We're in the final stretch — kind of — at the Television Critics Association press tour. We've now heard from all the major broadcast networks, and we've got a day of set visits and three days of cable to close things out after today's CW and Showtime presentations.
At ABC, which presented Friday, there's a less palpable sense of panic than you might expect, given that they're now in fourth place. At the time they presented on Friday, the Modern Family cast hadn't yet wrapped up their contract negotiations (which they now have), so that question dominated the executive session with entertainment president Paul Lee. Lee's press conference stood out for his remarkably consistent love of absolutely everything. Within this one session, he declared that he loved the new drama Nashville, the existing drama Revenge, country music, a documentary he made about Woody Guthrie, new aliens-next-door comedy The Neighbors, his job, America, ABC, taking risks, the concept of the failed show Duets, the performances on failed show Duets, and the title of Gotham, a show he didn't pick up. Paul Lee is a man who feels a lot of love.
The ABC shows this year seem easier to love in drama than in comedy. They've tried to cross Revenge and Once Upon A Time, their successes from last season, and come up with 666 Park, a horror-ish, soap-ish hour about a haunted apartment building run by, apparently, the devil. It stars Terry O'Quinn (Lost) and Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty, most significantly), and you should expect that the apartment building is only going to get more dangerous.
They also have Nashville, a drama set in the worlds of country music and politics, starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere in a battle that everybody absolutely swears isn't supposed to bring to mind Reba McEntire and Taylor Swift. It's got a strong cast that also includes Eric Close, Robert Wisdom (who played Bunny Colvin on The Wire) and Powers Boothe, and it comes from Callie Khouri, who wrote Thelma and Louise, with R.J. Cutler also producing — he made the documentaries The War Room and The September Issue. There's perhaps a little too much going on in the pilot, but it's got the goods, and you will hear some good music – they've got T-Bone Burnett on board to produce it.
The third of the ABC dramas is Last Resort, from producer Shawn Ryan, who also made The Shield as well as the sadly short-lived Terriers and The Chicago Code. Starring the marvelous Andre Braugher and one-time Felicity boyfriend Scott Speedman, it tells the story of a submarine crew that questions an order and winds up ... well, "going rogue," sort of, but Ryan is emphatic that they remain patriots who are at odds only with particular leaders, not with the country. It's an intriguing idea, and they certainly have the talent on hand for it to be strong.
ABC's comedies are much less interesting, unfortunately. They're working less on the oddball side of their brand (which supports Happy Endings and Suburgatory) and more on their family comedy brand (which supports Tim Allen's Last Man Standing). It's a return to what they had in the original "TGIF" days, and this time around it's bringing you Malibu Country, starring Lily Tomlin and Reba (formerly McEntire, now just Reba) as a mother and daughter who leave the daughter's rotten husband in Nashville and head out to California. The clip package contains a marijuana lollipop joke, and I secretly suspect that California being crazy is most of the joke here.
Their other fall comedy launch seems to come from the same giggly part of Paul Lee that took great pleasure in taunting critics last year about how much he loved the cross-dressing comedy Work It. This one is about a family that moves into a neighborhood and finds that everyone who lives there is an alien named after a professional athlete. It's a profoundly silly show, but then so was My Favorite Martian and so was Alf. The Neighbors actually made me chortle a couple of times, as absolutely ridiculous as it is, which is more than I can say for a lot of the fall comedies.
We also heard from CBS, where things are so stable that there's always a limited amount of new stuff. When your stuff is mostly working, you don't have as many holes to fill and you don't throw out as many shows as a place like NBC or ABC. They've only got one comedy, in fact – called Partners, it's from David Kohan and Max Mutchnick. Their big credit is creating Will & Grace, but it's important to keep in mind that they also created Good Morning Miami and the awful William Shatner version of Bleep My Dad Says. So make of that what you will. Partners stars two fine actors, David Krumholtz and Michael Urie, but it's one of my least favorite pilots. The relationship between the guys is all "tell" and no "show" (in other words, you wouldn't believe they liked each other or had any reason to like each other except that they keep telling you they do). Urie's character is an obnoxious knot of dated gay stereotypes, which is confounding, given that he brought such warmth to the role of Marc on Ugly Betty, which so easily could have been an obnoxious knot of dated gay stereotypes. It's a distressing waste of a good cast, and as much as I try to give comedies multiple episodes to find their feet, this is one I will find difficult to watch again.
The new CBS dramas, on the other hand, look pretty good. They're taking a lot of heat for Elementary, their Sherlock Holmes show in which Lucy Liu plays Watson (who, yes, is a woman in this version), simply because people like the BBC Sherlock so much. But taken on its own terms, Elementary is a solidly constructed crime procedural. Jonny Lee Miller (as Holmes) and Liu are both good, their relationship is intriguing (and the producers swear it is a friends/partners relationship, period), and if they can manage a good mystery story every week, it could fit in very well at CBS. Obviously, a lot of people who might otherwise like it will bring with them their attachment to Sherlock, but there have been countless versions of Sherlock Holmes long before Sherlock – and that one co-exists just fine with the Robert Downey, Jr. version, so there's no reason there isn't room for this, too.
Made In Jersey is positively featherweight; it's a lawyer show starring Janet Montgomery as a high-haired but very smart attorney surrounded by her big Jersey family. There's not a lot to this show yet, at least based on the pilot, but Montgomery (who's actually a Brit, incidentally) is endearing and they're not laying on the Jersey too thick at this point; it's a pretty loving portrayal. The procedurals at CBS have gotten pretty heavy and dark (CSI and so forth), and even The Good Wife can be pretty depressing. This gives them something with a little more comedy mixed in, and probably a little less dark psychology than some of the other dramas on the network.
Wrapping up the CBS dramas, I like Vegas quite a lot – set in 1960, it follows the story of Sheriff Ralph Lamb, a real lawman who was there for the early days of the Vegas strip. Lamb is played by Dennis Quaid, the big mob guy is played by Michael Chiklis, and there's a lot in the pilot that's promising. It's sort of half-western/half-cop-show, and they show a good balance in the first episode between a mystery that can be solved within the hour and a longer arc of the law/mafia battle that will continue.
So today includes presentations from the CW – which has a Green Arrow show called Arrow and a doctor show with Meryl Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer, among others – and Showtime. Showtime will be presenting returning shows, including Dexter, Weeds, and the recently Emmy-nominated Homeland. The cable days later this week will include all kinds of things: BBC America, which is presenting the scripted series Copper and The Spies Of Warsaw (the latter starring David Tennant); The Weather Channel's Coast Guard Florida; a Discovery special where they crashed a plane; and presentations from HBO, which will include a chance for Aaron Sorkin of The Newsroom to chat with critics, which should be interesting.
Hang in there; it's not over yet.