As the new fall season enters in texture, the returning shows entering display a differential that plays the same with an added sense of knowing. With the cable networks still outpacing in general story, the writers on all sides are keeping their intensity at a high level which shows in the first inferences of the new.
Mad Men The key with this show is allowing the characters to breathe with finesse. The greatness of the show lies in its ability to let you watch the characters’ thoughts unfold with the knowledge that it might not work for them in the end. Don Draper continues to move in mysterious ways and his interaction with the would-be Conrad Hilton sends him on a disnomer of emotional proportions just when he seems to be finally bringing things under control. Don’s by-the-wayside Rockwell type moment with his daughter and newborn son show both the inevitability but also the paradox of the American Dream. As his relationship disentegrates with Roger over what should be a tryst and Cooper pulls a dark card to make him sign a contract, the walls seemingly are starting to close in again. Don is a MacGuffin more than ever. Add to this a rich surrounding of women between his wife (played with just the right amount of knowing by January Jones) who is looking for life extension especially after the death of her father to Peggy (played by an increasingly aware Elizabeth Moss) who continues to rise up the corporate ladder acting like one of the boys and finding her true rhythm in business deals. Also one must not forget Joan (played with distinctive knowing by Christina Hendricks), an exceptional shark in her own right who makes a decision based on traditional values that is inevitably biting back at her. There are also so many other characters that are secondary that are simply being ignored at times because the main proponents are so engaging and allowed to develop organically. This is the show’s great gift: its ability to create the essence of time while seemingly moving the story along without being rushed.
Sons Of Anarchy This story operates in an antithetical way because it is about instinctual, visceral and primal elements not shrouded by stiff suits (although Adam Arkin is giving it a run for its money). Last season, the culimation of Jax’s perception of Clay as a divisive change in the rule of the club made him a bit of a tragic hero. Kurt Sutter, who also worked on “Deadwood”, has created a modern family story shrouded in love, death, crime and brotherhood within a story about a biker club with killer follow through. He had the series run at an incessant pace with an almost “Godfather” exit in the finale last season. The thing about Sutter is that he doesn’t pull the punches. Gemma, played by Katey Sagal (who is also Kurt’s real life wife), is put through the wringer in the first episode that completely changes the dynamic of the season in an instant. Sagal takes on a whole different dimension in a sharp turn in terms of the choices she needs to make. This directly affects her life with Clay, who has secrets of his own, not the least of which is that he ordered the botched murder of an innocent woman in trying to kill one of his own men. Ron Perlman told me at TCAs that playing the role of Clay can be very uncomfortable. He likes Charlie [Hunnam] who plays Jax like a son so he says it is hard for them to go at each other with such thinly veiled hate. That for him is the challenge. People are pushing themselves on the show. Even in the first four episodes of this season, you can see Charlie Hunnam simply melding into the role but the fact of how he can modulate between the life of the club and the life at home with his re-united childhood sweetheart as well as his new son comes off as heartbreaking because you know something bad is going to happen as time goes on. This show has Emmy written on it simply because of the performances, especially Charlie. Even the way his girlfriend in the series has to assert herself in the politics and alpha female intensity of the club’s dealings to retain her man is great. The power here lies in the women which is a phenomenally underlying truth. This to me in a plethora of good TV is one of the most cutting edge shows out there because it doesn’t need a high concept to make exceptionally riveting. And where it is going is ratcheting up.
Fringe At the end of last season, a new world unfolded before the eyes of the audience and of agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv). As the new mythology evolved, the story aimed to jump start the stakes. Whereas Jared Harris (who is also on “Mad Men”) led her to a bit of ruin last season, the key here is unfolding a showing an intensity of will, which seems to come to fruition when Anna emerges from nowhere into the world almost dead in the opening moments of the season opener. It is Peter Bishop (played with restrained authorship by Joshua Jackson) that takes control and finds a way to make the division work under threat of shutdown. The relationship between Peter and his father Walter (played with delicious inventiveness by John Noble) is really starting to anchor the series. There is a degree of connection that is starting to be apparent and the humor definitely is getting a following. At one point Walter is doing an autopsy but is having his assistant help him make pudding at the same time. There is just something in that paradox that makes it work. The cornerstone in terms of the drama does revolve around Dunham but a smile or two (like in “Castle”) works miracles. The crux with her that keeps developing is her relationship with men and the betrayal of her trust (which continues to happen). Her relationship with her former partner now dead motivated her last season. This year, the problem rests in her close friend inside at FBI who is not who she believes him to be. The shake up of this structure will continue to affect her both personally and professionally. In terms of mythology versus stand alone, the alternation continues. The second episode actually includes a Gollum-like creature as if something out of “Children Of The Corn”. “Fringe” shows that it is mixing it up but the ultimate personification of William Bell is still the focal point with [Leonard] Nimoy nowhere in sight yet with his presence still lingering. It is just a matter where this story leads since the danger is of the mythology becoming too intrinsic. The show has infinitely more potential than “Warehouse 13” yet that show already has distinct control over its trajectory which in turn creates the effectiveness and clarity in ways of its storylines. “Fringe” needs to simply optimize its machine which it has the power to do.
