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CBS Owns Television and My Faves Aren’t Cool

November 21, 2007 Leave a comment

I know it’s nothing new… CBS has been dominating TV for a few years now, and they do it with authority. Still, I can’t help but think back to the days when Touched by an Angel was CBS’ big thing, and when they hit the ground running with now long-running reality shows, Big Brother and Survivor, taking on the crest of a reality television wave that soon died out. Remember The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?… Good times.

I so hated reality TV, though. To some extent, I still do. I like my entertainment scripted, thank you very much. And I don’t buy the “reality” schtick one bit. Those gigs are so staged.

That said, reality television has its merits, and continue to play a large role in American pop culture today — as much as it pains me to admit it.

But, seriously, CBS used to be considered a network for old folks, to put it bluntly. Never did they have the wide breadth of programming that they do now. It was back when NBC consistently ruled the week on a regular basis, and fostered their “Must See TV Thursday” line-up with a two-hour block of strong sitcoms, ranging from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Seinfeld to Mad About You to Friends to Frasier to Will & Grace. All of that was followed by the popular medical drama, ER (which is now in its 14th season).

Mad About You debuted in 1992, and helped launch film careers of both stars Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. As a result, Hunt is the second actress to have won a Golden Globe, an Emmy and an Oscar all within the same calendar year; the first to do so was Liza Minnelli. Photo © In Front Productions and Nuance Productions

Over the course of roughly 15 years, starting in 1990 with Will Smith’s breakout series, NBC had a revolving door of choices that always gathered strong audiences. This, of course, does not even take into account the success of 80’s sitcoms like Cheers and The Cosby Show. As for the 1990’s, not one of the aforementioned sitcoms lasted less than six seasons, and one can’t turn on the television at any time of the day without finding one of these series airing in syndication.

Unfortunately, that control began to fade as these sitcoms began to die off, one by one. The Fresh Prince ended in 1996, Seinfeld in 1998, and Mad About You ended in 1999 — but not before stars Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser were making a cool million dollars per episode in the last season (this precedent undoubtedly helped the six Friends stars achieve the same pay a few years later). NBC finally let go of the six-character show with seven-figure actors in 2004, along with Cheers spin-off, Frasier. And they only just called it quits on Will & Grace in 2006.

Friends stars (from L-R) David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Courtney Cox Arquette, Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston were, at one point, the highest paid actors in television. Known for their real-life bond, these actors helped keep NBC in the spotlight for a decade. Photo © Warner Bros. Television

It was a bitter release that seriously hurt NBC in the long-run. It’s not to say that their other nights weren’t successful, because they were. However, “Must See TV Thursday” was a staple of the network. Whether it’s by coincidence or not, once the sitcoms faded away, so did NBC’s control. By the time 2004 rolled around, CBS already had several Jerry Bruckheimer dramas in tow, including the three-pronged CSI franchise, Cold Case, Without a Trace and Close to Home. It would seem the Old Fogey network snuck up on us all and wholeheartedly earned control of our entertainment.

So far, CBS hasn’t been sharing much by way of viewers, unless it’s begrudgingly with ABC, another network that underwent somewhat of a revamping a few years ago. Both CSI and Grey’s Anatomy fight for dominance on a regular basis — that is, when American Idol isn’t on, the World Series isn’t in full swing, or Dancing with the Stars isn’t airing. Otherwise, they take turns for the Number 1 spot of the week. Ironically, both series air during the same timeslot on Thursday nights — a night with which NBC seems to struggle rather consistently nowadays.

Popular online website zap2it.com has the Nielsen’s list of Top 20 series for the week of November 11th through November 18th. Of the series listed, CBS has 11, ABC has 6, NBC has 2 (with their highest ranking being at 11 with Sunday Night Football), and FOX has 1. Seriously, it’s no longer much of a contest anymore, and the tables have certainly turned.

Talk of Grey’s Anatomy leads me to the conclusion that my shows just aren’t “cool” yet, even halfway through the season, while dramas like the one starring Ellen Pompeo continues to dominate. I’ve never gotten into it, but I absolutely love Shonda Rhimes’ other medical drama, Private Practice. I really can’t believe it’s only recently broken into the Top 20 spot, though I have my theories as to why that is.

