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TV, You Charmer

Maybe this year, you and I can make it work. (A fall season preview.)

By Elaine Corden 12 Sep 2006 |

Elaine Corden writes about pop culture for the Tyee. Her work has appeared on CBC Radio, and in The Georgia Straight, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Magazine, Time Out, Victoria Times-Colonist, Monday Magazine, FFWD, The Hour, North Shore News, Shared Vision and some papers in Florida, Texas and Oregon she forgets the names of. Until recently, she authored the music column "Band Geek" for WestEnder, where she also acted as Arts Editor. She maintains the pop-culture obsessed blog Trifective, and is currently working on her first novel.

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'Studio 60': more yuks than West Wing.

[Editor's note: This is the first of two Canadian TV fall preview roundups. Next: the CBC gets a review all to themselves.]

Oh, television. Never are you more appealing than in the rainy season, when summer is becoming ever more a memory. You work in mysterious ways, great box of light around which all living room furniture is arranged. And each fall, you bubble over with new sights, equally inane and compelling, and I reconnect with you as if you were a best friend from high school. It's like no time has passed -- you still let me bask in your comforting glow and I, despite all our years, look as young as ever.

TV, you have changed over the past few seasons. Falling under the spell of critically acclaimed cable series on HBO and F/X, you seemed to have matured. You want to drop f-bombs and show nipples, and what's more, you desperately want to be respected as a legitimate medium. For the most part, you've given up the laugh tracks and cheesy overtures to the Moral Majority, and you're finally letting your freak flag fly.

So how's it flapping this year?

I was upset when they cancelled Arrested Development, but at least its off-kilter comedy seems to have inspired. Case in point: Help Me Help You on Global, Ugly Betty on Citytv and, both Let's Rob (now called The Knights of Prosperity) and 30 Rock on CTV.

Help Me Help You trades in the same kind of quirky, ain't-neuroses-a-kick-in-the-pants wackiness as Arrested Development, and what's more it features Ted Danson. That's right, Sam "MayDay" Malone plays Bill Hoffman, a group therapist in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The show follows Hoffman and his suicidal, in-the-closet, messed-up-about-men patients as they attempt to cure themselves as their own foibles. It's possible Danson has acquired a taste for this type of humour after his guest slots on Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is the daddy of these offspring shows.

Let's Rob features a similar ensemble cast of weirdos and losers, who are on a fairly unlikely mission of robbing Mick Jagger's massive New York apartment. Despite cameos from Mick himself, and a fairly funny cast (including The Tao of Steve's Donal Logue) this one seems a little too abstract for mainstream success. Mind you, they said that about My Name is Earl and that was a major hit last year.

30 Rock is like some sort of purgatory for cast members of Saturday Night Live, desperate to prove that, no, really, they're, like, funny. Starring former SNL head writer Tina Fey, neglected cast members Rachel Dratch and Tracey Morgan, and all-time strangest SNL guest host Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock satirizes network TV, and has lots of thinly veiled jabs at the toothlessness of the cast's alma matter. With healthy nods to The Larry Sanders Show, this might be around for a while, if only 'cause Tina Fey looks so darn cute in those glasses.

Ugly Betty takes the premise of a "plain girl" (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' America Ferrera) working in the fashion industry. Crazy, huh? A girl who is not a size zero working in fashion? Uh, when will Hollywood stop insulting our intelligence by putting glasses on a gorgeous girl and calling her "ugly"? Sigh.

All in all, this is a step in the right direction, Television. I see you've learned flattering my intelligence will make me your new best friend. Except...

1. TV, you haven't learned anything.

Despite your newfound predilection for smart, quirky single-camera comedies, you still realize that a good deal of us watch television in order to turn our brains OFF. Hence, hackneyed reality shows are still out in full force: The Bachelor, America's Next Top Model, Celebrity Duets and Laguna Beach are all back this fall. To paraphrase Confessions of a Dangerous Mind author and Gong Show innovator Chuck Barris: millions of Americans will line up to humiliate themselves, just for the chance to be on television.

New this year: Girls Next Door, which follows the "real" lives of Playboy magnate Hugh Hefners live-in girlfriends. Jesus wept.

Also, perhaps solely the fault of Two-and-a-Half Men (also returning this fall), you're still trying desperately to resuscitate the situation comedy. Nowhere is this more apparent than 'Til Death, another fat guy/hot wife effort that portrays marriage as a horrific prison, women as nagging shrews and sitcom writers as ridiculously out-of-touch. Expect this one, starring Everybody Loves Raymond's Brad Garrett, to be a breakout hit. For more of the predictable comedy, see The Class, a Friends-y effort about a class reunion.

2. Originality was never your strong suit.

As mentioned, Tine Fey's comedy, 30 Rock, portrays life behind the scenes at a popular weekly comedy show. On the same network (CTV), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip does the same thing, albeit as a drama rather than a comedy. Starring Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Judd Hirsh and the lovely Amanda Peet, this Aaron Sorkin-penned series is actually much funnier than its comedic counterpart, though it is laced with enough Sorkinian left-wing soliloquy to fill a million West Wings. Fortunately, there's room for both shows, though you have to wonder what the state of networks is when two shows with the exact same premise show up on the same network.

3. CSI is a vein you will mine until the end of time.

Given the enormous success of crime procedurals like CSI, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that there are more of these cropping up this season that any other format. With Vanished, The Nine, Standoff, Smith, Shark and CSI: Port Coquitlam* all debuting this fall, the crime drama is making a big showing this year, proving that television audiences like nothing more than a show that doesn't require long-term attention.

4. Jonathan Tucker is this year's It boy

Just as Wentworth Miller and his hot warden-issued flannel had women swooning last year on Prison Break, Jonathan Tucker, as Irish bar owner-cum-mafioso Tommy Donelly will command similar breathlessness on the Black Donnellys this fall on Global. This is neither here nor there, but everyone needs a television crush, and like Prison Break, this show is at least clever enough to watch without being embarrassed that you're drooling over a 20 year old.

5. This year's It girl is...

Oh, we don't know...One of Hugh's girlfriends, maybe? Frankly, we don't care. We'll be watching the Black Donnellys until you're ready.

Well that's it, Canadian television. You're an old dog who's slow in the ol' new tricks department. And though you're still no HBO, at least we've seemed to move beyond the days of Who Wants to Marry My Golden Retriver* and Win My Wife*. Those are strictly for summer.

*Not actual shows...yet.

Elaine Corden is a Vancouver writer and regular contributor to The Tyee.

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