Parks & Recreation At the end of the abbreviated last spring introduction of this “Office” type mockumentary, its charm had not yet settled in. It was seemingly trying a little harder than it should have. However, the texture has seemed to relaxed heading into its fall progression. Having not watched “The Office” at its inset, the ability to see this show from inception focalizes that the inherent nature of it rests in creating the situation in an offset manner to the character development. The relationships in last season seemed to be more of a focal point whereas the starting point of this new season works because it makes use of events in each of the episodes to motivate the characters which inevitably works much better in terms of structure. The first episode has Amy Poehler’s character mistakenly marrying two male penguins at a function at a zoo seemingly creating a gay rights issue. The trouble that she and her Indian Carolina-born associate get into trying to live it down ends up involving a party where she is heralded as Queen. Another subsequent episode has Poehler discovering what is supposedly “marijuana” growing in the community garden she planted. While she is cultivating the garden, her associate is getting a suntan on a reclining chair nearby. It is just a perfect balance of earnestness and sheer ridiculous humor perpetrated by these two lead characters. There are couple more characters establishing themselves slightly but with the exception of Poehler’s boss pulling something in the most recent episode, there hasn’t been anything to truly diversify the rest of the cast in true form yet. But according to most, it took “The Office” in the US a couple seasons to get in stride. The question becomes will the ratings here be good enough in general to allow for that kind of possible success. Poehler fuels the show and the writing is starting to know what it needs to be so there is possibility but not quite yet.
The key with these first 4 returning shows is their different levels of intention and acceptance and how each is purveying its individual trajectory. “Mad Men” can make its story work while looking effortless in terms of character and interweaving storylines which has caused it to hit a stride of sorts in its third season after two exceptional seasons before. “Sons Of Anarchy”, in terms of energy, burns brighter with a sense of Shakespearean tragedy but rivals “Men” at times in terms of mythic perception even though it has not gotten anywhere near the kudos of the former. It however seems very steady in its identity and knowing what it needs to be. “Fringe” is a good show that is still very much finding its focus while discerning its balance between mythology and stand alone and between drama and biting humor leading towards the direction it is choosing. “Parks & Recreation” is a much simpler creature but, in the beginning of its second season, is realizing the the story/situation must take precedence and the character arcs will naturally follow. However, all in all, positive progressions for all involved, some more than others, but all showing a tightening of ranks.
The key of progression with Fox is engendered by the slickness of its shows. The balance of the light and the dark is always in the forefront. With a majority of the shows highlighted at the Summer 09 Press Tour, the key seems to build branding and enhancing a greater thought on existing properties.
The Cleveland Show The angle on this specific series is obviously based as the spin-0ff from the “Family Guy” world. Of course, the thought becomes how far out it will go. An instigation of what the show will be like was brought to life in a distinctly vivid way with a table read with a lot of the cast during a luncheon. Watching Mike Henry dip right into the voice of Cleveland in front of you shows the power and characterization that can be explored in animation. Seth McFarlane takes on the role of Tim, a bear who works at Cleveland’s new office. Even that sentence just gets a laugh straight off. This cast of characters, unlike “American Dad”, has just the right feeling. Cleveland Jr. voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, just has an inherent sweetness to him that is akin to Chris on FG. Cleveland’s new hangout buddy volleys between Terry, a redneck guy that Cleveland used to party with, and Tim, the Bear. There is just so many great possibilities here. Even though we only saw a blip of animation (very similar to FG), reading along with the script gives you the visuals a mile a minute. There are pop culture references galore but the show is arranged more in a three act structure than “Family Guy”. The music will be definitely be more Cleveland style. Mike Henry just recorded a Christmas single as Cleveland with Earth, Wind & Fire. Kanye West will be in an episode this season and possibly the next as well. In this season, he does a rap with Cleveland Jr. Richardson says it was a kick in the sound booth. Kanye plays the coolest kid in town, which by the way is called Stoolbend.
