What a perverse year it’s been for television! Even before Wall Street collapsed, the network advertising model was warping like bad wallpaper, creating a risk-averse (and product-placement-friendly) environment for anyone trying to launch a new series. So it’s no surprise to find the prime-time schedule stuffed with CSI look-alikes, glib mysteries interchangeable as Lego blocks.
Still, as a human being who has watched possibly every episode of Law & Order: Original Famous Ray’s—catch three episodes, it’s a procedural, catch 200, it’s a pointillist character study—I can’t say I hate the genre. Even the slickest recent examples, like The Mentalist, Lie to Me, and the overrated The Closer, are comfort food. But it’s refreshing to encounter The Unusuals, a procedural that is a step up from the usual quip-over-a-corpse fare. Set in New York, the series is a fast-paced genre-mixer, something like M*A*S*H crossed with Barney Miller plus a touch of Wonderfalls—a gritty cop comedy with a little supernatural flavor. The gimmick is that its homicide squad is staffed with oddballs, each with his or her own secret to unfold, but the pleasures of watching are sheerly tonal. Unlike its slicker siblings, The Unusuals is down-to-earth yet confidently strange, its stylized humor embedded in a genuinely urban, dirty setting. These cops eat in greasy spoons and stomp around on Rockaway Boulevard. Everyone talks out of the corner of his mouth, screwball and hard-boiled: “You like when ya snap their necks, dontcha, Harold,” growls a detective at a cat murderer.
Everygirl Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia) is miscast as a cop with a fancy Upper East Side pedigree, but the rest of the ensemble is great, including Harold Perrineau (Lost’s Michael!) as a paranoid cop and Adam Goldberg as his self-destructive partner. Quirky feels like a curse word, tainted forever by the legacy of David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, etc.), but The Unusuals might actually turn the word back into praise.
In contrast, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency seems highly conventional at first sight, almost chick-litish, despite its exotic Botswana setting: There’s a neurotic sidekick, a sassy gay neighbor—even a platonic friend who might be a love interest. And yet the premiere, based on the popular book series by Alexander McCall Smith and gorgeously filmed by Anthony Minghella (it was his final project), feels like entering a peaceful dream. This is unusual fare for HBO, sunny and serene and easy to dismiss. But I think it will find an enthusiastic audience for its benign vision of the detective as feminine healer, grounded in the show’s lovely lead performance by singer Jill Scott as Precious, a divorced woman of “traditional build” who believes that “women see things that men do not see.” If the dialogue occasionally teeters into cutesy faux-innocence, the series picks up steam whenever consequential dangers appear: a kidnapped child, threats from a gangster (Idris Elba, working the same vein of thuggish elegance he exploited so well on The Wire)—offsetting the valentine warmth with real pain. And the silly, sexy bits are just fun, as when a shameless adulterer pursues Precious with offers of “iced tea for my fatty,” then purrs, “I am as single as Jesus Christ!”
Peacock Rogues and Brainy Brunettes
I’d long been a Bones skeptic, figuring it for just another death-fetish showcase, an excuse for close-ups of splayed female corpses. But I was wrong, wrong, wrong; now that I’ve caught up on reruns, I can see why the show generates such a cult following, especially for the chemistry between David Boreanaz’s FBI guy and Emily Deschanel’s touchingly serious forensic anthropologist, who makes worrying look like a kind of beauty. It’s hard to say if ABC’s new Castle will have the same staying power, but it’s a likable enough Bones copycat, with its own swaggering Whedon hero in the male lead (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion as a preening novelist), teamed with yet another serious brunette cop (Stana Katic). The series is primarily goofy formulaic fun, and so far, Katic is no Deschanel, but like its twin, the series uses that shockingly durable Remington Steele DNA—peacock dude, furrowed-brow femme—to build neat puzzles out of human suffering.
ABC’s other “new” procedural, Cupid, is actually a revived, recast version of the wonderful and neglected original show, which ran for one season in 1998 and starred Jeremy Piven (pre-Entourage, pre-mercury). Created, then and now, by Veronica Mars’ Rob Thomas, Cupid is not literally a cop show: Its investigative team comprises a Greek God—literally—and a shrink. The two investigate love stories, not homicides, a clever conceit that injects the procedural form with the dizzy spirit of a Drew Barrymore film festival. Like Bones and Castle, it’s fueled by the sparks of a roguish charmer paired with a female brainiac—the wonderful, hairy Bobby Cannavale (escaping his “funky spunk” history on Sex and the City, I hope) and Sarah Paulson, a skeptical blonde for a change. The pilot is studded with sweet pop songs and shot through with goofy touches like Cupid as a bartender offering Paulson drinks including an “after-hours grope on a lunatic’s futon.” I can’t say I love it yet, but it’s awfully attractive.
