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Published: July 24, 2008 at 12:26 AM GMT
Last Updated: July 29, 2008 at 12:26 AM GMT
It was a Television Critics Association tour like no other.
For the first time in longer than any current TCA member can recall, hundreds of television critics from across the United States and Canada assembled to learn all they could about the new series set to debut during the upcoming television season without seeing pilots for most of those shows. In many cases they had only interviews with the producers and stars of the shows from which to extract information and form early opinions - or instant opinions in this era of live blogging and immediate publishing, two burgeoning areas of digital technology that continue to change the very nature of TCA. (Indeed, next year's tour is scheduled to run in early August rather than early July, as it always has, in part because the thousands of blog entries and instant info-bits that appear across hundreds of Web sites during TCA will then be published closer to the actual season premiere dates of the broadcasters' new and returning series. The elements may change but the game remains the same. TCA is all about publicity.)
In one unfortunate instance - the strange case of NBC's Crusoe, an intriguing adventure series current filming in South Africa and a clear favorite of NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman - the critics came away with nothing. No pilot, no clips and no interview session, in person or via satellite. In another, critics were denied a session for the CBS sitcom Gary Unmarried because star Jay Mohr had a long-standing personal commitment in another country. But they at least saw the opening episode of this show back in June, when CBS sent out rough cuts of pilots for four new series (including Gary) plus tantalizing preview clips of two others to the press, which was (and still is) champing at the bit to see the new season's new offerings. No other broadcaster provided an advance screener of any new series except Fox, which sent out one for its new comedy Do Not Disturb.
I was asked by several critics what I thought about the season to come as TCA concluded. My response: "I don't really know." After the full Summer 2008 TCA experience I have certainly begun to form opinions about the new fall shows, but I can't really formalize them until I see the pilots. Those critics who prefer to put their opinions and conclusions into proper context felt the same way.
What, then, is there to say about the new fall shows, just a few weeks before some of their premieres? Here's a rough post-TCA rundown.
Overall, CBS looks best, with full pilots for most of its shows sent to the press in June and press conferences for three (the comedies Worst Week and The Ex-List and the procedural crime drama The Mentalist) that provided excellent follow up support. (The casts of these three shows are hugely appealing, but Ex-List stood out from the rest because of the appeal of its manic executive producer Diane Ruggiero and all the talk at TCA about the show's distinctive "vaginal humor.") Despite having seen a pilot episode, Gary Unmarried dropped off everyone's radar without benefit of a session. The jury is out on the dark mystery Eleventh Hour, because the pilot will not run as the first episode.
NBC is a mystery to me (and everyone else at TCA) because the network had nothing to show from any of its new shows, and its executives were very busy promoting a new series starring Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live (and produced by Greg Daniels and Mike Schur) that is still unformed and won't be seen before next spring. The dual identity drama My Own Worst Enemy, starring Christian Slater, had critics intrigued but confused. Knight Rider the series went over as well as Knight Rider the movie, which is to say not well at all. (Perhaps KITT and Co. will get a much-needed boost at Comic-Con.) Most telling of all was the low-impact session for the Molly Shannon-Selma Blair sitcom Kath & Kim, which was preceded by unfunny clips from a first episode that is being re-worked at this late date. Meanwhile, a session for ambitious midseason entry Kings was compromised by the grumpiness of series lead Ian McShane.
There is more mystery from ABC and The CW, the other broadcasters still without a single new series to show. ABC's adaptation of the British mystery Life on Mars - the network's lone new scripted series this fall -- has been rocked by behind-the-scenes changes since it was announced last May. At least ABC's reality newbie Opportunity Knocks got a nice pump at press tour with an appearance by executive producer Ashton Kutcher. The CW super-charged TCA (especially its younger members) with the very attractive young casts of new teeny-something dramas 90210 and Privileged, but all those well-toned bodies and glistening white teeth won't count for much if the shows don't deliver the drama. The CW did screen clips from its new reality entry Stylista, which looks to be loud, abrasive and filled with carefully packaged emotional distress.
If there is one upcoming show that has the advantage over all others it is Fox's science-fiction thriller Fringe, from super-producer J.J. Abrams, a fellow so popular with the press he should probably star in his own series. Fox screened a rough cut of its pilot to a decidedly lukewarm response, but this one is Abrams' to lose. In other words, it's as close to a can't-miss as anything this fall. (I'm writing this column in San Diego on the night before Comic-Con begins, and the sneak-preview screenings of Fringe over at the Convention Center are already causing a sensation.)
The new fall Fox comedy Do Not Disturb failed to impress the press, but keep an eye out for midseason thriller Dollhouse, from Joss Whedon, the second most popular TV super-producer after J.J. Abrams. Whedon and series lead Eliza Dushku gave exhausted TCA members a guided tour of the massive Dollhouse set on the final afternoon of the tour and instantly brought everyone back to life. We haven't even seen clips yet, but the incredibly cool set and Whedon's infective enthusiasm had everyone breathless with anticipation for this new show. The co-ed shower scenes alone will have everyone talking.
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