At one time, there were three versions of Law & Order and three versions of CSI all on television. Added up, there were five entries on the Dick Wolf-created Law & Order franchise: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury and Los Angeles were the spinoffs to the original. You're forgiven if you forgot the Bebe Neuwirth-led Trial by Jury from 2005. On the CSI side, just Miami and New York joined the Las Vegas original. Why am I telling you this? These shows all had one thing in common: a proven, continued, rarely-surprise-the -audience formula each and every week.
For the crime genre, it's simple: someone dies, the pros come in, investigate, wrong turns and detours ensue, and eventually, they get their man/woman. In the medical genre, more of the same: someone's sick, the pros come in, investigate, wrong turns and love triangles ensue, and eventually, they get their disease. It's all part of a simple formula that is likely tacked on to a scoreboard each week in the writers room, they fill in the blanks, add dialog and move on to the next episode. Of course, surprises come up here and there, most often during sweeps months, but by-and-large, it's more of the same each week.
This year, several formula-driven dramas hit the airwaves: a number of crime shows, a couple of medical dramas and an action series with a few ill-fated Angels. Let's take a look at the good, the bad and the really, really bad of the formula dramas.
**A Gifted Man: B**
What you need to know: Julie Benz needs a starring role on television. In her post-Dexter life, she's starred on the canceled No Ordinary Family, guest starred on the failing Desperate Housewives and serves up a minor role in this medical drama.
What I think: Patrick Wilson stars as House Jr. (aka Dr. Michael Holt), a perpetually cranky doctor with no time for anything besides himself and his work. He's brilliant, he knows it and he's a pain in the ass to those who love him, including his ex-wife, who dies and comes back to Holt as a ghost, turning his world upside down. Wilson is an able actor, doing his darndest not to imitate Hugh Laurie in a role written specifically to clone Dr. House. The central idea of the show is that the ghost of his ex-wife will make him a better man. Honestly, I'm not sure if the twist helps or hurts the show. On its own, it's not a terribly unlikable medical show. But I suppose the twist adds a little mystery to the show. Plus, CBS has devoted this timeslot for seven years running now to a ghost-themed series. Why stop now?
What the future holds: It's not a bad show really. I'm not feeling obligated to ever watch again, but if I had nothing else to do, I'd give it another shot. Unfortunately, it doesn't gel with CBS's crime shows, CSI: NY and Blue Bloods, on Fridays. By midseason, A Gifted Man will likely be A Man On Hiatus.
**Prime Suspect: C**
What you need to know: It's based on a UK series of the same name. Helen Mirren starred in the original. I have not seen it, but I can imagine Maria Bello feels she has an uphill battle competing with Mirren.
What I think: It looks gritty for the sake of it. The Shield and The Wire felt like the real thing. Prime Suspect feels like a cheap imitation. If everyone has New York accents and the colors are washed out, maybe people will think we're a legit crime drama! It ends up feeling forced and insincere. Bello is another able actor, but even with dirty-looking hair, she looks like she doesn't belong. Of course the central theme of her character in the pilot is that no one thinks she belongs there, mainly because she's a gal. That aside, it's a typical crime show. Nothing extraordinary, nothing appalling. I can't imagine ever feeling the need to watch it again: there are dozens of better crime series.
What the future holds: Very little on the horizon. Ratings are horrid. NBC has fallen so far from the days of ER in its prime on Thursdays at 10pm EST. You would feel bad if they didn't continue to make embarrassing choices each and every season.
**Person of Interest: B**
What you need to know: Michael Emerson has transferred Benjamin Linus from Lost to Person of Interest. That's not a bad thing.
What I think: A higher class of crime drama. Unlike Prime Suspect, which feels like a retread on every typical crime genre characteristic, Person of Interest feels exciting and new. The plot in a nutshell: a machine has been created to track down crimes about to be committed. It focuses on one person, who can either be a victim, the criminal or a witness. Jim Caviezel comes across as the poor man's Christian Bale. I'm not sure he's the most charismatic lead for a television series, especially for the action scenes, but he's not the most miscast actor this season. Despite the technologically advanced background, you can't help but think of the show as a crime drama with a few extra bells and whistles. Kind of like a really old science fiction movie: it's supposed to be an advanced robot, but you know it's just a man dressed in a costume. This is how I feel about Person of Interest: a thinly-veiled attempt to dress up an otherwise ordinary concept.
