September 26, 2006

Hope Springs Eternal with the New Fall TV Season

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Anyone who thinks the New Year begins on January 1st is dead wrong. The New Year actually begins in September, when new television episodes from the network shows once again return to the airwaves. At a time when the leaves start changing and winter begins to rear its ugly head, the start of the new television season brings forth a spirit of optimism and hope. Old favorites return from a long summer hibernation to offer resolution to season finale cliff hangers while new shows rise up from the decayed remains of their Nielsen-ratings-challenged-predecessors. Will our favorite shows be just as good or will they be a shadow of their former selves? What new shows will delight us and which ones will fail miserably? These are the questions that make this time of the year so exciting.
The biggest buzz generated by a new show this summer was NBC’s drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Mondays, 10 p.m). Studio 60 marks the welcome return of television auteur Aaron Sorkin, creator of the tragically cancelled Sports Night and the much lauded The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin’s return to television has Shakespearean undertones. While Sorkin steered The West Wing to four consecutive Emmy wins for Best Drama, disagreements with the NBC brass led to his departure from the show. No longer in exile, Sorkin carries NBC’s hopes of a return to former glory. My only concern is that expectations will be too high since The West Wing came out of nowhere and featured mostly unfamiliar actors. It’s not clear whether Studio 60 will be the ratings juggernaut NBC hopes, but, judging by its pilot, the show is on target to be a winner.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip follows the behind the scenes drama of a long-running variety show not unlike Saturday Night Live. After a sketch entitled “Crazy Christians” gets cut, the show’s executive producer goes on a Howard Beale-like tirade live on-air and gets fired. Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the new network president, rehires two former writers of Studio 60, Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) to run the show and return it to its former greatness. Is there a parallel with real life here? Absolutely. You would also be obtuse not to think Danny Tripp’s run-ins with drug abuse don’t parallel Sorkin’s own publicized troubles. But as the old writer’s adages goes: Write what you know. Yes, anyone familiar with previous Sorkin pilots would recognize familiar story lines such as someone (potentially) getting fired or offending the Christian Right. If a character doesn’t eventually find out that his father had a long running extra-marital affair, I’d actually be upset. Regardless, there’s nothing quite like Aaron Sorkin’s flair for almost musically-imbued walking and talking sequences of dialogue or work-place dramas where bright, optimistic people care about each other and try to do what they think is right.
While not nearly as scrutinized as Studio 60, CBS offers its own version of the series-long mystery show popularized by 24 and Lost. The show is Jericho (Wednesdays, 8 p.m), and it follows a small Kansas town in the aftermath of a supposed nuclear attack on the United States. No one knows the extent of the devastation but the townspeople spot a mushroom cloud in the direction of Denver and an abrupt end to a phone call suggests an attack on Atlanta as well. Skeet Ulrich stars in the series as Jake Green, the mayor’s prodigal son who returns to his former hometown and finds himself an unlikely hero in the show’s pilot. The first episode also offers potential plot developments in Jake’s encounter with an ex-girlfriend, a budding romance with a teacher he saves and reconciliation with his family. All the while the townspeople must learn to check their selfish, survivalist behavior and cooperate. Also they might have to fend off an attack by a busload of escaped prisoners. When it rains, it pours.
Based on its cliché characters, weak dialogue and reliance on pop music, Jericho does not seem a likely candidate for appointment television status. But there’s something about an apocalyptic survival drama that makes for compelling viewing. While doomsday literature and movies had their heyday in the Cold War when nuclear annihilation seemed at least possible, the new threat of global terrorism makes such a scenario more relevant. Much like in the vastly superior Battlestar Galactica, the scenario of a handful of survivors in the aftermath of civilization’s destruction makes for a scary, but fascinating “what if?” And, as the show’s title suggests, the idea is as old as The Bible. However, I wouldn’t fret too much. In the unlikely event that such a massive level of devastation occurs, we can be rest assured that the apes will take stewardship of the planet and Charlton Heston will make sure they keep their “stinking paws” off of us. “YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!”