The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily St. James, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Variety’s Sonia Saraiya.
Fellow people who all had the same Netflix screener PIN for months,
One of the more fascinating developments of this year in TV has been that the broadcast networks actually seem to be trying again. In the onslaught of Peak TV (TV journalist Liz Shannon Miller puts the number of scripted shows to make their debut in the U.S. at 688 this year), it would have been easy for the networks to give up the ghost. Instead, I’m watching way more of their fall programming than I am the cable networks’ or streaming sites’.
The way was led, for me, by three oddball dramas: ABC’s Stumptown and Emergence and CBS’s Evil. I’ve already mentioned that last one in my first missive, but it’s worth digging into further. Created by The Good Wife and The Good Fight creators Robert and Michelle King, this new series has more in common with their short-lived 2016 goofball satire BrainDead, in which D.C. was infiltrated by alien brain slugs. The Kings love horror and sci-fi in the manner of a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” installment, and Evil sometimes flies off the rails because of this tendency to treat genre as a blank canvas upon which to project the silliest of stuff. But the show is also frequently downright spooky (the conclusion of its fourth episode, about an evil child, was one of the darkest things I’ve ever seen on TV), and I love a show that takes as its operating question “Where does evil come from?” and considers at least semiseriously the idea that the answer might be “demons.”
Emergence is also a project from a veteran TV show-running duo: Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, who have handled everything from the CW’s Reaper (remember that one?!) to ABC’s Agent Carter (remember that one?!). Fazekas and Butters are perhaps best at taking premises that should not work and finding ways to make them work, and Emergence is one of the best Lost-alikes I’ve ever seen.
It starts as what feels like another mind-numbing mystery show—a strange little girl shows up on the beach after a plane crash, and the local police chief takes her in—but then begins rapidly reeling off solutions to its mysteries. We find out in the third episode, for instance, that the little girl is a robot, which allows the story to spin in new directions. None of these ideas are all that original, and you probably had “robot” second on your list of answers to the question “Just what is this little girl?” after only “alien.” But the show’s terrifically off-kilter pacing keeps me coming back—as well as its devotion to wedding its sci-fi mysteries to a family drama with more compelling character work than the puzzle-box shenanigans of This Is Us. It’s also a great example of how Allison Tolman is one of the great TV stars of our time, but she just can’t seem to find the right project to take off. (Alas, Emergence has very low ratings, and I will be surprised if it sees a Season 2.)
Stumptown is both the most flawed of these series and my favorite of them, for reasons I struggle to explain. On the surface, the show is just a bog-standard private eye show, one that aspires to be Terriers or The Rockford Files in Portland, Oregon, but is often happy to settle for being a grittier variation on one of those mid-2000s USA shows where a smirking white guy solves crimes by pretending to have replaced his brain with a copy of Microsoft Encarta or something. (Tagline: He can tell you anything … just not where he left his shoes.) Stumptown dilly-dallied when it came to committing to its core premise, pretending that maybe its protagonist wasn’t going to become Portland’s finest (and scuzziest) private eye, and it too often mistakes its lead character’s bisexuality for a sexy quirk. (Then again, that’s true of most TV bisexuals.)
But dang it, Cobie Smulders is a TV star, and Jake Johnson is so adorably dimpled, and Michael Ealy is just terrific at smoldering. And what’s more, the cases get a little more satisfying with every week, proving the show isn’t skimping on coming up with fascinating ideas for mysteries to solve. It shouldn’t feel so revolutionary for a network case-of-the-week show to have as complicated and not-always-likable a hero as Smulders’ Dex Parios, but it does. And the character dynamics are already starting to give off real heat.
Above all, Stumptown is doing that thing I love to see TV shows do, where every week, it just puts its nose to the grindstone and gets a little bit better. The ratings could be stronger, but it’s gotten a full season order, and I feel like I see a surprising amount of chatter for a show with such familiar outlines. There’s a breakout sensation buried somewhere inside of Stumptown, and every week, all involved get a little closer to finding it.
There was a surprising number of network shows I was at least intrigued by this fall, from CBS’s dating widower comedy The Unicorn (a show that was almost entirely about Walton Goggins being attractive and which succeeded on that front) to the same network’s All Rise, an agreeable legal drama that might as well come packaged with a “She’s the Judge!” mug.
Neither of these shows—or, say, ABC’s Mixed-ish or NBC’s Perfect Harmony—worked as well as the three dramas I outlined above, but they all suggested network TV was trying again. And if you want to see network TV gloriously flailing, well, just flip over to Fox for Michael Sheen having the time of his fucking life on Prodigal Son.
What unites so many of these shows is a love for that stodgiest of TV ideas: There should be a new story in every new episode. And for as much as I agree with you, Willa, that The Mandalorian is a bland slog that could use more story, I absolutely do not fault it for its mission-of-the-week stylings. A Star Wars–set riff on something like Firefly, with a new 35-minute adventure featuring some of the same characters every week? Sign me up—just, y’know, try to give it more interesting characters and fun dynamics, rather than relying on an algorithmically generated cutie pie to get America talking.
Before I forget about hoary old TV genres getting a weird update for this jet-setting era: How about that Masked Singer? I routinely stop watching this thing about halfway through any given season, once it’s become obvious who everybody is, but for the first couple of weeks, it’s one of my very favorite kinds of TV catastrophes, with the sort of commitment to barrel-bottom scraping that feels sincere and in earnest in a way that would make Aaron Spelling proud (and, honestly, probably millions of dollars if he were alive, because you can sure as shit believe he’d be signed on to produce this thing). Yes, my heart may have deflated ever so slightly when the Egg left after just one episode, but my God, no other TV show gave us anything quite like “the Egg”!
Anyway, here are some other big TV questions I have as we near our halfway point: Whatever possessed The Good Place to bet the farm on the Eleanor and Chidi relationship? Did anybody else think the much-maligned Magicians finale was kind of brilliant? What the fuck was that second season of Big Little Lies? Remember The Righteous Gemstones? Will one of you remind me to defend Fosse/Verdon? And how about the endings of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin? Also I’d love to talk about Netflix’s The Politician, because it’s remarkable that Pete Buttigieg fan fic is already a TV show.