With so many procedurals, it would be nice to praise Kings, which at least has an original structure: It’s based on the Bible. Sadly, the show is carved out of pure phony gravitas—like The West Wing, only more sanctimonious. It’s pleasant to see Ian McShane, but that doesn’t outweigh dungeon-master dialogue like “Bad dreams, I’ll wager!” (And I know the show is biblical, but is it really this impossible to imagine women in power?) With so much blather about Manly Fate, Kings resembles the talkiest parts of Lost, minus the fun polar bears.
Mommyville and the Suburbs of Bile
Every one of the excellent sitcoms currently airing on the major networks is a workplace comedy (30 Rock, The Office, Scrubs) or a Friendsish ensemble like How I Met Your Mother: urban adult territory. This should make it, in theory, the ideal time to launch a new, truly great family-type sitcom, something warm, something smart, something less gross than the repulsive (and repulsively popular) Two and a Half Men—Roseanne redux.
Instead, we get Surviving Suburbia, Bob Saget’s rage-inducingly grim new series, for which there is no excuse. Remember back when everyone theorized that you couldn’t have a dislikable main character, that era before Larry David–alikes replicated across the airwaves? In place of Saget’s real-life comic shtick, which is genuinely outrageous and dirty, we get sour, rehashed Honeymooners, misanthropy without insight. As on any detergent commercial, Saget is the grouchy husband, Cynthia Stevenson the perky-tolerant wife. The suburb they occupy is a conglomeration of bilious clichés, where fat women are horny, men love strippers, and kids say darned things. When someone comments about a cigar, “I hear they’re rolled between the thighs of Cuban virgins,” the laugh track roars. When an overweight neighbor tugs house keys from her bosom, Saget snarks, “Straight from the treasure chest.” And when, during a house-sitting escapade, Saget and his pervy neighbor accidentally light the drapes in flames, I fantasized that all the characters died in the blaze.
In contrast, In The Motherhood, a lumpy, queasy sitcom about “mommies,” is a less repulsive failure that fortunately won’t be around long: After the premiere aired, the network cut its order to seven episodes. Still, to my knowledge, it’s worth noting as the first network series to be created not by a film-production company but directly by advertisers—Suave and Sprint, collaborating with our new branded-entertainment overlord, MindShare Entertainment. It’s a depressing trend we’ll be seeing more of (and while I’m raving about product integration, I’d also like to rescind half of my praise for Trust Me, which currently spends whole episodes shilling for Dove and Rolling Rock). Still, if series like In The Motherhood are designed as Trojan horses for product placement, they won’t have much impact if they’re as weakly written as this Frankensteinian mulch of mommy-war clichés and “Santa is dead” gags.
I had higher expectations for Sit Down, Shut Up, an animated series created by Arrested Development’s Mitchell Hurwitz, with a great cast including Jason Bateman and Will Arnett—an adult satire set in a high school, just like Strangers With Candy! Man, what a disappointment. While Strangers With Candy centered around Amy Sedaris’s wild, sick, truly original anti-heroine Jerri Blank, here we’re stuck with the usual L.A. TV writer’s avatar, the sardonic, smart-ass “nice guy” jerk lusting after a dumb blonde. Poor Kristin Chenoweth is stuck voicing a busty New Age idiot, a 1972-era stereotype who whines, “You maaaan, you rational man!” For variety, there are also menopausal-hag jokes, gags about “yam sacks” and “chesticles,” headache-inducing meta (a character says “I’m not going to test well”), and “edgy” gay and Muslim gags indistinguishable from actual racist and homophobic gay and Muslim gags. Also, can we have some sort of rule outlawing funny names for porn magazines (yeah, yeah, Pacific Rim, ba-bump-bump)? If this is edgy, please bring me some smooth.
ABC. Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
HBO. Sundays at 8 p.m.
Fox. Thursdays at 8 p.m.
ABC. Mondays at 10 p.m.
ABC. Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
NBC. Sundays at 8 p.m.
ABC. Mondays at 9:30 p.m.
In the Motherhood
ABC. Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Sit Down, Shut Up
Fox. Premieres April 19 at 8:30 p.m.