Lunchtable TV Talk: Nashville redux

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When a show I really love is cancelled, I mourn it a little bit (Terriers, for example). When a show I love is renewed and then the renewal is inexplicably withdrawn (The Brink), I am furious.

Nashville is not one of these shows. My reaction to its existence and eventual cancellation was as muffled as the run-of-the-mill, trope-filled show itself. I liked the show at first. This did not last.

What started out as an entertaining, if soapy, look at a bunch of fictional country music stars became a ludicrous, predictable mockery of storytelling. I, for one, was pleased to see that it was finally put out of its misery. Only then to be disappointed that CMT decided to revive the show as one of the network’s offerings in original programming, claiming, “We will treasure Nashville like no other network”. Every other network and online platform is doing it, so why not CMT?

The only possible bright spot and hope for redemption is that the show was self-aware enough to know it was circling the drain and needed immediate therapy. It had already begun to significantly retool itself, gearing up for a kind of reboot in its fifth season. Nashville’s previous network. ABC, brought in veteran showrunners, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, to shake things up (they are both still on board with the CMT move). We’ll see if this makes a difference (and, despite low expectations, I will watch). After all, I love Connie Britton (was she not amazing in her small role as Faye Resnick in The People vs OJ Simpson?), actually want to see what happens with Hayden Panettiere’s difficult Juliette character and perhaps most crucially am interested in the way the character Will Lexington continues his coming-out journey. I have read that some of the neglected and/or mishandled characters and their stories will be gone (i.e., Layla Grant and her whiny, sniveling, overprivileged troublemaking – highly annoying because just when you wanted to root for her, she did something to ruin it; Luke Wheeler – after his engagement to Britton’s Rayna broke apart, he has just been hanging around for no apparent reason).

The thing about Nashville is that maybe it’s not safe to count it out, which is another reason I will watch again. After all, it started out well and pulled me in. It pulled a lot of people in. I just hope that it doesn’t go the way, say, a bad job does. I was reminded today as I started writing this about how sometimes you start a new job, and because it’s new and different, you get into it and really like it, but soon all the weaknesses show up and the structure starts creaking. Day by day (or in the case of Nashville, episode by episode), you grow more disillusioned and unhappy. You stick with it in the absence of something else but feel yourself growing numb. Then when you try to quit, someone in the organization convinces you to stay (or the network promises big changes, as ABC was working on for Nashville). You have your doubts but agree. And immediately regret it. It’s time to cancel. In the case of the job, I cancelled. But I will still give Nashville another shot, hoping that it follows a happier trajectory than an unhappy corporate job.

Photo (c) 2010 Emily Carlin

Lunchtable TV Talk: Premature cancellation

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Do shows fail to find an audience because of (lack of or bad) marketing? Because today there is too much to choose from or just because the masses have questionable taste? (I know this to be true, and this is why I don’t much buy into the “wisdom of the crowd” or focus groups or anything that relies on tipping point-pleasing everyone logic. I, and most of my friends, are not the mass in the middle that wants to see lame singing contests on TV every night of the week or who once wanted more and more stuff like Fear Factor or Survivor or Big Brother. We’re not the ones who thought the title/concept of Big Brother was conceived with the reality show debacle that reality show “moment” spawned. We know exactly where Big Brother came from – and we know that Big Brother like tactics are exactly what are used to inform network decisions on TV cancellation.

So yeah… what about all those pleasant and sometimes fantastic shows that never found their audience, despite finding a voice?

I am sure there is a long list of television shows that I have loved – that you have loved – that saw a premature end. Then there are shows aplenty that started but could not end soon enough because they sucked that much.

Quite a few shows from past seasons were cancelled but were lovely: The Bridge, Better Off Ted, Lone Star, Party Down, Terriers. I still miss them sometimes when I think of them. And then there are some, like the hilarious The Brink on HBO. It was renewed during the first season’s run and sometime before the second season would have happened… HBO pulled the plug! I am miffed about that one and may yet be for a good while.

Somewhere in the middle were shows that were average and entertaining without being must-see. Or shows that glimmered with flashes of promise. And some things were just steadily decent.

I lament the loss of some of these – Gang Related had people like Cliff Curtis (a veteran of film of TV, who is currently a lead in Fear the Walking Dead); Terry O’Quinn (who will always make a sandwich of the bread-and-butter law enforcement style roles he commands); Jay Karnes (who is just the coolest guy in usually uncool roles). Most of these people will work no matter what. But it’s a shame when a cast comes together and works well but does not get a chance to see where it might go.

About a Boy is another similar show. Minnie Driver was sweet. Al Madrigal was silly. And overall it might have been a little mushy, but it was a mush not unlike a slightly sweet applesauce – easy to swallow and pleasant. Yes, I know – I seriously compared a TV show to applesauce.

And then I reflect on other show that I don’t miss but am not sure they would not have turned out okay – Monday Mornings, Taxi Brooklyn?

And then some, like Happy Endings, was vocally mourned by a lot of critics, who felt it was underrated – but I found it only rarely funny, often irritating and a lot less clever, funny or endearing than the aforementioned About a Boy. But still, it too might have been cancelled too soon.

But most of the actors involved in these undertakings landed on their feet elsewhere or already had well-established bearings.

