What's The Fall TV Season About? Masculinity, Fairy Tales, And The '60s

May 18, 2011
Originally published on May 18, 2011 7:03 pm

It's only natural, I think, that my eyes have crossed after hearing about more than 30 new fall shows from four networks in the last three days — with the CW still to come tomorrow. But it's not too early to take note of some of the emerging themes that will make multiple appearances on the fall schedule.

(Please note: NONE OF THESE ARE NECESSARILY BAD SHOWS. They haven't even been seen yet. This is strictly about pulling back and noting the weird way shows come in twos and threes. A few years back, 30 Rock would have been part of a trend called "Television Apparently Thinks You Want To See Two Different Shows About The Making Of Saturday Night Live," and that turned out all right — for 30 Rock, anyway. Not so much for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.)

Shows About Men Being Men, In The Most Manly Way Possible

Nothing seems to be occupying the minds of the Hollywood comedy machine quite like masculinity. ABC alone features three different new comedies that are explicitly marketed as being about what in the heck it means to be a guy these days.

One is the very Bosom-Buddies-like Work It, where putting on a dress to get a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep apparently fills a fella with insight about his feminine side. One is Man Up, where three men search for their "inner tough guys" in a world of "pomegranate body wash." (We've all learned that good-smelling body wash and masculinity are utterly irreconcilable, right?) One is Last Man Standing, where Tim Allen grunts (just a guess) about living in a house with his wife and daughters — how will he navigate this sea of estrogen? HOW?

And over at CBS, there's How To Be A Gentleman, about a nice but "refined" man who hires a sometimes "rude, loud and sloppy" guy he knows to teach him how to be — you guessed it — a "real man." Because nothing says "real man" like "rude, loud and sloppy." Am I right, ladies? They've cracked our code! Now they know what we say to each other between Sex And The City reruns when we are trying on shoes with our hair in curlers!

Fairy Tales Can Come True, It Can Happen To You, SO RUN LIKE THE WIND

There's a face-off coming this fall between NBC's Grimm, about a terrifying world in which fairy tales are all too real, and ABC's Once Upon A Time, about a terrifying town in which fairy tales are all too real. So if you read Jack And The Beanstalk and thought, "I wish that were a dangerous, strangling beanstalk, and Jack's cow shot lightning out of its udders," you may be closer to your ideal, bleak, child-terrifying television world than you have ever been before.

She's No Lady, She's My Best Friend

On four fall comedies (four!), pairs of women are thrown together as friends and/or roommates. Apartment 23 and 2 Broke Girls are about pairs of unlikely roommates, the former pair hanging around with James Van Der Beek and the latter pair plotting a future in the cupcake industry — which, at the time this pilot was written, could probably have been described as "burgeoning." (Perhaps it will be retooled for fall and changed to macaroons or whoopie pies, preferably delivered in a food truck.)

Best Friends Forever and I Hate My Teenage Daughter, on the other hand, are about more (chronologically) mature pairs of friends, one bonding over relationship problems and one bonding over the titular distaste for their own kids.

So in short, you have your choice of pairs of women who are interested in: Dawson's Creek, cupcakes, dating/marriage, and children. That may sound a little bit limiting, but let's get serious: there are FOUR FALL COMEDIES with TWO FEMALE LEADS EACH, and some of them are even WRITTEN BY WOMEN, and those are just the BFF-coms. That's before the rom-coms and other stuff like The New Girl on Fox, starring Zooey Deschanel.

And one more special note: At CW's upfront presentation tomorrow, they'll be providing details on Ringer, a new thriller starring Sarah Michelle Gellar — that's Buffy to you.

So in this regard: Thank you, television.

Welcome, Beautiful Women Of The 1960s!

The fact that Mad Men airs on AMC and doesn't have an audience the size of the one that tunes in for Dancing With The Stars hasn't prevented the broadcast networks from trying to figure out how to capitalize on the fascination with the '60s while giving the whole thing a little more mass appeal. How do you do that? Girls, girls, girls!

The two '60s retro shows kicking off this fall are called Pan Am and The Playboy Club. ABC's Pan Am is about airline stewardesses (back when "stewardesses" was a thing), and NBC's The Playboy Club ... well, if you can't figure out what The Playboy Club is about, you're just not trying. Both of these shows, particularly the latter, offer lots of opportunities for the appreciation of beautiful women all decked out — which has always been a big part of Mad Men, too, but perhaps not quite as much so as on a show named after Playboy.

That's Trippy, Man

Ever since Lost — well, maybe ever since The X-Files — television has searched for the next "that's really out there" concept to fully take off. Even though shows with cerebral, high-concept premises travel a path scattered with the exquisitely plotted, often unfinished corpses of everything from Flash Forward to The Event to Dollhouse, the search continues.

This year, between fall and midseason, there will be several new attempts. There's the NBC drama Awake, about a cop who has two lives, one of which is real and one of which is a dream, BUT WHICH ONE IS WHICH? There's Fox's Alcatraz, where something mysterious is causing former inmates to reappear, BUT WHAT? There's CBS's A Gifted Man, about a man whose dead ex-wife starts talking to him from beyond the grave, BUT HOW? There's Fox's new American Idol-alike The X Factor, where Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul are mysteriously drawn back to each other again and again, BUT WHY?