After the read, which really hit stride in one office scene, where Cleveland and Tim go back and forth, Seth talked about the gestation of the series. McFarlane was in high spirits and getting a big kick out of the critics laughing at certain places allowing himself a good chuckle as well. Seth says they always do a table read although everyone records their dialogue separate. On another note, Arianna Huffington plays Arianna (The Bear), wife of Tim. Just the bedroom discussions with the voice Seth uses for Tim make you laugh. It is kind of an undescript European accent which matches perfectly with Huffington’s Greek. McFarlane jokes that the voice is a silly one that his dad did when he was younger on the way to the dump. He also said that he wanted to continue to push the animation in terms of character. Mike Henry in one of their meetings said nonchallantly: “How about a family of bears”. And then went with it.
As far as crossover, Quagmire will show up in the first season. The Brown clan will make an appeartance on “Family Guy” but McFarlane doesn’t discount any other guest spots down the line. He highlights that Fergie and Hall & Oates will also be two of the guests this season on “The Cleveland Show” as well. And, in Episode 16, he says, we will finally see Loretta. The key in this series is that Cleveland came back to Stoolbend where he grew up and almost immediately married his high school sweetheart. In addition to his own son, he now also has a stepson and stepdaughter. Henry says that this show is “sweeter and funkier” than “Family Guy” but runs with an almost Brady Bunch scenario with a lot of cutaways and flashbacks. The show according to him and Seth has a completely different dynamic at times than “Family Guy”: Cleveland is more like the eye of the hurricane than the storm itself. It has a great feeling building and diversifying something new in what makes “Family Guy” so rich.
Glee This show premiered its pilot in May and discussed itself at the January TCAs this year. This time the whole cast showed up. The licensing question was always an interesting approach to this show since they are getting hot music. They announced that they just got a Beyonce song, much like the Rihanna score they spoke of in January. Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator, was in NY shooting a movie with Julia Roberts so he was unable to attend. The cast seemed exceptionally excited and are leaving on a 10 city stint to promote the show within days of the tour. The promos have just started airing for the fall. They just finished shooting Episode 13 but hardly anybody has seen the show. Dianna Agron, who plays Quinn, says that this series is a first for many of the actors. She was on the plane coming out from NY the day before watching “So You Think You Can Dance” and a promo came on for “Glee”. The guy sitting next to her did a double take.
The key with the series is that either it will hit or miss. After the pilot aired, “Dont Stop Believin” jumped to number one on Itunes so there is possibility. Time will tell.
Fringe This exceptional series which moves its shooting location from New York to Vancouver this year has been the most exceptional character piece on TV of late, specifically for its mythology which as Joshua Jackson relates reminds him of “The X-Files” which he was a big fan of. Jeff Pinkner, an exec producer who is exceptionally hands on, addressed the multiverse seen at the end of last season. It is all about what we see as here and what he calls “over there”. They are still learning about what it is but they are not shying away. The key for the creators is , in essence, not having the mythology take over the characters which is always a danger. Roberto Orci, a consulting producer along with his writing partner Alex Kurtzman [they both wrote “Star Trek” and “Transformers 2” this summer], says that it becomes how much you can serialize the series and s how much you can do as stand alone. The key is riffing on the world without losing sight of it.
John Noble, who plays Walter Bishop, father to Jackson’s Peter, talked to his characterization in saying that it is hard for Walter to talk at a mundane level when he is, in fact, a genius. The thought of that progression, for him, is the most natural part of the character and one of the most enjoyable because normality is something the character cannot relate to in his current existence. One of the conceits of the relationship between John and Joshua (playing father and son) is that it has to be shocking and relevant at the same time. When asked about the relativity of the science within the grounded element of the show, Noble is quite interested. So much so that he turns to Anna Torv (who plays Agent Olivia Dunham) and says that he had her eating worm puree in an episode that she did a couple days ago. She replies that she didnt think is possible, and yet it happened. Everything shown in the series has some basis in theory, according to Noble, whether it be quantum physics or biology. But he agrees that credibility is very important even if you exist in this kind of world because you still have to connect to the audience.
Noble also addresses the chemistry between Olivia and Peter on the show but says that the essence of what the series is doesn’t mean they have to sleep together. Just seeing that she cares for Peter is a big step. As far as the aspect of Leonard Nimoy returning as William Bell, they have shot one more episode with him with a couple more in the progression but it is all dependent on him. On the day they shot in the multiverse it was 106 in Vancouver and the studio they shoot in up there does not have air conditioning. But Nimoy, acccording to the actor’s wife, practices a form of meditation that allows him to keep his body temperature low. Pinkner comments that it is very Spock of him.