What the future holds: It's crimetime and it's CBS. Despite terribly low 18-49 demos, it's not a fish out of water alongside new Thursday night mainstay The Mentalist. It'll be around until May. After that, CBS might try something else.
**Charlie's Angels: D+**
What you need to know: It's canceled. Deservedly so.
Why it failed: This show is run by a group of people delegating the work to others. Rachael Taylor and Annie Ilonzeh act as though Minka Kelly is the lead on the show and give 50% at best. Minka Kelly acts as though the writers will save her subpar skills with sharp writing. The writers create as though the action and suspense will save their atrocious dialog. All involved act as though the nostalgia of the series (or, more specifically, the movies) will make everyone forget just how awful the show really is. The show can't decide if it wants to be a dark interpretation of the 70s series or if it wants to be light-hearted fun. It's neither. In a big way. No one will buy these three girls (of which Minka Kelly is the one with the most meat on her bones) can kick serious ass and take names. Towards the end, Minka Kelly is tortured for information. In a line better suited for Jack Bauer, she tells her captors she's "Just getting warmed up." Which is great, except she says it with all the intensity of someone playing chess, not getting tortured. Either the character has a high threshold for pain, or she's just not a good actress.
What the future should hold: No more lame reboots of old series. Bionic Woman, Charlie's Angels, Melrose Place. Thank god someone had the decency to cut off Wonder Woman before it started. Save some money, please. Either hire competent people or give other people with original ideas a chance.
What you need to know: Yes, the title is the most appropriate pun of the season: it's beyond forgettable.
What I think: Yet another crime drama with a twist: Poppy Montgomery plays a character who can remember EVERYTHING. Yes, everything. Oh, except the day her sister died. That's what TV watchers would call convenient. One must have for any crime show is simple: A strong, likable lead character the audience can both relate to and love to watch do their thing. Montgomery is perpetually worried and confused in every scene. This is her playing field (she spent seven years on Without a Trace) but she's lacking in any charm. There's no way to connect with her. The "twist" has potential to be an interesting addition, but what happens when she's not the witness to a crime? In any event, there's little else to distinguish this from the glut of other crime shows.
What the future holds: It'll last a season, but by May, it'll be lost in the shuffle.
**Last Man Standing: C+**
What you need to know: "I'm back!" is Tim Allen's opening line on the show, and to be honest, he deserves it.
What I think: In the hands of any other fifty-something actor, this show would crash and burn in a heartbeat. In Tim Allen's hands, he somehow makes the groan-inducing "What happened to manly men?" dialog work. He's convincing. And honestly, I've missed a Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor on TV. He's more hit than miss in his attempts at understanding the new culture. Now, that aside, the show has an agenda: it's aimed entirely at a blue collar, Republican audience. Jokes about Obamacare and boys growing up to "dance on floats" (a joke that soars over the homophobic line, said with a "Ain't that what we're all thinking?" mentality) litter the pilot and second episode. If ABC decides to drop the show (it'll drop viewership quickly), perhaps FOX News will pick it up. When the show is just about family, and occasionally the modern world, it's funny. Too often though it veers into territory that is unnecessary. If they stopped making it accessible to just the political right, it'll do well.
What the future holds: viewership decline. There were too many problems with the first two episodes for me to give it another chance, and I feel I won't be alone. But I hope they work out the kinks because Tim Allen is carrying it on his shoulders. Now if they could fire Nancy Travis (she annoyingly smiles at EVERYTHING Tim says) and hire Patricia Richardson, then we'd be in business. Hey, they paired Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad for The Cosby Show's 1996 follow-up Cosby. Not that that show lasted long, but still.
-ABC canceled Charlie's Angels after four airings but will air the remaining four episodes. It's kind of like ABC is saying "Okay, you were right, we were wrong, but we'll get the last laugh!"
-AMC's The Walking Dead returned to 7.3 million viewers and a 3.8 in the adult 18-49 demo. Zombie is the new vampire.
-FOX has benched New Girl until November 1st in favor of expanded The X Factor airings. Why let one show continue to do well when you can give another underperforming show extra time on your schedule? Hey FOX: as it pertains to The X Factor, you know the saying isn't "More is more", right?
-Most of the debuting dramas continue to underwhelm in the ratings. Next on the hit list: ABC's Pan Am. You know, we really like you, Christina Ricci. Now maybe find a better project next season.
As always, thanks for reading any or all of this week's column. I'll be back at the end of the week with my final look at the new pilots of the season, combining the best (and worst) of the rest. Until then, stay tuned.