Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Piling on Mondays at 8

Every year, the networks seemingly decide to put all of their good and/or promising shows in the same time slot for no discernible reason. A couple of seasons ago, it was Tuesdays at 9, which had the first seasons of Veronica Mars and House, Scrubs when it was still mostly enjoyable and some other show (maybe The Amazing Race?). That was followed up with a season where Thursdays at 8 boasted Alias (in its bizarre but oddly compelling final season), Smallville when it was still worth paying attention to, Everybody Hates Chris when it was on the pop culture radar, The O.C. when people still felt obligated to pay attention to THAT and Survivor.

This season, four of the major networks have tossed high-quality programs on Mondays at 8, a point in the week when it's entirely too early to be making major decisions like this. The only show that's really NOT worth watching in the hour is the one, natch, nearly everyone is, Dancing with the Stars, which was once a cheesily enjoyable curio but has long since passed the point where it's at all worth watching (even AMERICAN IDOL has more variety built into its template). It doesn't help that all of these shows, save one, are series in their second seasons and that most of them are hugely, greatly improved. Let's take a look, network by network.

ABC: As mentioned, all we see here is Dancing with the Stars. When I was working as a paid TV critic, I felt the need to keep up with this series, but now that I'm only doing this for the fun of it, I don't see why I should watch. I almost did, simply because of Chloris Leachman, but my Mary Tyler Moore fanboyism is just not that strong.

CBS: America's official network of staid consistency and enjoyment for old people (seriously, America, NCIS and The Mentalist?) boasts what is probably its best overall hour with the second season of nerdcom The Big Bang Theory and the fourth season of How I Met Your Mother, a series I've sung the praises of for many a year. The two series have been growing by leaps and bounds in the ratings from week to week, with HIMYM becoming a top-ten hit in the key demo after years of critics bemoaning how the show WOULD be a hit if it were just on another network. The performance of these two, along with the continued consistency of 9 p.m.'s Two and a Half Men and the 8 p.m. comedy hour on Wednesdays on CBS have garnered the attention of Hollywood, and I wouldn't be surprised if comedy comes back in a big way sometime in the next few seasons.

I wasn't a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory through most of its first season, when it was too cruel by half (as so many Chuck Lorre sitcoms have been), but it became clear that the show had a breakout character and star in the melding of the antisocial Sheldon with the acting of Jim Parsons. Parsons overcame the stereotyping in the writing to find the odd soul of the character, and the writers really responded to his performance, giving him more and more hilarious things to play and do. Oddly, the show isn't really ABOUT Sheldon; it's always, ostensibly, been about the odd friendship and courtship between Johnny Galecki's Leonard and Kaley Cuoco's Penny. This story never really went anywhere, and the undertone -- "How dare this nerd attempt to date this pretty girl!" -- was always a little disturbing. The show's made the wise decision to almost completely remove this storyline from its overplot (Leonard is now dating a fetching young lady played by Sara Rue, a fine actress who's always deserved better), but it HAS had the effect of making Leonard -- the lead -- the most boring character on the show, especially since the show's former weak link, Penny, is now sharing so many enjoyable scenes with Sheldon, where she pushes his buttons. Parsons is just terrific doing this sort of thing, and he deserves an Emmy nomination. The show itself, while very funny, still occasionally feels like it doesn't really want to BE a part of nerd culture, but would rather float above it and take potshots (notice how all of the nerds are pretty much nerds for everything and don't bother to differentiate or specialize), and the plotting is often a little too lackadaisical. It's not a great show, and it will probably never be one, but it's a very, very solid B+ sitcom (one of only two on TV, really, along with Old Christine), and that's something we need more, not less of.

HIMYM, meanwhile, is having almost the opposite problem. It hasn't been as funny this season as it has been in the past, but the plotting has been very strong, particularly in the Stella arc and in the story of how Marshall and Lily gradually sell out everything they believe in because of credit card debt. HIMYM, at its best, couches its comedy in the idea of how we tell stories -- embellishing and exaggerating and mixing things around. To that end, if the show is going to get too sitcommy, it usually is best if it does so within the confines of one of its storytelling devices. I thought it was fine when the Intervention episode earlier this season went in for hammy, over-the-top stuff, because it was clearly a part of Old Ted remembering some very silly things about his friends. But when, say, the gang disappeared under a table at a restaurant (in an episode that actually concluded quite movingly) to hide from Stella, who had ditched Ted at the altar, the whole thing felt too silly by half. At the same time, though, the drama in this season has been on, from Marshall realizing that the greatest hamburger in New York is REALLY about something else entirely to Ted telling Stella what he really thinks, then deciding not to in the end. Even the coulda-been-cheesy conclusion of the episode where Ted realizes he could be happy in New Jersey worked (even if that MIGHT have been due to my love for Bruce Springsteen). I'd say HIMYM is slightly better at this point than it was at this point last season (when the first half of the season had me worried I'd overestimated the show entirely), but it's only produced two episodes I'll probably stop to watch every time they come on in syndication -- World's Greatest Hamburger and Shelter Island (which may be one of the ten best this show has ever done), but the "purely for laughs" Wooooo!, which wasn't perfect but was at least very funny, feels like the show has turned the corner and decided, again, to focus on being amusing again.

