Remote Nomad: TV conquers film this fall

Sept. 14, 2010, 3:00 a.m.
Remote Nomad: TV conquers film this fall
HBO beefs up its drama offerings with Prohibition Era "Boardwalk Empire," a liquor-laced look at Atlantic City's decadent immorality (Sundays at 9, premier Sept. 19). (Photo courtesy of

Whether you like it or not, whether you remember how to write or not, whether you got enough GTL this summer or not (there had to be a TV reference in there somewhere), the time has come to return to the sandstone arcades of Stanford University. To my returning readers, I hope you enjoyed a summer of intern days and Katy Perry nights. To incoming freshmen, put down this paper right now and go make friends! Or better yet, take it over to a friend and discuss the merits of my passionately held opinions about the defining art form of our generation: television.

Just last week, A.O. Scott, the illustrious and orgasmically gifted New York Times film critic, asked, “Are Films Bad, or Is TV Just Better?” He invokes “Mad Men,” “Lost,” “The Wire,” “Modern Family” and even “Glee” in his exploration of how television is surpassing feature film – in originality, popularity and diversity. In my two years at Stanford, TV shows have proven much more of a common denominator than movies, as young viewers have overcome the medium’s seeming incompatibility with the college lifestyle and flocked to cable’s technological alternatives.

I believe that the current crop of TV shows is vastly superior to any movie in recent memory (save “Toy Story 3,” perhaps). Even Hollywood seems to recognize this, as more and more film production companies seek to add television programs to their credits. This fall, the augmentation of television’s reputation for excellence and profitability has mixed implications. This fall’s new offerings are nowhere near as strong as last year’s, but they’ll whet your appetite – and work in favor of new cable shows slated for later in the year.

Based on my research, the following represent both the best and most emblematic shows for the fall season. Ditch your first week homework and tune into as many new shows as you can – television shows, more than any other popular art form, have a tendency to surprise you.

FX and the CW rolled out their fall lineups last week, with critics lavishing the former and PR the latter. The return of Emmy snub “Sons of Anarchy” segued into the series premiere of “Terriers” (FX, Wednesdays at 10), an unconventional and irreverent buddy cop show (puppies are, unfortunately, not a central focus). It features the ever-hilarious Donal Logue in a well-matched pairing of unlicensed private eyes. If the show is overall a little low budget and simple, I don’t mind, because it defies gender in its humor.

The CW is serving up its traditional teen fare. Nothing as subversive and shocking as the early “Gossip Girl” seasons or even the latter half of “Vampire Diaries,” but how can you not enjoy the pubescent bodies on display in “Hellcats” or the even greater achievement of 31-year-old Maggie Q’s body in “Nikita?” “Hellcats” (Wednesdays at 9) seems more likely to work its way into my rotation, as my Thursday night dance card is already booked. The show, featuring Disney castoffs Aly Michalka and Ashley Tisdale, is reminiscent of “Greek” and a thorn-less “Bring It On.” Just as “Glee” integrated music into scripted television, I will be intrigued to see if “Hellcats” can incorporate choreography in a similar fashion.

But the heavy-hitters of the 2010-2011 television season will come from cable, specifically HBO as it tries to reclaim the title of best drama from three-time award winner “Mad Men.” “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO, Sundays at 9, premiere September 19) not only marks the return of Terence Winter, David Simon’s protégé on “The Sopranos,” but also highlights the hybridization of television and film with Martin Scorsese’s role as producer and director. The boardwalk in question is Prohibition Era Atlantic City, and the empire reaches all the way to Chicago and historical figures such as Al Capone. Steve Buscemi of “Fargo” fame anchors an ensemble cast as gangster Nucky Thompson, who presides over the usual HBO debauchery: sex, violence and moonshine. Though the series has been kept tightly under wraps, those who have seen the first few episodes report that, even though Scorsese directs the pilot only, subsequent directors emulate his style. The pilot episode cost a whopping $18 million, but I’m confident viewers will get the bang for HBO’s buck. (It’s worth noting that HBO has some particularly exciting new projects on the horizon – “Luck” with Dustin Hoffman, “Tilda” with Diane Keaton, a female comedy with Lizzy Caplan, a show about a Broadway family, among others. Mom, you know what I want for Christmas now).

