Monday Morning Critic: On Shonda Rhimes and the New Shows Debuting This Week
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: what makes the ratings for ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ so important, and a Q&A about this week’s premieres.
While reviews of ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ have been mixed, there’s nothing mixed about the ratings it and the other ABC Thursday night dramas pulled this past week. All three–“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and ‘Murder’–fall within Shonda Rhimes’ production company Shondaland. Even if she isn’t directly responsible for all of them (‘Murder’ was fact created by Peter Nowalk, who previously worked on both “Grey’s” and ‘Scandal’), “Shondaland” is a name that accurately describes ABC on that evening as well at this point. ABC had its biggest Thursday night in five years, and while it’s tempting to simply say that audiences are buying what Rhimes is selling (which is definitely true), it’s worth understanding just why these ratings are so important.
Namely, “Shondaland” isn’t just a collection of television shows but a collective of television viewers energized by and interactive with this content. Observing that people today by and large are using their DVRs to delay and curate their own viewing experiences is nothing new. But it’s still worth noting that the type of viewing environment Rhimes and the actors on her programs have engendered is analogous not to other scripted programs but rather to those of live sporting events and awards shows. In other words, a key aspect of enjoying “Shondaland” stems from the limited window in which people can interact with others about these shows. Sure, you can watch ‘Scandal’ on Sunday morning. But that is three days after Twitter and other forms of social media gather in hive-like fashion to deliver second-by-second analysis and reaction. “Shondaland” has less to do with the content of an episode, but has everything with the drive to watch that episode as close to initial airing as possible.
Plenty of people would say that livetweeting a show denies the user the ability to actually watch the show in a meaningful manner. But simply “watching” a show isn’t always the point. I can easily separate “analyzing ‘Scandal’” and “livetweeting ‘Scandal’” as two different activities. There are plenty of positive and negative things to say about these three shows on a weekly basis, but that’s not necessarily the point of these three-hour social media meccas. Simply creating a space where people feel that they can not only express their feelings but also be heard by likeminded fans is a powerful driver for viewership. Lots of programs have official Twitter feeds, and many actors promise fans that they will engage online while episodes air. But those who work in “Shondaland” have done an impressive amount of work in demonstrating just how genuinely they deem that part of the process as part of the overall entertainment package. Because engaging with social media is just one part of working for Shonda Rhimes, it in turn has become part of what watching these shows has become for its audience.
This is television-as-event, something as old as the medium itself, and something almost entirely eliminated over the past decade in the scripted world. Now, there’s a danger to this type of engagement, to be sure. (Those livetweeing can turn from a passionate fan base to unruly mob should the quality of the show suffer or, God forbid, an unpopular romantic pairing emerge.) But the rewards are greater than the risks. Those already fans of “Grey’s” or ‘Scandal’ understood that the premiere of ‘Murder’ not only meant a new opportunity to fall in love with a show, but another hour in which it could communicate with other people. Watching ‘Murder’ over Sunday morning coffee did not compute for many, since viewers were sampling the interaction as much as the show itself. That’s not to say that quality doesn’t matter. But loyalty certainly does, and viewers’ loyalty lies not with ABC but “Shondaland.”
This raises an interesting point about future fragmentation. For now, “Shondaland” (the entertainment experience, not the production company) is a subset of ABC. But that need not always be the case. That partnership works for now, and look for ABC to keep dumping truckfuls of money at Rhimes’ doorstep to keep more content coming. But at what point do production companies like Shondaland, Doozer (led by Bill Lawrence), and Bad Robot (J.J. Abrams) simply bypass distribution and deliver content directly to fans? This is where the audience engagement that Rhimes has cultivated becomes more about retweets and turns into true dollar signs. Because let’s be honest: This is a business, as much as we all like to pretend it isn’t. Right now, it makes more sense for these creators to pair up with networks from a financial perspective. But eventually, that won’t be the best model, at which point audiences loyal to “Shondaland” might simply secede from the broadcast model and follow both the content and its fans wherever it goes.
Those that cultivate that audience now will have a better chance when the inevitable schism happens. And right now, Rhimes is so far out in front of everyone else that it’s…well, scandalous.
Let’s deal with this week’s premieres in Q&A style. At some point in 2015, new shows might stop premiering. It’s honestly unclear at this point. For now, let’s get through this week’s batch, which is a big one.
What are the big shows debuting this week?
ABC is debuting ‘Selfie’ and ‘Manhattan Love Story’ this Tuesday, September 30, at 8 pm and 8:30 pm EST, respectively. ‘Stalker’ premieres on CBS on Wednesday, October 1, at 10 pm EST. FOX is launching ‘Gracepoint’ on Thursday, October 2, at 9 pm EST. On that same night, NBC launches the comedies 'Bad Judge' at 9 pm and “A To Z” at 9:30 pm. Finally, ‘Mulaney’ premieres on FOX this Sunday, October 5, at 9:30 pm.
