Saturday, November 26, 2011

Meta-Sitcoms are People Too: Reflections on the Murky Future of NBC’s Community

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 26, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

The cast of NBC's Community

NBC’s Community, you may be growing tired of hearing, is one of the most original sitcoms on network television right now. And there is no small amount of irony in the fact that the reason you are hearing it said so much these days is because it appears Community won’t be on TV for much longer. Last Monday, when NBC announced its mid-season schedule, Community (which currently airs at 8pm on Thursdays) was nowhere to be found. After only ten episodes into its 22-episode order, the ratings-challenged Community will disappear from NBC, and no promise has been made yet as to when the rest of its current season will air. This, as you may imagine, is not good news.

Now in the middle of its third season, from a fan’s perspective, Community has been doing everything right. It regularly takes chances, but remains one of television’s most consistently funny sitcoms – and there is hardly a single recent episode that hasn’t been brilliant in my book. But when a critically acclaimed but low-rated show enters its third season (consider Arrested Development and Veronica Mars – both of which spent their third, and final, seasons in perennial struggle with their lagging ratings), there is really one key question on the minds of executives: the worry that the show sets too high a barrier for new viewers. Season-long or even multi-season story arcs, humour or drama that depends on familiarity with the characters, their stories, and their world: all these virtues of quality television become deficits when trying to figure out how to find a new audience for a not-quite-new series. The tinkering that results is rarely good – see the aforementioned third season of Veronica Mars, and the audacious mid-series reboot of J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Smart, playful and always hilarious, Community no doubt runs the risk of alienating the uninitiated (i.e. precisely all those who aren’t watching). And as the fate of Arrested Development demonstrated, this is also a recipe for the death of a network show.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hell On Wheels: AMC’s New Western Falls Flat

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 10, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Anson Mount stars in AMC's Hell On Wheels

As I watched the first episode of Hell On Wheels this past Sunday night, I slowly began to realize that I was feeling something I had never before felt while watching the premiere of an AMC original dramatic series: I was bored. Reviewing a show based only on its first episode is a risky business, though I do generally feel less guilty about it when it comes to cable shows, with their relatively short seasons and high production values. (The first episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead – which premiered almost exactly a year ago – told me everything I needed to know about the show and gave me every reason to keep watching.) And, much to the misfortune of AMC’s new series, I fear the first episode of Hell On Wheels is equally representative of the series as a whole.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I don’t think they were unrealistic. AMC had given us a string of ambitious, structurally and morally complex, shows over the past few years (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), and I suppose I’ve gotten spoiled. Add to that that Hell On Wheels is the first major Western to appear on television since Deadwood went off the air in 2006, and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment. Perhaps the inevitable comparisons with Deadwood are unfair – after all Deadwood is as much a Western as The Wire is a police procedural, and there are few shows in the entire history of television that would survive the comparison. But Hell On Wheels, to its own detriment, invites the comparison: with a hero who can barely contain his seething anger, a recently widowed city woman, its lawless, frontier community setting, and its monologuing Machiavellian villain. And speaking for this one viewer, it was difficult to keep memories of Deadwood from rearing up.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Once Upon A Time and Grimm: Fairy Tales Go Prime Time

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 3, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page

Jennifer Morrison (far right) and the cast of ABC's Once Upon A TIme

Fairy tales are the new vampires: this is what a friend of mine told me a couple of months ago after she saw the new fall TV schedule. And indeed, fairy tales do seem to be enjoying a real renaissance of late. Three years into our apparently unending economic downturn, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that popular culture is turning to more and more fantastic and otherworldly settings to tell their stories. And if fairy tales seems destined to displace teen vampires in our cultural zeitgeist, Snow White herself seems fated to be their poster child. Next year alone, Hollywood will be releasing two live-actions retellings of her familiar story: Tarsem Sitongh’s as-yet-untitled project with Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen coming out in March, and Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman with the Twilight saga’s Kristen Stewart playing a Snow White meets Joan of Arc incarnation of the character. And in 2013, never to be outdone, Disney will be releasing Order of the Seven, another live-action adventure which tells the story from the perspective of the dwarves and re-sets the action to 19th-century China.

But we don’t have to wait until 2012 to experience the fairy tale revolution: over the past two weeks, two new shows have premiered on the small screen, each with its own revisionist take on the familiar stories we all grew up on: ABC’s Once Upon A Time and NBC’s Grimm. But even though both shows operate generally on the same, perhaps familiar conceit – bringing storybook characters into our contemporary world (see 2007’s Enchanted for a recent movie example of this) – the two shows could be hardly be more different in their particular takes on the idea.