Where season three of “True Blood” seemingly reached the limits of the vampire genre and HBO’s tolerance, AMC will try to reclaim the paranormal genre this fall with “Walking Dead” (AMC, Sundays at 10, premiere October 31). The series centers on a southern town following a blood-thirsty zombie apocalypse (I doubt there will be any fraternization with the enemy). The preview suggests that its style will be simultaneously muted and allegoric a la “Breaking Bad,” while more conventionally grotesque and artistic. I’ll be intrigued to see how the plot unfolds, but those who like pretty TV will surely be pleased.

Meanwhile, the networks have invested in addictive dramas to succeed “Lost.” NBC is the most flagrant in this effort with “The Event” (Mondays at 9, premiere September 20), whose pilot was well received at Comic-Con in July. The show interweaves many likable characters, including the congenial Blair Underwood as President of the United States, around a secret government detainment program. The structure of the pilot is strong, but it remains to be seen if the mythology is fully developed.

Remote Nomad: TV conquers film this fall
Texas gets soapy with Fox's "Lone Star," about a con man balancing a double life (Mondays at 9, premier Sept. 20). (Photo courtesy of

Fox is heavily promoting “Lone Star” (Mondays at 9, premiere September 20), a soapy drama about a Texas con man, artfully portrayed by James Wolk. The con relies on the character’s double life as the son-in-law of a Texas oil magnate in Houston and a salesman (with a different girlfriend) who sells bad investments to constituents in the Midland. The show’s creator, Kyle Killen, wrote the script for “The Beaver,” which was named as one of the best feature scripts of 2008, so the writing for the pilot is strong as expected. I question the ability of the sudsy premise to support the show beyond its freshman season (remember “The OC?”).

The new arrival I’m most looking forward to is “My Generation” (ABC, Thursdays at 8, premiere September 23), which does justice to the now ubiquitous single-camera style as it fictionalizes a documentary about the high school class of 2000. In present day 2010, the students return to their Texas hometown and must confront how they have surpassed or failed to live up to their high school reputations. The themes and relationships established in the pilot resonated with me as a child of the new millennium; I hope the series will be able to redefine high school stereotypes in a similar way.

Comedy is the weakest genre of the bunch, especially in comparison to last year’s convention-defying “Modern Family,” “Community,” “Cougar Town” and “Glee.” William Shatner returns to television as the star of “$#*! My Dad Says” (CBS, Thursdays at 8:30, premiere September 23), but the quippiness of the eponymous Twitter feed feels too self-conscious and sitcom-punchline-esque, even in the previews. The pilot has been reshot since May upfronts, but I sense the buzz has worn off and the final product will underwhelm.

Remote Nomad: TV conquers film this fall
India's infamous call centers take center stage with NBC's new comedy "Outsourced" (Thursdays at 9:30, premier Sept. 23). (Photo courtesy of

The wildcard of the comedy season will surely be “Outsourced” (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30, premiere September 23). I’m biased against it, as it pushed back the third season premiere of the outstanding “Parks and Recreation” and Ron EFFING Swanson, but my friends assure me to give this show a chance after its retooling. The white male lead, a total newbie in Ben Rappaport, works at a call center in India and navigates the cultural differences – it will be up to audiences to determine if the show handles them humorously or offensively. The previews seem mostly harmless, though certainly unworthy of unseating Amy Poehler.

It’s going to be an interesting fall. The new arrivals have a lot to prove, especially when they have to compete against the buzz of the returners. Regardless, you can find me pushing the limits of Stanford’s bandwith as I try to download all the pilots simultaneously; nothing comes between me and my TV.

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