Fall TV 2012: New shows a huge letdown, but returning faves still deliver appointment television (Commentary)

Two years ago, I labeled Fall 2010 as the worst batch of new shows ever. The highlights were “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” which was hardly a new concept; “No Ordinary Family,” which was throwaway fun; and “The Walking Dead,” which wasn’t the show then that it is now.

2011 saw a respectable improvement: “Ringer” was heady fun; “The Secret Circle” and “Revenge” were stupid but fun; “American Horror Story” was ambitious in its minimalism; “Terra Nova” was ambitious in its epicness; and “New Girl” started off slow but eventually hit a groove.

Now 2012 is a downer again. By default, “Nashville” is the best new show. Let’s just say it’s halfway between Connie Britton’s “Friday Night Lights” and Hayden Panettiere’s “Heroes” in quality. It’s been a bit repetitive in its chronicling of the love triangles; it needs to move the story forward and in new directions more quickly. But the music is respectable, and the cast has depth beyond the two above-the-marquee stars.

Coming in second is “Last Resort,” only because it’s so ambitious in the way it chronicles a group of U.S. Navy men and women who unwittingly find themselves at war with their own seemingly corrupt country. It needs to dig more into the conspiracy, though; the weekly war plot — such as last week’s episode, where everyone got drugged with chemicals in the water — is missing the larger point.

The only other new show I’ve kept on my schedule is “The Mindy Project,” a sitcom that’s all over the place, even within single episodes. I’m open to a sitcom about a gal who just can’t get it together; I’m also open to an off-the-wall half-hour like “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” or “Parks and Recreation.” There is a scene in a recent episode where a cat randomly interlopes in Mindy’s apartment, and that is humorously random; however, there are also two guys on the show who I don’t care about at all — I can’t even tell you their names, honestly.

“The Mindy Project” needs to zero in on Mindy, otherwise I’m going to have to cancel it as I did with “Ben and Kate,” which had a very funny pilot episode but then settled into a rote formula. (And wow, how it has failed to make the “Tommy loves Kate” storyline anything other than painful.) I’ll keep an eye on reviews to see if it can recover like “New Girl” and “Parks and Recreation” did after slow starts. The fifth show on my preseason top five, “Revolution,” immediately went by the wayside thanks to its tiresome cartoon government villains.

Among returning shows, I did dump “American Horror Story: Asylum” (I didn’t like any of the characters, and I’ve watched enough TV to know that’s an insurmountable hurdle) and I’m thinking about axing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in its eighth season. “Charlie and Dee Find Love” showed hints of the old greatness, but generally, although the off-the-wall ideas are still there, the humor isn’t. Last week’s “The Gang Gets Analyzed” was interminable.

But in general, it’s the veteran shows that make the current primetime slate salvageable. “The Walking Dead” gets better every year — heck, every week. There is a certain built-in tension, but it never rests on its laurels; it gives us a new surprise every week (The latest: The Governor combing the hair of his daughter — a walker!). The series’ biggest accomplishment, I think, is that midway through the third season, the walkers are still scary and gross; they haven’t devolved into parody. Put it up against the downward-spiraling “American Horror Story,” and “Walking Dead’s” achievement in the challenging horror genre becomes apparent. (Rounding out Sunday’s status as an event night are the second seasons of “Comic Book Men,” my all-time No. 1 reality show, and “Talking Dead,” the best-ever talk show about a specific TV series.)

“Fringe” has my attention in its fifth and final season; my only complaint is that the writers killed of Etta (the daughter of Peter and Olivia) a bit too quickly. This is the type of show I’ll appreciate more when it’s gone than I do right now, because it spoils me; I mean, I can watch an entire hour set inside a pocket dimension of a run-down apartment building in 2036 and not think anything of it. Sort of like “Terra Nova” — which believably brought us into a new world of dinosaurs and settlers, and which I find myself missing even though I wasn’t thrilled with its first and only season — “Fringe” gets under my skin in ways that can’t easily be put down in words.

In its second year, “New Girl” is the funniest show on TV thanks to the absurdities of Schmidt, Nick and Jess. (Winston is likable enough, certainly, but he desperately needs more of a purpose to be on par with the other three.) In Season 5, “Parks and Recreation” is still funny — Jerry’s “fart attack” a couple weeks back was an instant lowbrow classic — although the character traits are getting more predictable as time goes by. “New Girl” doesn’t have that problem yet, nor does sophomore series “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” the insanity of which — driven by Krysten Ritter’s and James Van Der Beek’s complete lack of self-consciousness — softens the blow of “Always Sunny’s” drop in quality.

And then there’s “Parenthood,” now in its fourth season, the only current primetime show worthy of consideration among the all-time greats. Jason Katims, who previously helmed “Friday Night Lights,” now ranks with the great TV exec producers, the type where you notice when one of their shows isn’t on TV. For example, TV is missing a little something since there’s no Joss Whedon show at the moment — even “Dollhouse” briefly made the boob tube a cooler place — and a Katims show similarly enriches the small screen with characters who become viewers’ surrogate family and friends. Remove “Parenthood” from the schedule and you remove primetime TV’s heart.

Because of these returning favorites, but no thanks at all to the new shows, the 2012 TV season is delivering a respectable level of entertainment.

What new and returning shows are you digging — or dismissing — so far in Fall 2012?

Shaune's GravatarJohn,
There are two newer shows that have recently caught my attention. 666 Park Avenue and Arrow. Have you seen either of these? After 3 episodes of 666 I am still a bit on the fence. I enjoy the show and the main characters are being developed nicely. The acting is also very well done. I read that the set was badly damaged during the Sandy storm though, so I am concerned they will cancel the show. I am waiting to hear more details before I invest more time into the series.I’m not sure how you feel about comic book movies, but Arrow is very, very, well done for a TV show about a super hero. I watched 4 episodes straight last night and was very interested throughout. Again, I feel the acting is well done (although, as with any CW show the world seems to be filled with models and beautiful people) and the plot seems to be advancing nicely.I also tried to watch ‘Hunted’ which is a new show on Cinemax.. It is a European spy drama of sorts and appears to be very well produced, I just wasn’t hooked immediately. I may give that one another shot.I also gave up on American Horror Story, but that only took me 2 episodes to quit. I don’t blame the show however, I am just not into the time period and style of the show this year.I almost… almost, gave up on Walking Dead last year mid season. I was bored out of my mind when they were walking around the farm each episode. Boy am I glad I stuck with it! This season is amazing. I have not read the comics, and have done my best to avoid any spoilers about the story so it has all been great for me.Have you seen any of the shows I mentioned? Thoughts?
# Posted By Shaune | 11/13/12 10:19 AM
John Hansen's GravatarI watched the first episode of 666 Park Avenue and found it predictable and not scary. I haven’t watched Arrow; it looked a little too gloomy for my tastes. But based on your recommendation, I’ll look it up online and give it a shot.
# Posted By John Hansen | 11/13/12 3:59 PM