For one thing, they don’t have sex all the time. Grey’s was built upon the sex lives of the young interns.

For another, three-fourths of the Private Practice cast are over the age of 35. The leads, a cast of geniuses really, don’t really cater to the preferred demographic I guess, which would explain why there wasn’t as much crossover between both Rhimes series as perhaps everyone expected.

Private Practice stars television veterans (from L-R) Taye Diggs, Audra McDonald, Tim Daly, Kate Walsh, Amy Brenneman and Paul Adelstein, along with relative newcomer, Chris Lowell. Photo © ShondaLand

It’s a shame, too. Kate Walsh, Audra McDonald, Amy Brenneman, Taye Diggs, Paul Adelstein and Tim Daly are all immensely talented. I don’t really care that they all seem to have a “been there, done that” air about them. It’s because they’re not playing sex-crazed, twenty-somethings that I enjoy them so much. No offense to Grey’s, because it’s a great show in its own right, but Private Practice is much more mature without the “mature” content. It’s been nearly eight episodes, and I’m pretty sure there’s only been one sex scene — if that. It’s rare for a show to go that long without nookie, and I applaud them.

Sadly, the same applies to my other favorite series, 30 Rock, Ugly Betty and Women’s Murder Club. None of them are in the top spots, they don’t have sexy, steamy characters in dramatic relationships, and that’s apparently what sells. That and crime dramas, like Criminal Minds and NCIS. Oh well. Thankfully they’re still performing strong enough to stick around.

Now, for spoiler junkies like myself, TV Guide’s Michael Ausiello has revealed some great scoop about some of the top-rated series on television (along with some other juicy secrets) here. You’ve gotta love this guy, if not for his fans.

Creating the Character

October 3, 2007 5 comments

When it comes to character development, television and film writers take various avenues in order to make lead characters compelling, easy to relate to, interesting and strong. While all roads may lead to a different destination, there are some similar paths that have been taken over the years.

One particular aspect of character development was brought to my attention a few years ago in an introductory film class. The professor claimed that women characters tend to have “Daddy Issues.” At first, in my immaturity, I balked at the idea. It didn’t make sense, I thought. How could all – or even most – female characters in television and film have these so-called “Daddy Issues?”

Then, when I got to thinking about it, truly analyzing the female characters over the past twenty years, it made perfect sense. For the most part, characters are greatly defined by their relationship (or lack thereof) with their parents. This is most obviously noted in women, but there are cases where men are defined by their parents as well. I’ll get to that later.

Women With ‘Daddy Issues’

As it stands, the vast majority of lead female characters who succeed in male-dominated fields, such as law enforcement, the military, and even the medical field, are initially defined by the relationships with their fathers.

 

Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson) of The X-Files joined the FBI in an attempt to prove to her father that she could make independent life choices that resulted in success. Her desire to prove herself to her father is what drove her in her career, and ultimately what created a wedge between them.

Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie (Catherine Bell) of JAG followed in her father’s footsteps, both by joining the Marine Corps. and by becoming an alcoholic at a young age. Abandoned by her mother when she was small, she was left to endure her father’s emotional and psychological abuse. Like many of the other female characters listed, she was developed as a no-nonsense military attorney who never suffered fools. Still, again like many of the other female characters here, she was known as compassionate, ethical and strong. 

 

Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis joined the military to follow in her father’s footsteps after an emotionally detached childhood that resulted from her mother’s death when she was a young teenager. Her successful career in the male-dominated Air Force was solely independent of her father’s, but the desire to prove herself to her workaholic dad was one explanation for her driven nature and independence.

 

Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was introduced as a child of rape, so she never knew her father. Nevertheless, the driving force behind her character is the fact that she does not want to be anything like her father. For nearly a decade she has run away from biology, focused on helping people, and has questioned her capacity for violence.

 

Catherine Willows (played by Marg Helgenberger) of CSI lived a life of chaos in Las Vegas before turning to a career in forensics. Her enstrangement from her wealthy father led to stripping, poverty and a lack of self-worth. For approximately seven years, she has thrived independently in a fulfilling career, but the affects of her father’s poor treatment live on, and continue to be touched upon as further explanations of her emotional detachment.