Do we lose out on some of these things because we’ve hit peak TV? There’s too much to choose from or we have slow and poor attention spans? If that were true, the losses of some of these things would not still linger so many months and years after their demise.

TV renewal tease: The Brink

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No!

It’s one thing when a TV show just gets unceremoniously cancelled. It’s entirely another when a show you like is declared “safe” and gets renewed for another season… only to have the network pull out the proverbial rug from under you. Seriously, HBO… why did you renew and then renege on the brilliant, satirical The Brink?

Tease!

Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing

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I force-fed myself seven annoying seasons of The Gilmore Girls recently, thinking it could play unassumingly in the background while I did other things. But it was so annoying with too many fast-talking, high-pitched, histrionic characters that I could neither concentrate on and absorb it nor concentrate on everything else I was meant to be doing.

The West Wing, also seven seasons long, 22 episodes per season, is the opposite. (Hard to believe that it has been almost ten years since it ended!) It’s equally fast-talking and sometimes a bit preachy, but it is designed in a way that I can pay attention to it and do whatever else I need to do and get the most from both. I even heard Rob Lowe exclaim in exasperation, “Good night, nurse!” – an expression I had only ever heard my grandmother (and the character Mike Sloan in the long-gone but much-loved show Homefront) use (most people don’t believe me when I tell them that yes, in fact, this is a real expression).

I had seen isolated episodes of The West Wing during its original run, but most of it happened during a period when I did not watch much telly, much less ingest it like a pig at the trough as I do now. I was always impressed with The West Wing – its stories, its cast, its pace – but only now, thanks to Netflix, am I watching it from end to end. And it’s providing sheer contentment. I haven’t reached the point yet where Rob Lowe leaves or where John Spencer dies, depriving the show of one of its greatest assets.

Can you argue with a show that at its worst seems a little like a “very special episode” on some issue – but never overdoes it, really? And at its best, weaves words like “ensorcelled” into the script? Or with a show that during its run had a stellar leading cast and unparalleled caliber of guest stars (Oliver Platt, Edward James Olmos – he’s Admiral Adama now and forever for me, or Jaime Escalante!, Mary Louise Parker, John Larroquette, – great in his recent role in The Brink, Marlee Matlin, Gerald McRaney – who turns up everywhere, usually as a former or current military guy – and an insane, bursting list of others) but many others who were virtually unknown at the time but went on to other, big things (Ty Burrell of Modern Family, Evan Handler of Sex and the City and Californication, Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation, Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Danny Pudi of Community, Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and American Crime, Lisa Edelstein of House and the mercilessly shitty Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Jorja Fox of CSI, Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe and Connie Britton, looking teenager-young, of Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and Nashville…). And more… so many more.

This show encapsulates Aaron Sorkin‘s golden age. America wasn’t ready for him or his style in the too-clever but too-soon Sports Night, and he went too far with the overblown The Newsroom. But The West Wing was the pinnacle.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Brink

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Eager to find out how The Brink, a satirical comedy focused on a geopolitical crisis that ignites in Pakistan, ends, I keep watching. It’s a relatively funny journey – not too taxing or challenging given the political story (which can bog down shows attempting to be “light”, as this one aims to be). What sets this show apart is its stellar ensemble cast. Just when I get pulled into the scenes with the incorrigible, frenetic Jack Black and his driver, played by the multitalented Aasif Mandvi, the shift focuses to the sex-obsessed, liberal but never-taking-his-eye-off-the-ball US Secretary of State, played to perfection by Tim Robbins. But the show also has somewhat smaller but still standout roles for Pablo Schreiber, Carla Gugino (who also turned in a good performance recently in Wayward Pines) and John Larroquette.

On an entirely unrelated note, Larroquette’s presence sent me off on a nostalgic mental parade of past television, including Larroquette on the 80s sitcom classic, Night Court, of which he was the best part. But Night Court also included Harry Anderson, a most non-descript guy who nevertheless carved out a niche for himself as a magic aficionado and as a night-court judge, as a frequent guest star in Cheers and in the 80s/90s sitcom Dave’s World, based on the life of comedy writer, Dave Barry. And my twisted obituary-laced brain immediately recalls that Dave’s World’s Meshach Taylor (also famous for his turn as Anthony the ex-con in Designing Women) is dead – too young. Going back to Night Court, once again, whatever happened to Markie Post, the female lead in the show? Back in the 1990s she was in a little-watched but nevertheless entertaining Hearts Afire with the late John Ritter. (Of course my brain would lead me here – always the grim reaper.) Hearts Afire ended up being about a married couple working on a hometown newspaper in the south, but it started off being thematically not too different from Alpha House and The Brink – without the farce, of course. Incidentally, Hearts Afire also starred Billy Bob Thornton. But people were not quite ready for Billy Bob yet.

In some ways, ensemble shows like The Brink, as topical and sharp as they are, end up making me more interested in making connections – playing some kind of six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon connect-the-dots. Obviously. Nothing about the unfolding crisis and underhanded political rivalries playing out in high-stakes, behind-the-scenes conflicts should lead someone to forgotten two-season sitcoms like Hearts Afire. But for a TV-crazed lunatic like me, they do.