Musings On The Fall Season: Broadcast Is Doing Well, But Basic Cable Is Kicking It

I’ve been thinking about which new broadcast series have distinguished themselves as the best of the freshman class now that they have all had a chance to grab our attention and show their stuff (except for Fox’s not-good “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” which premieres next week). The short list I came up with consists of two shows I picked at the start of the season -- CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and Fox’s “New Girl” – plus one surprise addition: ABC’s “Revenge.”

These three programs have entertained me more consistently than any other freshman efforts this fall, but I have to wonder: If the broadcasters were truly on their game shouldn’t that list have included more ambitious fare, such as ABC’s “Pan Am,” Fox’s “Terra Nova” and NBC’s “The Playboy Club” and “Prime Suspect,” each one an epic dud? Instead, broadcast’s best new shows are a comedy about two young waitresses who love to crack vagina jokes, another about a goofy young woman who at times seems mentally challenged, and a soap opera about pretty rich people doing heinous things to each other. Like I said, I enjoy these shows as much as anyone else. I hope they’re with us for several years. But should such silly stuff really represent the best of broadcast’s freshman class?



As far as returning broadcast series go, there has still been much to praise this fall about ABC’s “Modern Family,” CBS’ “The Good Wife” and “CSI,” Fox’s “Fringe” and ABC’s underappreciated “The Middle,” but even in a season that is not without its successes I can’t help but think that networks and viewers alike are in most cases settling for shows that are something less than what they could and should be. Lately these four shows have been the only scripted veteran broadcast efforts to merit genuine sustained enthusiasm, though I am becoming concerned with “The Good Wife,” the only broadcast drama that belongs in the same company as the best of basic cable. Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart has been the strength of the show this season in a grandly entertaining performance of restrained righteous anger (start her Emmy campaign now), but I think “Wife” was stronger when it revolved around the damaged marriage of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and her husband Peter (Chris Noth, sadly underused this year), rather than their strained separation. “The Good Wife” is too important a series to be allowed to let slip.

Part of the problem, for me anyway, is that it is increasingly difficult to get truly excited about the content of scripted broadcast series when so many basic cable shows consistently serve up sequences that can leave even the most demanding critics breathless.

There has been no shortage of such powerful moments this fall, not with the likes of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” having their best seasons to date. And then there’s AMC’s singularly sensational “The Walking Dead.” It has been a marvel of unrelenting tension in the first half of its second season, but as riveted as I have been all along, nothing prepared me for the closing sequence of its mid-season finale (telecast this Sunday at 10 p.m.).

Without giving anything away, the final scene is so perfectly realized on all fronts – acting, direction, editing, photography, sound, etc. – that it is a thing of absolute cinematic beauty despite the uncompromised physical and psychological horror of it all. I’ll think about it for however many years “Walking Dead” stays with us, and likely for many years thereafter. Perhaps if the executives who are responsible for the mounting piles of inexplicable junk at our neighborhood multiplexes took some time to watch basic cable television they might learn a thing or two about quality entertainment. I haven’t seen a segment in any movie since “The King’s Speech” that packed the same perfect punch as the closing moments of this mind-bending episode. Nothing kicks butt like basic cable. No wonder everything else looks a little less impressive.


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