TV promos happen three times a year. And the first time is okay. It's at the tail end of the summer, you're bored and ready for the TV season to start, and the networks know this. And so - bam! - a glut of promos, reminding you to return to the show you always loved. There'll be one or two new shows mixed in on each network, all of which will be referred to as "this season's breakout hit," often before they actually air and regardless of how terrible they debut in the ratings. NBC is particularly shameless about this, since any show that manages to finish fourth - out of four networks - is actually considered to be "exceeding expectations." I don't know what failing to meet expectations would look like. You'd probably have to be beat out by a number of different channels, including Oxygen and the Golf Channel.
A few of these breakout hits will win actual viewers and manage to stick it out through the whole season (this year it was just 'Fringe' and 'The Mentalist,' now that I think 'Kath and Kim' has mercifully breathed its last), where they will often remain being called "the year's breakout hit" well into their third season.
The third time promos come out (I'll swing back around to the second time in a second), it's excruciating. It's the tail end of the TV season. Everyone is tuned in to watch the season finale - what crazy cliffhanger will the season end on this year? (P.S. I'm now taking two-to-one odds on 'Desperate Housewives' killing yet another cast member. That show has lost it.) And then it hits you - a glut of promos for The Summer Programming. It's awful. There's always some crazy new reality show that you cannot escape from. It's always hosted by the worst possible fading celebrity to see a lot of in a short time span (this year's prediction: Heidi Montag) and features some gimmick that you can't imagine anyone watching ("come see how many poodles it takes to successfully defeat these Olympic swimmers in mud wrestling!"), and yet it somehow succeeds, so that next summer, you have to watch the promos for the show all over again, only this time there's twice as many of them as they herald that this season will take it to "the next level." ("Who's better at sand castles? Stephen Hawking, or this grizzly bear? Jason Alexander joins Heidi, Spencer, and the Octomom as a guest judge!"). And the worst part about it is that turning off your television does nothing. You go on the internet and "hilarious clips" pop up everywhere. You drive past billboards on the highway with the giant quasi-celebrities grinning down at you. You dare to talk to that co-worker who loves reality TV, and you end up hounded to death about the show all summer. It's inescapable.
The second time TV promos come out, however, is not bad. That's the mid-season, show-replacement promos. Every new TV season features a number of new shows that don't work out - this year we had 'Crusoe,' 'Valentine,' 'My Own Worst Enemy,' 'Kath and Kim,' 'Opportunity Knocks,' 'Life On Mars,' 'In Harm's Way,' 'Homeland Security USA,' 'Hole In The Wall,' 'The Ex List,' 'Easy Money,' 'Do Not Disturb,' 'The Chopping Block,' 'America's Toughest Jobs,' and '4Real.' If you ever question how good TV executives are at their job, consider this: how many of those shows have you actually heard of? Exactly.
Of course, sometimes there are good shows that just never quite get a leg up, right? Television Without Pity has a "Brilliant But Canceled" list of the good ones, but I'll just give you the short version: the only show among those that was any good was 'Life On Mars.' The only shows in that list that seemed at any point to have the smallest amount of potential were 'Life On Mars,' 'Valentine,' and.... that's it. Ough.
Fortunately, we've got a slate of brilliant shows that somehow weren't good enough to premiere at the start of the season, so we're all set, right? But which of the horde of promos for shows that seem to have some sort of vague potential do I watch? It's so difficult to decide...
That's why I'm here, dear reader. That's why I'm here.
Incredibly, in the midst of a television season that has gone terribly awry (older shows dying off, newer shows sputtering and stalling) thanks almost entirely to a writer's strike that has managed to completely decimate two consecutive television seasons, there are a number of bright lights on the horizon. I have watched every single new show to premiere this new season, and I am here to tell you what's worth it and what's not (my word is law, people. Disobey at your peril).
1. 'Cupid' (ABC) - Let's start with what's not good. This show is terrible. And I don't mean terrible as in "off to a rocky start." I mean terrible as in "try not to click by it while you watch TV lest you tear out your eyes in shame." I'm a fan of both the leads - Sarah Paulson was a favorite of mine on the wildly inconsistent "Studio 60," Bobby Cannavale simply exudes charm as the man who thinks he's Cupid - but the show, a Rob Thomas reboot of his own failed earlier version, is a disaster. It's not just bad writing (though, to be fair, it's bad writing), but the whole show feels forced in the worst possible way. It's essentially a CBS procedural, but instead of murder investigators or rugged yet vulnerable doctors, it's a show about making people fall in love; a new couple every week. There are darker tones to be studied here (is Cannavale crazy or isn't he? Is his disease destroying people's lives or not?), and there's fun to be had (Jeremy Piven had Cannavale's role in the original version and tore it up on screen). But none of that shows up, it's a just quirky concept show without an ounce of self-awareness. Pass.
