Friday, October 14, 2011

Notes on Pop Culture: Assessing the New TV Season

The fall TV season starts in one big, mad rush as the networks simultaneously release their new and returning shows in a short period of time. It’s hard to figure out what’s worth your time and what’s not. Already, The Playboy Club (which I hated), Charlie’s Angels, Free Agents, How to Be a Gentleman (none of which I never watched) have been cancelled. Other new shows are still on the bubble.

As for returning shows, there’s been a mixed bag, ratings-wise, with some disappointing and others waging a strong showing.

Here are some of the shows that I have seen, liked and plan to stick with:

Modern Family: My beloved Modern Family had a precarious beginning to its third season. I wasn’t all that big on the dude ranch episode and the Manny-sells-wrapping-paper episode was only so-so, with Phil and Luke’s weirdly violent YouTube basketball moment being the highlight. I was starting to worry that my favorite comedy, which has been showered with love and golden statues, was losing its touch.

Then came this week’s episode and it hit on all cylinders. Claire’s going to run for town council because she’s ticked that the town won’t put a stop sign up at an intersection in her neighborhood. This has tremendous, clenched Claire potential. Cam’s sanctimonious take-down of the dad who he thought had brought two young children to see a violent movie, only to learn he and Mitchell were in the wrong theater, was priceless social commentary and Phil’s accidental bruising of Luke and his drugging of Alex were pitch perfect. Throw in Luke’s sudden savvy and I’m hoping the writers are in the groove once again. More of what we saw this week and less of Cam yelling, "Stella!" in suburban streets.

Up All Night: It was this past week’s episode of the Will Arnett/Christina Applegate freshman comedy Up All Night – I reviewed it here on CliqueClack TV -- that solidified for me the conclusion that this show is a keeper. Although it focuses on new parent experiences that have been covered many times before by many different shows, Up All Night always seems to put its new, fresh spin on the subjects. (Its major weakness is figuring out what to do with Maya Rudolph, but they improved upon her character this week.)

For example, we’ve seen new TV parents struggle with neighbors partying and being really loud while the parents are trying to sleep and they know their baby’s going to be up soon, or the baby can’t get to sleep because of the noise before, but the way Arnett’s Chris and Applegate’s Reagan coped was much different. In a piece for Modern Mom I compared Up All Night to thirtysomething, which aired a bazillion years ago. In thirtysomething, when the Steadmans’ neighbors were having a loud party, Michael ran outside to the front stoop and fruitlessly shrieked at them to turn the music down while standing there, lamely, in his boxers. In Up All Night, Chris called police about the noise his neighbors were making, but after he provided his name, he and Reagan feared the neighbors consider them uncool so they quickly got dressed and ran across the street to the loud party and pretended they’d been there all along.

Chris and Reagan are two cute, wannabe hipster parents who are simply exhausted and to whom you want to give a giant hug.

The Good Wife: Untethered from the responsibility of actually having to be a martyred, betrayed wife any longer, I’m really digging the new Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) who's enjoying her illicit love affair with her boss Will Gardner. She seems to have developed a confident bounce in her step, loving her role as the public “good wife” who’s really having fun being bad. Adding Lisa Edelstein (formerly of House) to the cast and moving Eli Gold's political consulting work inside Lockhart Gardner were strokes of genius.

Homeland: The pilot episode of this Showtime terrorism/spy drama, Homeland blew me away. Who knew that Claire Danes, Angela Davis from My So-Called Life, could convincingly play a CIA agent with a drug problem who suspects a former U.S. POW, now regarded of an American hero, is a double agent for the enemy? Episode two is still sitting on my DVR awaiting a Saturday night viewing with my husband. If you miss 24, Homeland is for you.

Shows In Between:

Grey’s Anatomy: After a very strong seventh season, Grey’s Anatomy’s eighth season has been a disappointment thus far. We’ve seen the main character, Meredith Grey, become estranged from and practically shunned by her husband because she messed with a clinical trial of his, got fired (then quickly rehired) and then, as a result, the strained duo lost custody of their adopted daughter. Derek Shepherd has been transformed into an utterly unlikable, pompous character.

Owen and Cristina have been struggling with Cristina’s decision to abort their baby when he wanted to keep it. Though he’s trying to be supportive of her, it’s obvious that something’s shifted between them, and not just the fact that Owen has become chief of surgery after Richard took the fall for Meredith. These two have been among the few bright spots this season.

Last week’s episode was told from the men’s point of view and was, frankly pretty demeaning toward the male characters as it showed them stereotypically fighting over women and work, making erectile dysfunction jokes and wielding hammers and drinking beer as a way to cope with all that was bugging them. This week’s episode – which I reviewed here -- focused on a penile transplant and used the groundbreaking surgery as a clunky, clumsy metaphor for all sorts of things, from April Kepner’s virginity and Miranda Bailey dumping one guy for another, to Avery standing up for himself in the face of public ridicule from his mother.

After last season, I was expecting more than stunts like the transplant and men using power tools. I look for some emotional resonance when I tune into this show and I know it's something Grey’s can deliver.

Parenthood: There have been several heart-in-your-throat scenes in the third season of Parenthood, notably the scene where Alex said goodbye to Kristina and where the pregnant single gal who pushes the coffee cart around Julia's office turned down Julia's request to adopt her child, then, a few episodes later, changed her mind. (I reviewed that episode here.)

Adam looking for work and deciding to take a chance with his family's future by working on his brother's passion project is an intriguing idea, as is moving forward with having Julia and Joel adopt. But many of the other storylines have left me flat: Jasmine and Crosby dating other people and running into one another is thoroughly boring. Sarah dating the English teacher again hasn't gone anywhere. Amber trying to be bohemian and living in a rat-infested hole seems cliched. Zeek starring in erectile dysfunction commercials is just, what's the word . . . awkward.

It’s been a very uneven season thus far for Parenthood, which has been a letdown because the show has, in the past, seemed willing to delve deeply into issues, like Max’s Asperger’s or Alex's poverty for example. I think my problem with this season is that the episodes have been overstuffed with tons of storylines so they seem a mile wide and an inch thick. I like it better when they keep things simpler. However I’m not giving up on the Bravermans yet.

Still on my DVR awaiting my attention, the latest episodes of: Suburgatory, Homeland, The Middle, Parks and Recreation and The Middle.
What new/returning shows have you liked thus far this season?

Image credits: CBS and ABC.

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