The Wanda Sykes Show This new late night entry takes the elements of Joan Rivers and Arsenio Hall and wraps them into one with Wanda’s specific humor shining through. While it seems this institution of the show seemed to come together after Wanda’s lauded speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner with Obama, Wanda says that the timing, especially with Obama in the White House was right. As far as her format, the structure still seems in their minds to be elusive as of the current moment. John Ridley, who wrote “U-Turn” for Oliver Stone as well as “Undercover Brother” decided to come back to writing after a self=imposed hiatus of a couple years to focus on his family. He heard about the Sykes show and wanted to get involved without necessarily a game plan of how to do it. They ironically actually came to him. Ridley’s writing is more dramatic so the dichotomy of what he will bring as head writer is somewhat paradoxical.
What might come about interestingly enough is something very highbrow along the lines of Charlie Rose but with Wanda’s “take-no-prisoners” attutude and viewpoint. This however might make it more difficult to market. Ridley said he wants the ability for Wanda to talk about issues without so much of the publicist-driven interaction in terms of promoting a product. The show will only be on once every seven days and will be a wrap-up style perspective on the week. This also would allow Wanda to keep her gig as a series regular on “The New Adventures Of Old Christine”.
In terms of musical guests, there is no immediate plans in terms of having any on. But as Wanda puts it, “if Dick Cheney puts out a hip hop album, we’re booking him.” Another nugget of joy from Wanda reveals her key to interacting with her guests: “The cream rises to the top as long as you dont stir it too much.” For a long while she didnt want to do a talk show. When she was on “The Chris Rock Show” they had the ability to hit the points that were unreachable but she hadn’t seen the possibility since then. She will take each situation for what it is and says the one thing she will be, despite anything, is fair. As far as the fact that she is both an African American and a woman, and that in taking on this show in late night, she is a first. she replies: “If it is a perception of being a woman or being black…I do have boobs but that is not the deciding factor.” Wanda is very democratic indeed.
Cookalong Live With Gordon Ramsay The intent of the head of “Hell’s Kitchen” is that he is just naturally brutish but in coming out and doing a hands-on cooking test with journalists at TCAs, you see another side of him. Smiling and laughing, it is almost disconcerting. He says when he is in “The Kitchen”, that is a different angle which is heightened of course by TV but also by the situation. He gets the joke of it escpecially using the F word. He can’t bring that aggression home to his family but it is right for that situation. With his new additional show “Cookalong Live”, there is an active pursuit to soften his image a little bit while still keeping the heat on “Hell’s Kitchen”
Gordon thinks this new companion show will be good because now, for most of the world. the new “going out”, in his words, is “staying in”. This show, in his mind, is raw and fun and also offers him a chance to cook which he never gets to do on “Hell’s Kitchen” but also to do it in an non-pressurized environment. He is hoping this show will tip the balance of showing him as a bad guy.
As far as his insights on “Hell’s Kitchen” in the seasons past, he says the biggest problem in being a chef is smoking and drinking since it kills the palette. By doing the show, it explores the weaknesses more than the advantages of the competing chef which helps define aspects to improve and build on.
On his new “Cooking Live” show, it won’t be utterly complicated. The dishes he prepares are likely to be more two course based than anything else. On one of the last episodes he shot, the menu was green curry as a starter, lasagna as the entree and baked alaska (which we made ourselves with Ramsay) for dessert. His allowance is that unfortunately you can cheat a lot with food. People sometimes can go into restaurants on Sunset Blvd. and get a gig without cooking anything in advance. He does say that he goes all over the world trying food.
Most recently in the past couple weeks, he has been in such diverse places as Burma and Tuscany. He also relates that he went to Afghanistan last year and cooked Christmas Dinner for 1000 of the troops, both British and American. That for him was a high point.
In terms of what makes him happy as far as food, it is the Southern California institution: In & Out. He loves the Double Double especially ordering it Animal Style. On a more refined note, he says he very much likes going to Maestro (in Washington D.C.) but for him and his family, that is an event.
As he instructs us how to make a Baked Alaska, the key he is keen to point out is the battering of the egg whites and sugar in order to create a whip texture. In his mind, it should take less than 10 minutes although many of us were working well past that. He was disappointed in this, as is the Ramsay way, but checked out everyone’s handiwork. Gordon can still scold you but in this instance we saw a gentler but still stern side of the man…and it was good.
Lie To Me The sophomore outing of this show continues on its essence while attempting to infuse more edge to the show. Shawn Ryan, who previously worked on “The Shield”, has taken over show running duties in attempt to infuse more style. His thought is pushing it more in a character-based direction. He was brought on at the end of last season as a consultant to do exactly this. As a result, he felt the last 4 episodes of last season were more focused and effective. Also, for him, the key is that there needs to be actors beyond the people on Tim Roth’s team that Roth can face off with since he can be such an imposing energy on screen.
