fall tv 2012

Can There Be Too Much Quirk? And Three Other Burning Questions About Tuesday-Night TV

All week long, Vulture is bringing you a night-by-night breakdown of the new fall schedule, answering the burning questions of the day. Yesterday, we looked at the veteran Monday shows. Today, we’re looking at Tuesday nights, where it’s all about the newcomers, like CBS’s seventies-set cop show Vegas, and freshman comedies The Mindy Project, The New Normal, and Go On.

Can Vegas be more than just another CBS crime procedural? At one point in the pilot for period drama Vegas, law enforcement officials are seen standing in the desert, flashlights in hand, headed toward a dead body. One almost expects the Who to start blaring on the soundtrack and a title card for CSI: The Sixties to pop up. The scene is a crime-show cliché so obvious, it’s hard not to wonder whether it was deliberately inserted by producers as a way of calming any CBS execs nervous about the notion of something too different on a network schedule powered by CSIs and NCISes: “Look! We’ve got cops searching for corpses! We fit right in!” By the end of the hour, it’s clear Vegas aspires to something more than solving the whodunits of the week. As the Eye’s relentless promos have likely informed you, it’s also about cowboy/sheriff Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) and his unconventional ways of keeping the sin in the city under control, particularly as organized crime strengthens its grip on the casino business. There’s also the promise of a showdown between Lamb and the New Mobster in Town (Michael Chiklis) and all the sudsy drama such confrontation might offer. In these ways, Vegas has echoes of The Good Wife, a legal drama as much about personal politics as courtroom maneuvering. The latter show has found a way to balance the stand-alone stories CBS programmers worship while also feeling like the sort of serialized gem you might find on AMC or FX. Alas, ratings for Good Wife have never been stellar, and while the show has lasted four seasons, that’s mostly because Eye execs love to have a critically beloved jewel to sit atop their annual Nielsen crowns. As a result, CBS suits are unlikely to let another show go down the Good path; it’ll be a shock if they allow Vegas producers to focus more on the looming Quaid-Chiklis showdown than the more mundane collaring of crooks. That said, the real-life Lamb is a truly colorful character, and Chiklis is always fun to watch. Even if Vegas doesn’t attempt to go dark, it could yet turn into a compelling character study worth following.  

Will NBC’s The New Normal Be Another Hit for Ryan Murphy? If you took American Horror Story’s politically incorrect matriarch Constance, zapped her homicidal tendencies, and plopped her down in a half-hour sitcom with Glee’s Kurt and Blaine all grown up and looking to expand their family, you’d have something close to The New Normal. In Ryan Murphy’s latest, a gay couple (Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells and The Hangover’s Justin Bartha) who want a child hire single mom Goldie (One Day’s Georgia King) to carry their baby. Unfortunately for all of them, her grandma (Ellen Barkin) is as racist, homophobic, and offensive as, well, anyone on conservative talk radio. Consider this Murphy’s Modern Family by way of All in the Family, and a struggling NBC has high hopes for it. The network is stripping the show across three nights this week, and NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt told Vulture last week he was especially happy to see it test very well with young men in the 18-34 demographic. Murphy received the blessing of Norman Lear himself, recently tweeting that the godfather of envelope-pushing sitcoms pronounced The New Normal “excellent,” but it remains to be seen how the already-polarizing new show will fare in grabbing a broad audience. (One NBC affiliate in Utah already decided not to air it, but that seemed inevitable and hardly a tried-and-true omen of national controversy.) Critics haven’t been overwhelmed: The show received a 62 Metacritic score, and our own Matt Zoller Seitz called itModern Family Lite.” Monday’s special preview drew an okay 6.9 million viewers following the season-three premiere of The Voice, but it will be more telling to see how it fairs in its regular Tuesday night slot where it comes after the more conventional Matthew Perry comedy Go On. The good news is NBC’s ratings bar is not all that high for comedy, and Murphy’s tendency to swing for the extremes has paid off before (Glee, Horror Story, Nip/Tuck) and could very well work on the network that’s already home to risk-takers like 30 Rock, Community, and Smash (an unintentional comedy in its first season).

Is grief funny? Oy, not really, but that’s not stopping Go On from trying to wring laughs out of a bereavement support group. It’s a tough choice of premise, because even TV dramas have a spotty record of portraying loss: Rescue Me used hallucinations to illustrate its characters’ magical thinking, but the show dropped that conceit part of the way through its run. Grey’s Anatomy has tried a number of times to plumb the depths of its characters’ various states of mourning, but each time it sort of chickens out (think: Denny’s ghost). Bunheads’ star characters are people who just lost an adult child and just lost a spouse — which the show only rarely mentions or acknowledges. (Denial ain’t just a river through the first stage of grief, etc.) There’s no one accurate portrayal of grief; one person’s lying on the floor weeping is another’s half-marathon. You can’t develop a viable sitcom character without having a solid idea of his or her motivations — but grief motivates us each to do different things and, on any given day, can motivate us to be extra ambitious (“She would want me to succeed!”) or basically catatonic (“She’s not here; it doesn’t even matter if I succeed.”) or a number of things in between. Lots and lots of comedy comes from the contrast between what we expect to happen and what actually happens, and that puts Go On in a weird position. I expect that my brother wouldn’t die, but he did! Ha, ha, ha? Or, I expected to feel better today, but I don’t! It’s just as bad as it ever was! Ha? I grieve this way, but these characters are so strange that they grief this other way. It’s not that there’s no way to mine tragedy for humor — the secret ingredient is time — but it’s not easy.

Are we approaching peak quirkiness with The Mindy Project airing after New Girl? Nope! Sure, both shows center on 30-year-old women trying to turn over a new leaf, and both shows use a lot of pop-infused chitchat to flesh out their secondary characters. But let’s all resist the urge to over-adorablize women’s behavior by calling it “quirky” as a way of putting it down. Wearing goofy fake teeth to a wedding? Fine, New Girl, that’s textbook quirky. Getting really drunk at your ex-boyfriend’s wedding and spending a night in jail? That’s not quirky. (Though it is funny and surprisingly endearing on Mindy.) What we are approaching is a critical mass of banter. And it’s not just New Girl and The Mindy Project: Tuesdays from 9 to 10 p.m., America is in banterville, with Go On and The New Normal on NBC, Happy Endings, and Don’t Trust the B—- on ABC, and this block on Fox. Go ahead, count the pop-culture allusions.

Fall TV: Four Burning Questions About Tuesdays