 

Lilly Rush (Kathryn Morris) of Cold Case lived a rough life of poverty and abuse. Her mother was a drug addict and her father was rarely – if ever – in the picture. As one of few female characters on television today who are truly the lead character in a procedural drama, Morris’ Lilly is a strong, compassionate and independent woman whose hardships in life (as well as the lack of a strong male role model as a child) compel her to protect the lives of others.

Some Men Have ‘Daddy Issues,’ Too

As I said earlier, there are also some male characters who have been defined by their intense paternal conflicts. Some of them even belong to the series that were already listed.

Most notably, Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) of The X-Files had serious issues with his father, blaming him for the abduction of his sister, the subversion of the truth, putting his family in danger, and lying to him on a regular basis. Still, as has been the case with many female characters, there was an underlying layer of trust, a desire to please and protect his father at all costs.

Harmon Rabb, Jr. (David James Elliott) of JAG grew up never knowing his father. He was haunted by his father’s disappearance during the Vietnam War, and desperately went to great lengths to find the truth as an adult. As with Mulder, there was never true closure with his father, and it continued to define his character throughout. 

Women Seem To Lead, However

Essentially, from a traditional character development method over the past 20 years, when a lead female character is not being defined by her relationship with the male lead (i.e. Scully to Fox Mulder, Benson to Eliott Stabler, Carter to Jack O’Neill, or Willows to Gil Grissom), she is being defined by her relationship with her father.

While that trend isn’t as prevalent as it once was, it is an interesting aspect of television and film history to note, as I believe it is quite indicative of society’s expectations. Is it possible that, as a society, the audience expects there to be a very good reason to explain why a female is able to thrive in a man’s world, why she’s able to succeed and kick butt just as well as her male partner?

Perhaps it is on a subconscious level that audience members demanded such reasoning, or maybe it was equally subconscious on the part of the writers who needed to properly develop a character. Anything’s possible.

Personally, I can take the cliche problems lead female “X” supposedly had with her dad, if it means we’re still getting a capable, competent female character in the process.    

Did You Survive Premiere Week?

October 2, 2007 1 comment

This blog post comes in a bit late due to the fact that I had a hard time picking which premieres were worth my time. Even with the help of my trusty TiVo and a relatively mild weekend, I had to be pretty choosy. In the end, I came up with some old faves and some solid newbies.

Cold Case

On Sunday, September 23, Cold Case premiered on CBS. I thought it was a bit unusual, considering most shows premiere on the Sunday that follows premiere week. (Though The Simpsons premiered that evening as well.) I’m not sure why that is, but Monday usually leads the week off.

At any rate, Lily looks as though she’s going to take a bit of a dark turn this season after narrowly dodging death in last season’s finale. We knew there was little risk of her being offed considering she’s the lead character, but it still created some pretty good tension. It’ll be interesting to see where they take the character from here.

Heroes

Heroes premiered Monday on NBC. I honestly meant to catch up on this series during the summer, but I didn’t, so I was completely lost. According to a couple of the people I asked around campus, Heroes was a big deal. I’m considering getting Season One on DVD, but I’ll have to think about it. All in all, I’m just impressed that a sci-fi show was able to thrive in mainstream television. Perhaps there’s hope for the genre yet.

Journeyman

Speaking of hope for the sci-fi genre, NBC took another crack at an intense time-traveling thriller with Journeyman last week. It was a no-brainer to pair this freshman series with Heroes. Still, just as many critics warned, the series was a bit hard to follow at first. It could be a bit stronger, but I really like the style of cinematography and pacing. It’s possible that the series merely needs to find its footing, and it still seems to be performing. We’ll see how it works out.

Law and Order: SVU

Ah, procedural dramas. NBC’s most popular L&O series premiered on Tuesday. I really, really think they’ve jumped the shark with Elliott and his ex-wife preparing to raise another kid. I’m sure it had something to do with causing some tension between Elliott and Olivia, or maybe it was attempt to further distance the characters from any potential romance.

