Hi. My name’s Jonathan Elliott, and I’ve got complicated feelings on pop culture.
I’m not quite highbrow, not quite lowbrow…let’s call it nobrow. I believe that TV should be good, even when it’s a little bad for you. I think that guilty pleasures should be celebrated, the same way you do a Twix bar that hits the spot or a Taco Bell run after a few beers.
That said, there’s also a place for TV that feels like a nice meal out and a few glasses of wine with someone you love. There’s value in a show that does what it sets out to do and scratches some kind of itch.
Every Thursday, we’re going to be talking TV here. We might take a look at show you might’ve missed, and on which you can catch up on through DVD or Netflix.
We could examine the deeper ramifications of your favorite weekly programs, such as Don Draper’s influence on marital fidelity and Snooki’s transformation of maternity trends (my tongue is firmly in cheek, dear reader…).
Or we might just take a look at the week ahead, and talk about ways to fill up your DVR with some great entertainment.
This week, we’re going to wrestle with a complicated television response: disappointment. When shows for the upcoming season are announced, I comb over the schedules, network by network, crafting a list of what I’m going to HAVE to watch, what I MIGHT want to watch, what could POSSIBLY be good, and what’s going to EXPLODE VIOLENTLY IN A COMBUSTION OF GARBAGE.
Not to toot my own horn, but I’m usually pretty spot-on about what’s going to be good and what’s not. And I’ll admit it, sometimes I’m surprised—watch the first season of the American The Office or Parks and Recreation, and you’ll be shocked those programs weren’t canceled, and pleasantly stunned at the heights to which both of them rose. The worst of all worlds, though, is when something looks like it’s going to be good…and ends up not delivering.
So, let’s examine three shows from this past and current TV season, talk about why they let us down, and take a look at three better versions of similar entertainment.
SHOW 1: SMASH
The pilot of Smash made it look like it would sparkle, with Stephen Spielberg as executive producer and a dozen theater heavyweights in the cast and creative team. It felt expensive and lush, like an adult Glee for people with self-respect.
And then we got a little further in, and found a soapy mess of boyfriend-stealing, pill-popping, trashy storylines, and odd musical interludes that clearly had no other purpose besides selling iTunes singles. While the season finale was fantastic, and a totally revamped season two with problematic characters kicked to the curb waits in the wings, this isn’t the show we were promised.
Try this instead: Slings & Arrows, available on Netflix Instant Watch, is sort of like The West Wing version of theater.
It’s about passionate, smart people who run a year-long theater festival…and end up sleeping together. It’s smart, funny, passionate, and also introduced a talented young actress named Rachel McAdams to the world (she leaves in season two for Mean Girls).
There’s only three seasons of six episodes each, so, hey, it’s a light commitment. If you’ve ever had a love of performing, performers, or performances, this is for you. Give the first episode a try—there’s one heck of a twist at the end of it that’ll pull you back for episode two…
SHOW 2: THE NEWSROOM
I love Aaron Sorkin. Many of us do; I had high hopes that his Oscar-winning turn on The Social Network would lead to his creative rebirth. And The Newsroom has moments, thus far, of that old magic dialogue.
And the whole idea of setting the show two years in the past is interesting…but also dates the show, even before its second episode. We’re watching repackaged Sorkin plots, characters and dialogue, in a show about the news that happened two years ago. It’s all sorts of stale.
Try this instead: Everyone was talking about the opening monologue of The Newsroom before it aired, and the network politics of the whole thing led to some great discussion. So, why not try the classic movie Network, available on Netflix Instant Watch, instead?
We all know the iconic line: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Well, maybe it’s time to perk up and notice that these trends in our news, media and entertainment were pointed out three decades ago in a film that’s both ahead of its time and surprisingly funny, even as it’s alarming in how much it got right.
SHOW 3: NEW GIRL
I can sort of see the appeal of Zooey Deschanel. Sort of. She’s quirky and winsome and petite, with milky skin and an awkward charm. All of that in mind, this show isn’t nearly as clever or as funny or as interesting as Fox and its producers would like you to see
A half-dozen of the plots are reused storylines of Phoebe’s from Friends, and the will-they/won’t they romance between title character Jess and her roommate Nick is nothing new. I mean, the show is cute and has neat little gags there, but there’s all sorts of opportunities for interesting storytelling and really great humor that gets squandered.
It feels a little bit like this show started with a strong, fresh perspective and got whittled away by committee into a compromised mish-mosh. It’s a lot like that rack of cards at the Hallmark store that’s supposed to be edgy, but really only has cheeky fart joke variations.
Try This Instead: When I watched New Girl, I found myself longing for the original quirky, round-peg-in-a-square-world show that spawned a generation of voices and imitators: My So-Called Life.
Funny, sad, melodramatic, honest, and fresh--these thirteen episodes (gone too soon…) still hold up, and it’s worth a first pass (if you haven’t seen it) or a revisitation of your crush on Jordan Catalano (if you have). As with the two above selections, you can find the complete series on Netflix.
So, friends, this wraps up my first column—what do you think? What else disappointed you this season? Am I wrong on these three shows? Are there other suggestions for replacement shows that hit the spot?
Let me know—I’m looking forward to chatting, and I’ll see you back here next week, with more on the best and worst TV has to offer, and what’s to come. Have a great weekend.
Jonathan Elliott is a writer, arts futurist, pop omnivore, journalist, marketer, and troublemaker. He’s worked in arts marketing and management for the past twelve years, for organizations including Grounds for Sculpture, Princeton Summer Theater at Princeton University, Washington National Opera, The Contemporary American Theater Festival, Sycamore Rouge, McCarter Theatre Center, and ArtPride NJ.
Jonathan writes pop culture and TV pieces for Cinema Blend and Pop Break. His play, Forward Motion, is published via Playscripts, Inc., and he is the co-creator of the made-for-web series NeverLanding.