Aaron Barnhart, television critic for the Kansas City Star, is a guy who I like and respect. He writes an excellent blog, too. He had a contest where randomly-chosen winners got to attend a screening of the best new fall television programs at the Screenland Theater on Wednesday night. I was lucky enough to win a ticket, so I took a friend, watched some television with a couple hundred of my closest friends, and had a fabulous time. Here are some of the shows we watched:
Runaway: a drama starring Donnie Whalberg and the Woman With Short Hair Who Played Keifer Sutherland’s Wife on the First Season of 24. He’s prosecuted for a crime he presumably didn’t commit and takes his wife and kids on the run with him while being chased by Shadowy Forces – presumably, whoever really did the crime. The clip we saw left me unimpressed, but might be worth a look.
30 Rock: the comedy that Tina Fey left Saturday Night Live to create. This show gives SNL the Larry Sanders treatment, voyeuristically peeking behind the scenes of a late-night comedy skit show. This is the first of two shows NBC has greenlit this season that use this formula – you know SNL’s on a bad run when the network thinks things are funnier behind the set than in front of it. This does have Tina Fey as the head writer of the fictional show-within-the-show and Alec Baldwin as the wacky and bombastic boss. Baldwin single-handedly carries the show on his back.
Heroes: if you’ve been within spitting distance of an NBC show the last month or two you’ve probably seen commercials for this hour-long drama about eight people whose lives are changed when they inexplicably get superpowers. As a long-time comic book fanboy, I really wanted this show to work as soon as I learned about it. I’m now glad to report that it lives up to my very high expectations – it’s well-written and well-acted across the board, but the storyline does seem a little complex and might not capture the attention of a mainstream audience. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I predict that it’ll dance on the edge of cancellation for most of the season. The characters are all believable and the producers have followed the Lost formula of having no real stars but a few hey-it’s-that-guys you may recognize: Ali Larter, Greg Grunberg, and Adrian Pasdar. This one’s worth getting behind, gang.
The Knights of Prosperity: the writers behind Ed reunite for this quirky comedy starring Donal Logue as a loser who, along with a motley collection of loser friends, decide to rob Mick Jagger’s apartment after seeing it in an MTV Cribs-style show. In an inspired bit of casting, Mick Jagger plays himself. It’s actually pretty funny and certainly not without charm: seek this one out.
Shark: we’ve all seen the promos with James Woods spitting out that snappy “Justice? That’s God’s problem!” line. It’s what you would expect, as the show is essentially House with lawyers instead of doctors. Woods is a magician in the courtroom surrounded by a small group of acolytes who are always a step or two behind. But hey, there’s always room for another lawyer drama in your life, right? And nothing can beat James Woods spending the hour gleefully chewing scenery. Everybody wins.
Daybreak: Taye Diggs plays a cop who’s Framed for a Crime He Didn’t Commit. Nothing you haven’t seen before, right? But the twist here is that he wakes up the next day and finds himself repeating the day over again, sort of like NYPD Blue meets Groundhog Day. It kept my interest, and ABC is confident enough in it to fill the slot vacated by Lost when it goes on hiatus, so we may be forced to watch it while pining for Jack, Kate, Sawyer and the rest of the gang. Incidentally, Jayne from Firefly plays an extremely believable jerkhole cop. I kept waiting for him to growl “I’ll be in my bunk” during the episode.
Jericho: Skeet Ulrich is trapped in a small Kansas town when a nuclear bomb goes off nearby. I’ll go ahead and stop here before I make a joke that gets me in trouble. Hideous show; don’t even bother.
The best show of the night, however, was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the other behind-the-scenes-of-an-SNL-show created by Aaron Sorkin, mushroom imbiber and creator of SportsNight and The West Wing. This one sings, people. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford are comedy writers who come back to run a show that was once cutting-edge but now an empty shell of itself (sound familiar?) while dealing with their own personal demons, pressure from the network, and over-eager cast members. I was never a big follower of Friends, as Matthew Perry’s Chandler just seemed like so much empty schtick, but here he shows a gift for comedy and really shines as the center of the large ensemble. Other notables are Steven Weber as the asshole network chair, Ed Asner as the distant but affable boss of the media conglomerate that owns the network, and D.L. Hughley as a rising star on the show.
One small problem. Amanda Peet plays the new network president who takes a chance on hiring the two writers. She’s supposed to be the dream boss, a buffer between the creative people who work on the show and the cynical higher-ups in management, the calm eye of the hurricane in the crazy show business world that swirls around her. (And, of course, a sure future romantic subplot for Matthew Perry.) But here’s the thing: she comes across as ordinary. She’s mediocre in a role that calls for her to be transcendent. It’s really my only complaint and admittedly it was the first episode, so she may well prove me wrong. I hope she does. Other than that? A sure thing – as sure as you’re going to get in the television industry, anyway. Set your TiVos now.
Special thanks to Aaron for giving me a grand time out. I’ll be sure to catch it again next year.