The truth of the matter? It's a tough time to be a serialized drama. But it's always a tough time to be a serialized drama.

And So, In Conclusion

This is the part of the season where all of these shows (absent the most cynical) believe they have a chance to succeed, and most of them are wrong. Unless there is a shocking and sudden change in the television business, most of them will die, because that's the way it works.

CBS began its upfront presentation by touting the fact that of the five fall shows it introduced at this time last year, three are still alive. That's considered a very good record, and it barely beats a 50 percent success rate. It can be tough to define anymore exactly what's "fall" and what's "midseason," but by my count, Fox renewed one of last fall's three new shows. NBC and ABC renewed zero out of a combined twelve. Zero! (That doesn't count midseason replacements, where everybody did at least a tiny bit better.)

This is the time when there are a lot of little lights twinkling in the distance. When we get close to them, many will turn out to be streetlights over rusted-out gas stations ("Oh, bummer"), a few will be airplanes ("Pretty. Anyway..."), and one or two will pass for comets you might actually really enjoy for as long as they're there.

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This week in New York, the broadcast and cable television networks are trotting out their biggest dogs and their fanciest ponies. It's called the upfronts, when the networks sell their fall lineups to advertisers and try desperately to build buzz around new stars, new concepts and, of course, new shows or, as is often the case, putting a new spin on an old idea. There never seem to be a shortage of detective series or medical dramas.

Well, joining us to talk about what's coming to the TV lineup this fall is NPR's pop culture blogger Linda Holmes.

Linda, I'm so glad you're back with us.

LINDA HOLMES: Oh, thank you. I'm glad too.

NORRIS: Now, we should explain. The cables are also rolling out new shows for the fall, but we're going to focus on the upfronts, this period of time when the networks - ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox - roll out their new shows, and let's get right to it. What's the new show that you're most excited about?

HOLMES: Well, it's actually not coming until mid-season, but the best clips that I've seen this week have been for a show called "Awake" on NBC, which is about a cop who gets into a car accident with his wife and son, and then when he wakes up, he is living in two alternate worlds where in one world, his wife is alive and his son has died, and in the other world, his son is alive and his wife has died, and he alternates back and forth whenever he falls asleep, but he doesn't know which one is real.

It's a little bit tough to explain. Fortunately, the trailers for a lot of these shows are online already, so we can listen to a little bit of the trailer for "Awake."

(Soundbite of trailer, "Awake")

Mr. JASON ISAACS (Actor): (as Michael Britten) I'm awake with my wife, then I close my eyes, I open them, I'm awake with my son.

Ms. CHERRY JONES (Actress): (as Dr. Judith Evans) Well, I can assure you, Detective Britten, this is not a dream. What?

Mr. ISAACS: (as Michael Britten) It's exactly what the other shrink said.

HOLMES: I love the premise of this show. It does face long odds. It's difficult for serialized, complex dramas like this on broadcast television. Interestingly enough, the same creator who made this show, who's a guy named Kyle Killen, made "Lone Star," which was most critics' favorite show of last year, which lasted...

NORRIS: But didn't last very long.

HOLMES: Two episodes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOLMES: ...two episodes, so we're all hoping for a better outcome for Kyle Killen this year.

NORRIS: We should note that most of the shows that they roll out during the upfronts don't actually have a long shelf life.

HOLMES: Absolutely true. I went back and counted the ones from last fall. CBS did a little better. They rolled out five shows for fall, and three of them are still on. That's a great track record. NBC, ABC and Fox, between three of them rolled out 15 new shows last fall of which one is still alive, one.

That is an astonishingly poor track record when you think about how much energy is going into making these shows, which everyone is so excited about making and presenting, and most of them will die.

NORRIS: And kind of a strange business model also.

HOLMES: It is a bizarre business model in a lot of ways because they will come on and most of them will not last. But everybody hopes that their show will be different - and a couple of them will be every year.

NORRIS: You know, for a long time, the sitcom was the staple of the network evening lineup. Are there interesting sitcoms this time? Is this the return of the sitcom?

HOLMES: The sitcoms this year, with a few exceptions, seem pretty conventional. There are four sitcoms that are about masculinity and the idea of what it is to be a man that are explicitly being marketed that way, that's not subtext. There's one with guys who are in drag to get jobs, and so the whole what is it to be a man versus a woman and...

NORRIS: Didn't we see that years ago with Tom Hanks?

HOLMES: Yes, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOLMES: They called it "Bosom Buddies" many years ago. So there's a bunch of that stuff. There are a couple of exceptions. There's a sitcom with Zooey Deschanel, who was in "500 Days of Summer," called "The New Girl," that's on Fox, and it looks cute. She's obviously one of a couple of big stars coming to a TV show, which also happens every year, so...

NORRIS: Which one looks most promising?

HOLMES: Of the sitcoms, I would say it is "The New Girl" probably. It's very hard to tell. It's always important to say you got to take the upfronts with a grain of salt. You're looking at clips and trailers, and some of the pilots will be completely re-shot before it's over.

NORRIS: Linda Holmes, always good to talk you.

HOLMES: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you too.

NORRIS: Linda Holmes writes NPR's pop culture blog called Monkey See. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.