Thank goodness for CBS’ “The Good Wife” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” arguably the only veteran series at the moment that prove broadcast can consistently deliver compelling quality drama that is competitive with the best of basic cable. (I’m still waiting for any of this fall’s new broadcast dramas to earn similar high praise.)
What impresses me most about both shows is the seeming ease with which their showrunners rise to the extremely difficult challenge of keeping them fresh. With its intoxicating mix of legal drama, relationship conflict, sexual power plays and political backstabbing – not to mention its smart sense of humor and its keen understanding of how thoroughly digital technology has infiltrated everyday life, something rarely reflected in most television series – “Good Wife” really is in a class by itself. Clearly, everyone involved with this show isn’t afraid to produce sophisticated, sometimes challenging entertainment for a grown-up audience.
As for “Grey’s,” it should receive special recognition simply because of the way it excitingly revitalizes itself via carefully constructed season finales. It’s all about the aftermaths. The horrific plane crash that ended last season has charged up this fall’s episodes in the same way that the mass murder at the hospital three season finales ago electrified the year that followed. “Grey’s” may be somewhat past its prime, but it is still one of broadcast’s best.
If “Good Wife” and “Grey’s” can do it, over and over again, what’s stopping so many other shows from maintaining greatness – or at least a sense of genuine excitement about themselves? Consider ABC’s “Revenge,” arguably last season’s hottest and most buzzed-about new show, now mired in the same kind of inexplicable sophomore slump that compromised “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” many years ago.
As a frisky freshman, “Revenge” was one of those increasingly rare shows that had to be savored as soon as it aired, because the giddy thrills that came from watching the increasingly vengeful Emily Thorne (nee Amanda Clarke) cannily destroy the people who maligned and murdered her father were too much fun to miss (or to wait and watch via DVR). By contrast, this season, which has generated too many separate storylines for a number of characters, is something of a chore to keep up with, and there hasn’t been one shock or true surprise of note. Indeed, those Target and Neiman Marcus “Gift of Revenge” commercials featuring characters from the show that ran throughout last Sunday’s episode were more mysterious, compelling and oddly seductive than the series itself has been of late.
The current fifth and final season of Fox’s “Fringe” has been another frustrating disappointment. It’s plodding along with all the zip and zing of “House” during its last months. The grand finale storyline is centered on the mysterious Observers, who have time-travelled from one of earth’s possible far-off futures to the less distant future in which this season is set, seeking to take over the human race in hostile fashion. These aren’t the Observers we’ve known all along. Why are they suddenly so mean? Who knows … and at this point, who cares? It’s all so far removed from the fascinating and deeply personal stories that ran through earlier seasons of “Fringe” – especially those involving the (now largely forgotten) alternate earth. The disconnection is damaging: I should have been devastated when Peter and Olivia’s grown daughter died in a recent episode, but I wasn’t moved at all, perhaps because viewers hardly knew her. Unless Nina Sharp or William Bell return, armed with some kind of device from Massive Dynamic that is going to save the day, it looks as if “Fringe” is going to fizzle out in the sad tradition of so many other mythology-rich shows.
Elsewhere in the fantasy genre, The CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” is still very watchable, but the decision to turn Elena into a vampire has taken away much of the tantalizing tension that made this show so much fun. With human characters now in perilous short supply on the canvas, Elena seems somehow less special as one of the undead. As for The Five – the new monster hunters in town – their certain-to-be-unsuccessful efforts to reduce the town’s vampire population feel all too familiar. It’s time for something truly shocking and new to affect the monsters of Mystic Falls, lest “Diaries” become as tired as the once-sensational “Supernatural.”
General malaise aside, many veteran and returning broadcast dramas are delivering perfectly acceptable entertainment, including CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Blue Bloods” and “Person of Interest”; ABC’s “Castle” and “Once Upon a Time”; NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Parenthood,” and Fox’s “Bones.” But I have a hard time thinking of any of them as “can’t miss” or “must see.” I’d say the same about NBC’s “Grimm.” It’s not as good as it could be, but it deserves some kind of acknowledgement, because the network and cast have been so relentlessly creative in their wide-ranging support and promotion of this show. (Interstitial segments with the stars of “Grimm” were the best part of NBC’s recent telecast of the pilot for “Mockingbird Lane.”) “Grimm” makes for perfectly fine Friday night fare. If only it were perfectly great.