One good example Ryan gives in terms of how he is rearranging the play, is a scene where Cal, played by Roth, goes into a singles mixer and lies himself while research and coaxing different information out of the women. The crux is that he is doing to advance a case. This action makes it very specific to the character while still moving the story along. One of the first episodes which Ryan thinks will push the envelope involves a mystery of girl with multiple personalities played by Erica Christensen.
Tim Roth reflects on the evolution of his experience on television from when we saw him at TCAs last January. Roth says that he started to read the books on the “tells” of lying and it became too addicting. It is good for the show but not for his house so he backed off. He wants to know more than the audience knows but only by a little bit. He is drawn to this guy because of the perspective and the relationship he has with Dr. Gillian, Kelli Williams’ character.
Overall for Roth, the paradox of an actor is “to lie and lie well”. He does admit doing the first 13 episodes in the first season were “devastating” to him since it is such a shock to the system after having been on film sets most of his career. He has never worked like this before. But he absolutely loves it and means it genuinely. It is a complete experiment, he says, as you are basically making a movie every eight days. While it is difficult, he recommends it for film actors since there is nothing else like it.
Mekhi Phifer, who got major props from show runner Ryan because of his role in “8 Mile” opposite Eminem, plays new agent Ben Reynolds. who came in at the end of last season but has now become a series regular. For Phifer, having worked on “ER”, the characters need to be paramount as the procedures become just a backdrop. Kelli Williams follows this up with the point that “trying to find your character within a procedural is a trick but you have make it sound like it is not” The key to definitely maintaining perception of a lie is to create as much truth as possible. And that is what this show does.
Human Target In adapting a DC comics superhero for the small screen, the key is that liberties need to be taken in terms of creative license to maintain story flow (at least according to the head writer). The aspect of the Human Target always was the ability for him to be a chameleon and take on any form he wanted which works great in comics but within a live action environment tends to be more difficult. The conceit of creator Johnathan Steinberg is not straining the credibility by making it too non-believable. The thing for him was, if you had a guy who did this job, how would he go about it in a grounded way?. Steinberg wanted a guy you could root for but not be bound to stick to a certain format in terms of story structure. Steinberg wanted this show to be a hark to “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” with a bit of “Raiders”. The coup is that in the epilogue of the pilot, Danny Glover (aka Murtaugh from “Weapon’), shows up in a cameo.
For Steinberg, this story is about the action hero but also finding how faithfully, in balance, it can be represented. The eventual angle is that this character simply has to stand on his “own” two feet. Director McG, who is an exec producer on the series, loves that there is less room for bad scripts in TV nowadays as so many people are crossing over from film. This series for him is a lot of action but ultimately comes down to the three lead characters (played by Mark Valley, Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley).
For Haley, having just come off an iconic role as Rorschach in “Watchmen”, he wanted to be in something that his 10-year-old children could watch (which is not unlike something Gary Oldman told me ten years ago). What appealed to Haley beyond this point was the ability to create a character over time. The make up and look of his character Guerrero is something they came up with by chance. There is a physicality to this person in Haley’s mind, but in a very different way from Rorschach.
By comparison, Chi McBride, within his character Winston, says that he enjoys playing cynical characters who are funny but don’t think that way. With this character, unlike the one in the critically lauded but ultimately cancelled “Pushing Daisies”, there will be a lot more action. For him and in the bigger picture, this guy is crazy and has a lot of darkness. The great element about these characters from his perspective is that they are constantly in each other’s yang.
As with McG’s “Fast Lane” nearly 5 years ago on Fox as well, this series has the potential to be slick as evidenced by the completely action heavy promo from the pilot. The key, as with what made that earlier show a success, rests in the balance of humor and action and some of those little spots in between.
Fox All Star Party As the sun dimmed, the back greens, home to the previous night’s NBC soiree, came alive again with tented arenas and small bungalows allowing for secluded discussions and open thoughts. Dining on everything from mac and cheese to swordfish tacos to crab claws, the diversity of food was not unlike the characters present. Ron Perlman of “Sons Of Anarchy” was an imposing and interesting presence as CCH Pounder (of “Brothers”) and Harry Lennix (of “Dollhouse”) laughed into the night. One of the happiest and most approachable of all was Seth McFarlane, clearly enjoying the attention of many a lady admirer but also moving about with a great sense of humor in not taking it all too seriously.
Two different tents housed a special proscuitto dish that melted in the mouth as well as a make-your-own strawberry shortcake bar. As the DJ spun and the loud wailing of karaoke from a green screen corner lit up the night, the motley vision of Fox dazzled the evening.