Every now and then, I like to indulge myself with fantasies of storylines that could be, if only I could trust television to do them right. Those dreams loom especially large in the wake of finale season, when I think ahead to what we’ll be seeing on network television in the fall, and wonder if this is perhaps the year when television breaks out of itself to do something amazing. Which shows could have the potential to take a storyline in a new and fascinating direction, rather than letting it slide into Tropeville? And what could they do with said storyline?
This network television season, it appears that the big players are in a race to the bottom to see how low you can go in an exploitation of current economic and political conditions. My hat is off to Hollywood’s army of developers, writers, and show runners, who have served up a hot mess of new reality offerings as well as dramas. Today, we take a look at some of the fall shows we missed in our earlier coverage.
NBC is reviving Queen for a Day, in which game show competitors see who can tell the best sob story to win living room sets, kitchen makeovers, and other big ticket prizes. The flagging network is betting hard on the success of this remake to recapture the game show market, which has waned in favor of reality shows in recent years. Queen for a Day hasn’t appeared on US airwaves since 1970, but it’s practically tailor-made for the financial crisis, although I’m not sure where competitors are supposed to install their prizes if their homes have been foreclosed. Catch it on Thursday nights, but be sure to grab a hanky first.
Attempting to go up against the juggernaut that is Dancing With the Stars might seem like a losing proposition from the start to us lesser mortals, but Fox is giving it a shot with Sharking With CEOs. The network is pitting CEOs against loan sharks to see which can originate more exploitative loans in a one month period, working out of payday loan offices across the United States. Competitors earn extra points for each defaulted loan, and the top entrants have a chance at interviews for positions on the boards of some of the world’s largest financial firms.
AMC’s Breaking Bad returned last week with a deliciously dark season opener after forcing viewers to wait 13 months after last season’s cliffhanger finale. As the finale had led viewers to suspect, Breaking Bad has turned over a new chapter in its life, and that chapter is a decidedly murky one. With producer Vince Gilligan threatening that he’s only planning on five seasons, the fourth promises to be a whopper; there will be no penultimate series sluggishness here, making Gilligan’s decision, to keep the show crisp and tight rather than dragging it on, an obviously smart one for the series as a whole.
Breaking Bad revolves around the slow slide of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), introduced at the start of the series as a high school chemistry teacher with a terminal diagnosis who just wants to make a little money to support his family after he’s gone. He turns to methamphetamine manufacturing, taking advantage of the booming demand for a drug that has spread like a plague across the United States, hopscotching into the nation’s heartland and destroying lives in its wake. This is a storyline that could very quickly turn after school special, with moralising episodes about methamphetamine and the drug war, but Gilligan has managed to keep it a very human drama, avoiding these pitfalls. This may in part be because of the medium; the networks would feel obligated to include some Very Special Episodes to remind viewers that methamphetamine is bad, whereas Gilligan clearly figures that viewers can come to that understanding all on their own.
Last week’s Grey’s Anatomy ended with a cliffhanger this viewer predicted at the very moment we saw Callie and Arizona in a car; crunching noises and the show’s classic fade to white, warning that one or more characters is probably about to die. We’re working up to that time of year where shows are starting to set up minor arcs to lead to end of season storylines, and this one promises to be a doozy in grand Grey’s Anatomy tradition.
Viewers have been following the Calzona, as some fans like to call it, relationship with much interest through its tempestuous twists and turns. Grey’s went out on a limb in the fifth season by daring to reorient a character viewers had interacted with as straight, and turning Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) into a bisexual character with the famous ‘glasses moment’ with Dr. Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) in bed. First the show was praised for depicting bisexuality, and then it was slammed for Dr. Hahn’s abrupt departure, which smelled of gaywashing to some viewers.
The promotionals for ABC’s version of Secret Millionaire, yet another UK show being remade in the United States (as well as Australia), promise viewers a series where people with pots of money will ‘go undercover’ to find ‘deserving poor’ in desperate communities across the United States, lavishing them with gifts of money at the end of their brief stays in the slums. Tricks of cinematography show us shiny, glossy, softly-focused lives in mansions with car collections before switching to dark, grimy life in the impoverished communities of the United States, complete with serious mood music to underscore the scenes of gripping poverty.
The show’s debut on Sunday did not disappoint when it comes to poverty porn and slum tourism at its best; the Victorians may have thought they had it nailed, but ABC may have topped them in terms of sheer maudlin schmaltz. This week’s millionaire, Dani Johnson, was tailormade for the show–she went from a childhood of hardship and poverty to being a millionaire by her early 20s. Johnson even helpfully uses the phrase ‘bootstrapping’ multiple times to remind viewers on her stance on making it in the world: If you work hard enough, and deserve it hard enough, you can have anything you want.
Hold on to your hats on 3 April, because the Borgias are coming to prime time. Showtime announces that ‘The Borgias will be a complex, unvarnished portrait of one of history’s most intriguing and infamous dynastic families.’ Not content with US remakes of European television, apparently we’ve moved on to US remakes of European history. After the success of The Tudors, Showtime has obviously scented money in the water and it’s willing to back it up with serious investment, with an up-front order of 10 hour long episodes that can’t come on a cheap budget when you’re talking about depicting the circles of power in 15th century Italy. Gilt alone is probably going to run them more than I make in a year.
Starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and tantalising us with creative talent like Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), the show promises to be filled with epic storylines, because the Borgias were no slackers when it came to leading action-packed, duplicitous, and scheming lives. US audiences appear to have recently acquired a taste for high-flying historical dramas, something audiences in places like Britain have already been enjoying for decades. I’m placing bets on The Romanovs next, given that the tragic downfall of royal dynasties is part of the appeal. We like royalty here, but we don’t like to let them get too royal.
UK import Downton Abbey wrapped up its stint on PBS last weekend, complete with an appeasing note to viewers already howling about the ending (gosh, I hope the outbreak of the First World War wasn’t a spoiler for anyone), noting that another season is in production and will hopefully be making its way here soon. Helmed by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park fame, the show has made a big splash on both sides of the pond, and no wonder; it represents British drama at its best, such a brilliant distillation of art and culture that producers in the US didn’t dare attempt to produce a hamfisted ‘adaptation’ to sully the airwaves, instead going straight to the source.
Set in the tense years before the outbreak of World War I, Downton Abbey could fall into the trap of glamorising the golden age. It’s certainly set up to do so, with the drama revolving around the lives of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family living in a great manor house, the titular character. And make no mistake, Downtown Abbey is a character in the drama, just as the costuming and setting also play vital roles.