The CW: Gossip Girl, meanwhile, has grown in the ratings quite a bit this season, though it seems to be slumping here in November sweeps. I'm also probably going to have to just realize that it's not a show that will ever be for me. While I can appreciate that it's very good for what it is (it's just about the best example of a pure teen soap we have), it's just not a genre that interests me unless it's indulging in achingly real portrayals of what it's like to be a teen (Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life) or mixing in elements from other genres (Buffy, Veronica Mars). The show looks incredible in HD, and I can get why everyone enjoys living vicariously in this world, but I find trying to figure out who's going to hook up with whom rather tiresome, and I do think the show is sort of underpopulated. Still, the girls on the show sure are purty. I guess this will just be another O.C. for me, though at least on that show I could enjoy the humor and the Seth character. (As a side note, the girl I worked most closely with on the campaign was OBSESSED with this show, as are many of my friends. When I say that I just don't get it, they all back away from me slowly, sad to say.)

Fox: I've caught up with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on Hulu over the last few days, and I'm surprised by how much I enjoy the series, which is mired in fourth place in this timeslot and seems unlikely to turn into a hit anytime soon (especially with a move to Fridays in January). When the show debuted, I enjoyed it, but I wasn't going to start raving about it or anything, but now, I'm pretty convinced it's one of the better things out there at the moment. I'm not surprised that the show hasn't really caught on. It's decidedly hard SF, obsessed with discussing the ethics of AIs and the finer points of time travel, and it's dark, dark, dark. As we discussed here during the X-Files blog-a-thon, most science fiction shows that succeed on TV are built on top of other, durable templates so that the show doesn't go TOO out there, but, try as it might, Sarah Connor can't ever quite pull that off. It's too interested in figuring out how its timelines intersect or how one man's slightest actions can change the future or how a computer might try to tell a joke. While some of the overplot is too convoluted for even me to follow, the MOOD of the show is just terrific, as are the use of Southern California locations. Everything in the color scheme is brightly muted, so the series always carries the harsh look of a California winter, while the action sequences are maybe the best on TV right now, making a lot out of very, very little. The series has even figured out how to make Lena Headey a credible lead (even if she'll never be Linda Hamilton) and has mostly corrected the whininess of Thomas Dekker as John Connor, giving him a sense of not being able to stand the weight of his future responsibilities. Still, the best reasons to watch remain Summer Glau and Brian Austin Green, as two refugees from a wartorn future. The recent episode The Tower Is Tall, But the Fall Is Short is one of the best episodes of TV I've seen this young season, and I also really liked the goofy time travel logic of Allison from Palmdale. If you're a fan of good TV SF, you owe it to yourself to check out Sarah Connor now.

NBC: Meanwhile, Chuck is probably the MOST improved show on television right now, and that's accounted for in numbers that continue to quietly tick upwards week after week, even as the numbers for the show that follows it, Heroes, continue to plummet as more and more people realize just how pointless that show has become. It's impossible to exactly quantify what Chuck is getting so right from week to week, but the balance between goofy action sequences, emotional character moments and humor is reminding me of early Buffy. I don't think the show has it in it to EVER match the sheer emotional weight Buffy started to take on in the second half of its second season onward, but the kind of enjoyable trifle that Chuck is turning out from week to week isn't the sort of thing you can find just anywhere, and I don't think being so consistently entertaining should be a demerit against the show, especially when what comes on afterwards has become almost the opposite of everything "consistently entertaining" stands for.

Next: I'll either take on TV's newest big night (CBS Tuesdays) with one show I've rarely watched (NCIS) and one show I've never watched (The Mentalist) or revisit the second season of Mad Men, one of the best seasons of TV I've ever seen. Vote for your choice in comments!


Justin said...

It's good to have you back, but now you're telling me I have to watch yet another Monday show? I gave up Sarah Connor at the beginning of the year, when it still had all those problems you say it's now corrected, and all those other good shows came on.

Interested to see what you have to say about NCIS, the newfound success of which I find bizarre. I mean, the show is what it's always been, which is sort of a second or third-rate Bones, complete with quirky characters and lame mysteries. But America is fickle, I suppose.

Carrie said...

I'm too late to vote, but I wanted to say THANK YOU for writing this article. Monday nights are a mess for me, even with two Tivos, because I watch all of these shows (except Dancing w/ the Stars).

Big Bang Theory regularly gets more laughs out of me than HIMYM this year, entirely because of the reasons you mentioned. I only saw a few episodes last season before giving up, but I gave it another chance this year and am really enjoying it in a "good to watch while eating dinner" sort of way.

Sarah Connor doesn't make sense to me 75% of the time but I still enjoy the ride, especially the direction they're going right now by implying that John is too close to Cameron in the future and people are trying to stop their burgeoning relationship. Morally gray and interesting territory.

Gossip Girl almost doesn't exist to me when Chuck and Blair aren't on the screen, but it's a teen drama and I can't ever stop watching teen dramas, hence the reason I've seen every episode of One Tree Hill.

Chuck gets my vote for most entertaining show this season (with Supernatural a close second) and beyond the superficial fun of the show I think it's added a lot of emotional gravitas as well with the evolution of the Chuck/Sara non-relationship. It's the oldest trick in the book to have two characters love each other but not be able to be together, but they're handling this staid material very well. On the superficial fun side, they've really figured out how to use the character of Morgan and how to write for that actor to make him 100% less annoying than last year, which has also helped the show.

Now let me make a confession about Mondays at 9pm, where I admit I still like Prison Break and watch it before any other show on my Tivo. What is up with THAT? Also, I'm still watching Heroes even though it's laughably bad. And I get paid to watch One Tree Hill, but let's not pretend I wouldn't be watching it if I didn't. Monday's are far too busy -- can't they spread some of this love to Wednesdays or something?