alicia and others into various crosshairs. On the other hand, it feels like one thing too much for this show to juggle at this point. ‘The Good Wife’ has been riding an incredible wave of strong episodes since THAT DEATH in season five, but this storyline has the potential to derail several others in the process. If the point of all this is Alicia can’t possible be State’s Attorney AND partner at her own law firm, this might all work out. But otherwise, it feels like an excuse to introduce conflict rather than grow it organically from its already fecund storytelling base.
Nick Hawley on ‘Sleepy Hollow'
On paper, adding a Han Solo-type fortune hunter to this show probably made a lot of sense. In practice, it’s absolutely dire. Much in the way that Gretchen in ‘Mean Girls’ tried to make “fetch” happen, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is trying to make Nick happen. Characters like Nick are what happen when a show that excels in a short-season format gets an expanded episode order and has to pad things out. ‘Hollow’ can certainly pull out of this recent malaise, but it’s sad to see the spark that ignited season one already faltering so soon into season two.
Ostensibly a comedy about a couple trying to live happily ever after, the only thing it inspires in me is the desperate desire to save Ken Marino’s character from Casey Wilson’s insane person. That’s not a good feeling to have.
‘Terriers’ was cancelled after one season in 2010
That’s not particularly relevant to Fall TV, except I very much wish I were currently watching this show’s fifth season, and I’m super bitter that I’m not.