Are any of these worth watching?
Both ‘Selfie’ and 'A To Z' have serviceable pilots that have plenty of problems, but nothing that suggest the show is creatively DOA. The biggest question about both programs after watching the pilot: “How is this a series?” Both have solid introductory episodes that suggest the entire arc of the show as laid out in the premise has been essentially fulfilled. The sustainability of both is in question, but that doesn’t mean both shows will be out of ideas by episode six. I simply don’t know what episode six looks like at this point. In the case of “Selfie,” will each weekly lesson translate into a developed character, or simply a reboot each week. In the case of “A To Z,” how much will its conscious effort to call into question the nature of the relationship work against it in the long haul?
If I feel burned by “How I Met Your Mother,” will seeing Cristin Milioti in another half-hour show featuring a complicated mythology that may or may not be twist-driven drive me to drink?
It’s entirely possible! That’s not Milioti’s fault, except inasmuch as she chose two projects that have such surface similarities that some might not be able to help equating the two. I will confess I cringed a bit at the idea of another show that might pull the rug out from under me.
Did any of the shows debuting this week make you actually angry?
‘Stalker’ is an offensive show on almost every level. I don’t even want to spend a lot of energy in describing why it’s so awful, but I also feel the need to warn all decent human beings from spending a single second watching this tone-deaf, exploitative, and misogynistic piece of televised fecal matter. No matter what those involved with the show insist, this is a program that seeks to derive entertainment from the systemic hunting of fellow human beings while cloaking itself in the guide of a show simply shedding light on a current, real-life issue. ‘Stalker’ isn’t an answer to the problem. It’s part of the problem. It’s not just terrible. It’s potentially harmful.
I watched “Broadchurch,” the series upon which ‘Gracepoint’ is based. Should I bother watching?
If you only want to find out if the show deviates in terms of the actual murderer, sure. If you actually want to spend time in a world with interesting characters and atmospheric storytelling, then absolutely not. There are far worse ways to spend your Thursday nights, but ‘Gracepoint’ is resolutely, almost shockingly unnecessary. One can understanding why FOX might want to get in on the miniseries game, but this is a misstep.
What if I haven’t seen ‘Broadchurch’? Should I watch ‘Gracepoint’?
Just go hunt down the original, should you want to delve into this type of show. Honestly, I’m not even a mega-’Broadchurch’ fan, with its later hours so unrelentingly bleak that it almost turns the show into self-parody. Still, there’s a depth of feeling that the US remake never comes close to approximating. While later episodes of ‘Gracepoint’ suggest a different end point in ways the first handful do not, that’s not really a reason to recommend it.
You left off three shows from your initial list. Why?
‘Manhattan Love Story’ is so forgettable that I literally can’t remember anything about it other than, “There are more voiceovers than any show I can remember.” It’s the TV equivalent of plain rice cakes. As for “Bad Judge”: Life is too short to watch a show that looks as terrible as “Bad Judge.” You just can’t make me.
Why aren’t you talking about ‘Mulaney’?
What? I’m sure I did.
Nope. What gives?
Nothing! I’m fine. Why are you asking so many questions? Hey, let’s grab some wings. I’m hungry…
Why are you avoiding talking about ‘Mulaney’? You loved John Mulaney’s work on “Saturday Night Live.” You love his stand-up. Why aren’t you singing this show’s praises?
Um, because it’s the most disappointing show of the Fall. And that pains me to say that something fierce.
What the what?
I know! Look, none of this is fun to write. But ‘Mulaney’ is a total failure on almost every level, from concept to casting to simply writing twenty-two minutes of bad jokes performed by people visibly sweating for laughs. It’s almost worth studying this on an anthropological level to see just how so much talent could produce something this terrible. FOX sent critics five episodes for review, which is extremely unusual, and suggests a program that greatly improves after a middling pilot. But I didn’t laugh once during any of them, save for some fourth-wall breaking monologues that start each episode delivered by Mulaney himself.
But, it could get better, right?
Given its timeslot, and given the quality of these episodes, I doubt it will have time to get better, even when allowing for the slim chance that episode 12 would actually be funny if it made it to air. This isn’t the offensive program that ‘Stalker’ is. It’s just a misfire that will probably serve as the difficult answer to a bar trivia question ten years from now when John Mulaney is a megastar. Everyone on this show will go on to do better work down the line. For now, they are as stuck with this show as we are.