2. 'Castle' (ABC) - I'm a little torn about this one. The show's not bad, overall, it's just a bad show that happens to have a uniquely talented lead (a pitch-perfect Nathan Fillion, looking for all the world like he's having the time of his life) and little else going for it. It's worth watching if it's on, but there's no point in sticking around: the show runners will gradually bring the two leads together, there'll be banter and winking and one-liners everywhere, and the season will end on either a will-they or won't they note, or it'll be one of those cliffhangers where someone kidnaps Fillion's daughter (Molly Quinn, a revelation of a child actor who hopefully will find better work elsewhere) and we get to see Fillion's quote-unquote dark side. Meh.
3. 'In The Motherhood' (ABC) - Oh, ABC. You're trying so hard and failing so dramatically - you've got only three shows that anyone watches ('Dancing With The Stars,' 'Lost,' and 'Desperate Housewives'), and you keep popping out show after terrible show. With 'Motherhood,' the question isn't if it's bad. The only question is, "could it be worse?" Apparently it couldn't: ABC will almost certainly announcing it's cancellation sometime in the next few weeks, and I can stop making sure I have my remote always in hand lest a promo for this show appear while I'm watching something else.
4. 'The Unusuals' (ABC) - This is the sort of effort I appreciate - a television pilot with legitimate potential. Something that a viewer comes in and either hates or loves, something good enough to make a viewer actually feel something when they watch it other than 'man, I could go for a chocolate cream doughnut right now.' The show's been a little up-and-down right off the bat, but you get the sense that it'll even itself out over time if for no other reason than its cast. Adam Goldberg and Harold Perrineau are both likable and provide some comic relief, Goldberg as a cop with an inoperable tumor who's developed a distinct death wish, Perrineau as his partner who's become paranoid now that he's reached the exact age that his father, uncle, and grandfather all died at (they're sort of dark comic relief, I guess). But the real prizes here are a surprisingly gritty Amber Tamblyn (yes, that Amber Tamblyn. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Amber Tamblyn) and an enigmatic Jeremy Renner (who is this guy? Where has he been hiding? He's fantastic). As good as the show seems to be, I feel a touch hesitant recommending it - since it doesn't translate well to 10-second promos (there aren't a lot of one-liners and it's low on melodrama), it seems like the show probably won't market well. That already seems to be the case, since its ratings seem to be a touch mediocre to start off its run, which probably means it won't get a second-season pickup. A shame.
Edit: ABC announced today that it'll be bumping 'Cupid' this week in order to show two episodes of 'The Unusuals.' Gotta be a good sign.
5. 'Better Off Ted' (ABC) - Now here's a show I can heartily recommend now that it's finally rounded into form. It's not that its first few episodes weren't any good, it's just that they seemed disjointed, a good deal less than the sum of their parts. I stuck with it because it's bleeding potential all over, a cross between '30 Rock' and 'Arrested Development,' and I'm not the only one to describe it as such (the presence of 'Arrested' alum Portia de Rossi probably has a lot to do with that). The show has a smaller cast for its frenetic style (Both '30 Rock' and 'Arrested' featured twice as many regulars at the start of their runs), and it took a few episodes for the group to get some momentum going. In the meantime, the show glided along quietly, prompting the occasional chuckle and - importantly - avoiding that groaning feeling when a joke falls dead. It was in last week's racial-equality episode, where the corporation developed a new automatic light-switch sensor that couldn't see it's black employees, that the show finally found its stride. Look for it to start competing with '30 Rock' next season as "the one comedy you really should be watching."
6. 'Howie Do It' (NBC) - The name along gives me hives. Let's just move on.
7. 'Parks and Recreation' (NBC) - I want so much to like it. A pack of actors I really like (Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Paul Schneider, the suddenly ubiquitous Aziz Ansari), plus the people who made 'The Office' are behind it... but it just doesn't seem to fulfill its vast potential. Still, I think it's one of those shows that could get better as it continues its stretch - Schneider in particular seems to be finding a rhythm early on - so keep half an eye on it. But don't bother to move your schedule around to catch it. It's not worth it - yet.
