Fall TV 2015: Moguls, Moppets, Muppets and Murder

Empire

Fall TV is upon us, and the broadcast networks still exist! I watched two Fox shows and two ABC shows that premiered this week. Here are some thoughts, from favorite to least favorite.

Black-ish

Word

I really enjoyed the Black-ish pilot when it premiered last fall. I watched another episode or two at some point, but for some reason it kept slipping through the cracks of my catch-up schedule. But after hearing good things about Wednesday’s second season premiere, I tuned back in, and I’m certainly glad that I did.

“THE Word” is a casually brilliant episode of television that’s also screamingly funny and completely in keeping with the show’s established tone, which was clear from the first minute of the pilot. The idea of starting an episode with the Johnson family’s youngest son uttering a racial slur at a talent show is intriguing enough, but the episode expands on the potential of that opening with storylines that reflect what’s complicated and muddled about this entire issue, all while generating huge laughs. All four children seem to have settled into their roles, with precocious Diane (Marsai Martin) particularly standing out. If season one was half as charming, well-constructed, curious, expertly paced and pleasurable as this episode, I have quite the catchup on my hands. (Also, someone get Tracee Ellis Ross an Emmy! She is a treasure.)

Empire

Empire

If every show were like Empire, television would overdose on a potent brew of cholesterol and caffeine. Every episode of this hip-hop soap opera is drenched with excess, and the second-season premiere only doubles down on the sheer quantity. There are new supporting characters (Marisa Tomei as the shifty investor Mimi Whiteman; Chris Rock as Lucius’ menacing fellow inmate and longtime rival Frank Gathers) and high-profile cameos (Don Lemon, Rev. Al Sharpton, Swizz Beats) filling out the ranks of the already-crowded ensemble. Plot-wise, the pedal is all the way to the floor, as Lucius Lyon (Terrence Howard) rallies his fellow inmates in the cause against the evil Frank and negates Cookie’s sneak attack by wooing Whiteman to secure his future with Empire. Cookie (Emmy nominee Taraji P. Henson) spends the episode scheming and ends it fuming. Meanwhile, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is surly, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is antsy and Andre (Trai Byers) is guilty, having murdered his father’s friend and confidant Vernon (Malik Yoba) minutes before learning that his wife is pregnant at the end of last season.

I’m already exhausted just typing that out. It’s hard to imagine the show’s writers staying energized through 18 episodes as furiously paced as this one. At this rate, the cliff (or shark — insert your metaphor of choice here) is fast approaching on the horizon. Or at least, it seems to be. The show sidestepped these acceleration questions for all of last season, growing its viewership each week as the twists piled on top of each other like a particularly precarious Jenga puzzle.

But for now, it’s best to admire the tower in front of us, not lament the possibility that it will topple in a few weeks’ time. And what a tower it is. Empire is television’s most nakedly and intentionally provocative show, filling its canvas with thorny issues like the #BlackLivesMatter movement and asking viewers to make judgments for themselves. Is Cookie betraying the cause for equality she appears to champion by throwing her support, at least publicly, by a man whom she knows to be a murderer? Is the Lyon family wrong for co-opting a serious movement for its own material gain? These are questions that have no place on almost any other television show, let alone a big-tent broadcast drama. The dazzling presentation smooths over the flaws and bumps. Empire isn’t a perfect show, but it’s essential.

Scream Queens

Emma

In the age of Peak TV in America, a two-hour premiere is, for the most part, a risky proposition from a network perspective. Even if you manage to get people to commit to tuning into something to which they’ll have to devote two hours, you risk alienating them with a lackluster first hour and never gaining them back in the second.

That’s where I am with the latest Ryan Murphy-Ian Brennan-Brad Falchuk joint, which seems like a cross between Glee and American Horror Story, the trio’s two most recent TV creations. I’ve never seen the latter, but the slasher elements and grotesque imagery of this tonal mashup seem to owe a debt to the FX anthology, while the teen soap elements are straight outta Glee. I soured on that burned-out phenomenon three and a half seasons in, and I don’t plan to invest nearly as much of my time on Scream Queens, which appears to double down on the elements of Glee that I didn’t like, adds a horror element that doesn’t entice me and excises most of what made Glee an occasionally profound, touching series. Everything from the characters to the sets and certainly the dialogue on Scream Queens is stylized within an inch of his life, carefully crafted to sound like witty bon mots that serve only to distance the viewer from the emotional stakes of the story. And the casual racism and misogyny that the head Kappa Kappa Tau sister in charge Chanel (Emma Roberts) spews throughout the pilot is enough to make you wonder whether the writers don’t secretly take pleasure in the kind of speech they profess to condemn.

There’s a slick confidence to Scream Queens that will be accessible to some but left me entirely cold. The prospect of watching these thinly sketched character archetypes get picked off one by one until the masked killer presumably gets unmasked in the finale fills me the wrong kind of dread. There’s plenty of talent here: Jamie Lee Curtis effectively if predictably channels Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester; Keke Palmer is delightful as the freshman pledge Zayday; Ariana Grande proves surprisingly agile as Chanel #2. Murphy/Brennan/Falchuk are capable of transcendent television – episodes of Glee like “Dream On” and “Grilled Cheesus” prove it. It’s a shame they’re letting their most irritating tics get in the way of what they do best.

The Muppets

Muppets

Here’s a case of, “I want this to be better, and I think it can be better, so I will wait and hope that it gets better.” The pilot, which was rushed into production because ABC president Paul Lee was desperate to get a Muppets show on the air, recasts the Muppets as the cast and crew of the first network late-night talk show hosted by a woman (Miss Piggy). Kermit, who recently broke up with Piggy, is the show’s executive producer. The breakup makes things awkward, as it would. Bawdy jokes, animal puns and general silliness ensue.

And all of that would be fine, were there not also an unwelcome undercurrent of cynicism and misanthropy from which the Muppets are typically immune. Gone is the sincerity of Jason Segel’s 2011 big-screen revival, or even the genial goofiness of its 2014 sequel. In its place: retrograde gender politics and soap-opera manipulation. If the goal was to make the Muppets “more adult,” the show succeeds. But “more adult” and “more mature” mean two very different things. The innocence of the Muppets is their most subversive quality – they’re complex because of their naivete, not in spite of it. Here, the Muppets are just like us. But it’d be far more interesting and less dispiriting to see a show about Muppets who get to enjoy not being just like us.

The showrunner is Bill Prady, who also runs The Big Bang Theory on CBS. Prady got his start writing under Jim Henson for the Muppets back in the day. I have no doubt that he respects these characters and wants to honor them. And I also have no doubt that the eleventh episode of The Muppets (which, judging by the ratings, is guaranteed to air) will look noticeably different from the first. Ironing out the tone of the show takes time, and it’s not fair to expect the process to go faster because the characters are already established. If anything, bridging the gap between the expectations of the network and the parameters set by the original Muppet creators is a more difficult obstacle than the average show with a new cast of characters has to surmount. There’s plenty to work with here — the gimmicky “cross-promotional synergy” of the Tom Bergeron cameo does nothing to undermine his delightful line readings, and opportunity to gently mock the stodgy late-night game while also paying tribute to it is likely to pay dividends over time. As of now, what’s here is a shaky foundation, but there’s enough time to fill in the gaps.

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