The Freshmen of Fall 2011: What the Heck Were They Thinking?

This is the time of year when I find myself contemplating many of the new series that will soon begin rolling out on the broadcast networks and wondering, "What the hell were they thinking? Who do they think is going to watch these things? Why were they made in the first place?"

I don't ask these questions lightly. As always, I have done my homework.

In May, I listened to fevered pitches intended to ignite advertiser interest during upfront week. In June, I watched every new pilot that was made available. Early this month, I attended dozens of press conferences with the producers, writers and executives responsible for all of these new series at the annual Summer Television Critics Association tour.

I even checked out panels for the few new shows, out of this fall's 24 fragile freshmen, that were previewed in July at the San Diego Comic-Con. I now know them as well as possible without seeing the absolute final, network-approved versions of each one.

Overall, I am so not impressed.



In fairness, as unremarkable as this season's freshmen starters are, collectively they are better than last fall's unforgivable crop of losers, which yielded only one show that any network executive can honestly point to with pride: Fox's smart, skillfully silly comedy "Raising Hope," and one that at least has potential to develop into something interesting, CBS' "Blue Bloods." There are other survivors from last year, but they aren't worth mentioning in any discussion of television's best, or near-best, or slightly above average.

Look back two seasons, however, and you'll be reminded of what broadcast television can actually do. The freshmen class of 2009 included CBS' "The Good Wife," Fox's "Glee," ABC's "Modern Family" and "The Middle," NBC's "Community" and The CW's "The Vampire Diaries." All are still with us, happily making noise, earning critical acclaim, finding extended life across multiple platforms and in some cases, winning industry awards.

It's hard to imagine any of this fall's freshmen enjoying similar success, with two exceptions: Fox's delightful comedy "New Girl," widely and rightfully praised by critics as the season's best new-scripted broadcast series, and CBS' "2 Broke Girls," which seems to have impressed other critics more than it has me, but I'm willing to give it some time.

The only other certain success coming in the weeks ahead is Fox's "The X-Factor," unless it proves to be one big-budget talent show too many in an already overcrowded genre. I'm also going to add The CW's "The Secret Circle" to this very short list, but only because this supernatural drama about pretty witches and warlocks seems a perfect companion to its lead-in: "The Vampire Diaries." But it's going to have to amp up the scares, sex and skin if it's going to hold the "VD" audience.

I can actually imagine people watching the four shows mentioned above when they are first on, or very shortly thereafter, by way of DVR, and that brings me back to my opening paragraph.

There is simply nothing else among the networks' freshmen offerings that I can see people committing to on a weekly basis. This reflects a key component missing from the development process. When choosing projects, studio and network executives need to ask themselves: Why should anyone watch this show? (Then they should ask who would want to watch said show. But first things first; I think the "why" is the primary concern.) I would love to hear their answers for most of this fall's negligible newcomers.

Of course, execution counts as much as intent, so in the interest of cutting the development community some slack, I will note that there are several new shows on the networks' runways that probably sounded quite interesting in the initial pitch, only to become decidedly uninteresting somewhere during production.

I will also allow that many are built on concepts tantalizing enough to potentially attract an opening-night crowd, though I think viewers will bail by their second episodes. They include NBC's "Grimm" and ABC's "Once Upon a Time," two dark fantasies that were probably intended to attract fans of The CW's egregiously underrated "Supernatural," but won't. Add to the list: Fox's "Terra Nova," a big-budget action-adventure about people from the future who travel back to the days of the dinosaurs, which seems to have been clumsily assembled by committee, with lifeless results; ABC's "Revenge," a half-baked serial set in the Hamptons that hopelessly hopes to be the new "Dynasty"; ABC's "Apartment 23" and "Suburgatory," two funky comedies that might, at first blush, have seemed endlessly fertile but turned out too one-note to take seriously; and those two much-talked about exercises in nostalgia-tinged adult entertainment: NBC's "The Playboy Club" and ABC's "Pan Am."

"Playboy" doesn't get anything right, from casting to storytelling to atmosphere. "Pan Am," on the other hand, is a show I would like to see move from the probable loser to surprise-winner category. The stories in the pilot are instantly forgettable, but the look of the show and the attention to detail make a swell first impression. It's a beautiful looking piece of prime-time drama, and one of the few new shows I hope I am wrong about.

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