Either way, though I liked that they focused on his family in the beginning of the series’ existence, his wife and kids have become a nuisance over the years. The premiere was decent, with Cynthia Nixon from Sex and the City fame playing a mother with a multiple personality disorder. It didn’t quite compare to the premieres of seasons’ past, but it was entertaining.

Bionic Woman

The highly touted, uber-advertised, Bionic Woman premiered Wednesday on NBC to much fanfare. The lead actress who plays the title role, Michelle Ryan, is a relative unknown, and there were some scenes that had a bit of a shaky delivery. Still, there’s an intensity and an honesty that comes across in character Jamie Sommers.

The show definitely has potential. I’m a sucker for great special effects and action, but it also had an interesting storyline as well. It helps that they’re also tackling a philosophical issue that’s very timely in this technological age. How far is too far when it comes to bioengineering? It’s a good question that’s bound to come up more and more as the season continues.

With less cheesy one-liners in the heat of action, and more development of Jamie, her sister and her boyfriend, I think the series has a shot at becoming another Heroes.

Private Practice

Premiering opposite Bionic Woman, Private Practice debuted on ABC Wednesday, with both series starting off pretty well. What Practice lacked in action against Bionic, it made up for in strong characters.

It’s hard to say if lightning will strike twice for Shonda Rhimes, creator of both Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. I do have to say, however, that the new sister series definitely leads in the Talented and Accomplished Actors department (though the young actors on the former series are very talented as well). With the likes of Amy Brenneman and Taye Diggs, I see a lot of potential for Kate Walsh’s (Addison on Grey’s) new series. I’m glad she was able to spread her wings on a show that will showcase her talents. There’s something about her quirky character that’s way more endearing than Meredith, in my opinion.

Critics like TV Guide’s Michael Ausiello also warned of a weak start for the series, which I can agree with to some extent. There were moments that seemed a bit absurd — but, hey, Grey’s has gotten away with a lot more with less logic, so I’m willing to give this show a shot.

ER

The show that just keeps getting rescusitated premiered with its 14th season (that’s right!) Thursday on NBC. It was weaker than most, and seemed a bit dead in some areas, but the main characters of this season are still compelling.

There are probably a lot of people who can’t believe this show is still on the air, and I have to admit I’m pretty surprised myself. It’s a show that won’t die, but as long as the chemistry between the cast remains (John Stamos, notwithstanding), I’ll try to catch it every now and again. It probably won’t be as religious as before, but I won’t write it off until it’s cancelled.

Stargate Atlantis

Finally, I’m allowed to let the geek in me roam free for a bit as I talk about Stargate Atlantis, which premiered Friday on the SCIFI Channel. It was a fairly decent season opener, with the introduction of two new cast members, Amanda Tapping (Colonel Samantha Carter) from the recently cancelled Stargate SG-1, and Jewel Staite (Dr. Jennifer Keller) from Firefly, which was cancelled a few years ago and concluded with the movie, Serenity.

It probably could’ve been a bit stronger, considering its future is not quite secure. For the most part, though, the scope of the premiere was pretty good, and will hopefully lead into other new storylines for the fourth season. The cast changes caused heated debates among fans, and there are some who are skeptical as to whether or not Stargate Atlantis will see a fifth season pick-up from Stargate. Still, with ailing original series in its lineup, SCIFI may be more amenable than expected.

It’s a wait-and-see game for producers and viewers alike, as only time will tell if the series can perform on its own without the ten-year-old Stargate SG-1 as a lead-in. Here’s hoping, because I’m a huge, geeky fan of that show, and I’d like it to succeed.

That’s about it. I’ll be following Bionic Woman, Private Practice and Atlantis closely, while catching Cold Case, Journeyman, SVU and ER when I can. There are loads of other series out there to try, like the CW’s Aliens in America and Reaper, as well as ABC’s Samantha Who? and Pushing Daisies. Those seem to be critically acclaimed winners… and those types of shows tend to lack the kind of viewership that will keep them around for the long haul. I should probably check them out soon before they get the ax.

So, did I miss anything? Are there shows I’ve overlooked?