8. 'Kings' (NBC) - It's already been canceled. Sorry, fellas. Thanks for playing. It woulda been great to have Ian McShane on network TV every week, though, right? Too bad.
9. 'Southland' (NBC) - It's not coincidental that right as 'ER' ends it run after taking a two-year victory lap (seriously, guys, that was embarrassing), we see promos for a cop show "from the people who brought you 'ER'" that just happens to fall exactly in 'ER's' old lineup spot. Smart marketing for a show that strikes such a similar tone. There's a little of bit of 'ER' here, a little bit of 'The Wire,' and more than a little bit of 'Crash,' too (morally layered cops butt heads as interlocking cross-racial stories collide across sprawling Los Angeles). Regina King has the Don Cheadle role, 'The OC's' Ben McKenzie takes on Ryan Philippe, and Tom Everett Scott waits around for someone to either write him something good or kill him off (I'm banking on the latter, myself). The show's a little uneven out of the gate, but King and especially McKenzie make the show worth watching. Seriously, Ben McKenzie is outstanding here as a quiet newbie cop unsure of his footing. Take a good look, haters - it turns out the man has some serious chops.
10. 'Dollhouse' (FOX) - I don't know exactly what to say here. We're ten episodes into the season and it looks like Fox will be shutting down the show just as it starts getting good. Up until a few weeks ago, the show hadn't seemed worth watching, but I'll be damned if Joss Whedon didn't finally up his game these last couple weeks (they didn't let him write what he wanted the first coupla weeks, and the show felt stale and lifeless as a result). It's all moot though: Fox has already announced that the season (and, assumably, series) finale featuring beloved Whedon-alum Felicia Day ('Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog,' which recently was the first internet show ever to be honored by the Paley Foundation) won't be airing on the network. That's the kiss of death, folks. Move on.
11. Sit Down, Shut Up (FOX) - Even if you loved 'Arrested Development,' it's still not worth it. That's right a show by all the same people who created my number-two all-time favorite show (behind 'The West Wing') is not worth watching. That's how bad it is.
12. The Osbournes Reloaded (FOX) - (insert suicide-by-shotgun joke here)
13. 'Lie To Me' (FOX) - It's almost certain to be picked up for a second season, so if all you're looking for is consistency, this is a good option. Of course, that's only if you're looking for a show that's so consistently awful it provides the best drinking game on television. Here's my sure-fire knock-you-down-for-the-count 'Lie To Me' drinking game:
1. Drink whenever it cuts away to closeup a subject doing something - fidgeting a hand, arching an eyebrow, flaring their nostrils, etc - and then it cuts back to Tim Roth furrowing his brow. Take two drinks if he turns to the person next to him and says 'we better keep him in custody,' or 'let's search the house.' Take three drinks if he exclaims 'he's lying!'
2. Drink whenever they are showing pictures of the subject frowning or furrowing his brow, and "the computer" puts up images of celebrities doing the same thing, to show how accurate the show is.
For Extreme Alcoholics Only:
3. Drink every time Tim Roth furrows his brow at another actor during a scene and jumps on top of his line, as if to say "Watch yourself. I was in Reservoir Dogs, dammit."
14. 'Harper's Island' (CBS) - I'm a complete pansy and haven't watched a single episode. Even the promos scare me. You'll have to make up your own mind. This may help you: nobody else tuned in after that first episode. It probably won't make it to the end of its run.
Hope that helps. Here's a quick report card:
1. 'Cupid' - C-
2. 'Castle' - B-
3. 'In The Motherhood' - D-
4. 'The Unusuals' - B+
5. Better Off Ted - B+
6. 'Howie Do It' - F
7. 'Parks and Recreation' - B-
8. 'Kings' - C
9. 'Southland' - B+
10. 'Dollhouse' - B-
11. 'Sit Down, Shut Up' - C-
12. 'The Osbournes Reloaded' - D-
13. 'Lie To Me' - D+ (Unintentional Comedic Value Grade - B+)
14. 'Harper's Island' - Absent
If they're lucky, maybe five of those shows will get a pickup for next year. I'm predicting that at most, Lie To Me, Castle, Southland, Parks and Recreation, Better of Ted, and The Unusuals (in that order) all make it through, and everything else dies. Let's see what survives.