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CBS Outshown by Showtime

by Diane Werts July 20, 2008 2:21 pm
CBS Outshown by Showtime

When the most exciting news of the CBS day at the Television Critics Association press tour is delivered by corporate-kin cabler Showtime, you know TV's in trouble.

Or maybe not.

Think about the shows Showtime gives us. Dexter, Weeds, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, The L Word, Penn & Teller's Bullshit, This American Life. Distinct. Warped. Smart. Love 'em.

Now think about the shows CBS gives us. CSI, some other CSI, yet another CSI, Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement, Numb3rs, Cold Case.

Don't wanna think too hard about those, do we?

No buzz, no watercooler did-you-see chatter, not even any TWoP pages mostly, except for reality wallows like Big Brother or temp place-holders like this summer's Swingtown. Other CBS shows are so zzzz-worthy, they've been put on "permanent hiatus." If indeed we ever noticed them at all.

So, here's the big news from Friday's L.A. sessions, lest we forget -- Showtime is taking Edie Falco to series with her tentatively titled pilot Nurse Jackie. Our long-suffering Carmela from The Sopranos resurfaces with a pixie 'do, an urban emergency room gig, and a bad back that prompts a drug habit yet doesn't prevent her screwing around on the job. (Literally.) The quick clips shown to critics were edgy and semi-hallucinatory, and made us wonder exactly why CBS doesn't just spirit away Showtime program chief Bob Greenblatt, whose previous credits as an executive producer include such inspirations as Six Feet Under. (Greenblatt was even behind the legendarily unordered Jack Black/Ben Stiller pilot Heat Vision and Jack.)

Granted, Nurse Jackie is not exactly CBS territory, but if the network wants anybody but grandma watching in years to come, they had best get a bit more talk-about-able. And the shows coughed up at Friday's Q&A sessions were anything but.

Simon Baker of The Guardian returns in The Mentalist (premiering Sept. 23) as a reformed fake psychic who helps a team of assorted police agents solve crimes loosely related to a horrific tragedy from his personal life that -- Dunno, sorry, I nodded off watching the pilot.

Rufus Sewell of The Illusionist stars in Eleventh Hour (due Oct. 9) as a hotshot scientist who helps solve bio-crimes while haunted by a horrific personal tragedy that -- Sorry, conked out without even seeing the (unprovided) pilot for that one.

Gary Unmarried (Sept. 24) is a live-audience sitcom involving only the crime of casting show-killer Paula Marshall (Snoops, Cursed, Out of Practice, et al) as the tight-ass ex-wife of single dad Jay Mohr. Because, of course, it's been 17 minutes since some other tight-ass (ex-)wife tormented another comic turned sitcom dad in another thoroughly predictable Frankenstein creation.

Even the network's new shows that show promise -- and give CBS credit, at least they let critics preview their pilots (now they'll be sorry) -- make you wonder whether they can sustain the fun they construct. Worst Week (Sept. 22), adapted from the British pre-wedding comedy The Worst Week of My Life, is a snowballing single-camera farce about a fiance (newcomer Kyle Bornheimer) who becomes a pratfalling comedy of errors around his would-be father-in-law (Kurtwood Smith of That '70s Show). You know: shows up naked at dad's door after somebody pukes on his clothes, inadvertently pees on the clan's holiday dinner during a power failure, etc. Yes, semi-dopey, but spiffily edited into an amusing crowdpleaser, with a likable cast. (Also in it: Erinn Hayes from The Winner as the pregnant fiancee, Nancy Lenehan of Married to the Kellys as her mom.) But when's the last time except Fawlty Towers that anybody on TV sustained such physical comedy? (And John Cleese only made 12 Fawlty episodes. Let's assume CBS wants 22 from Worst Week the first season alone.)

At least CBS is slotting something into Friday's vacated Moonlight hour that isn't a crime, literally or figuratively. The Ex List (Oct. 3) takes a totally quirky look at a thirtysomething single who's been told by a psychic that she must marry within the year or be single forever -- and that the guy she'll marry is somebody she has already dated. Series star Elizabeth Reaser (Emmy nominated as Jane Doe/Ava/Rebecca from the Grey's Anatomy ferry crash) is a sharp cookie to be adored by both women and men, and she's got a warm group of tight-knit friends who both support and slap each other silly, depending what's called for. As nutso as the premise seems, the show is grounded in an emotional reality that allows for a sweet comedy-drama-romance roller coaster. Creator Diane Ruggiero, who concocted CBS' Jersey-fied 2001 single-gal saga That's Life (and more recently wrote for Veronica Mars), has a keen ear for the actual way women talk to each other, and to their guy pals, and to guys with whom they'd like to be more than pals. Everybody in this one gets to have a full life without being judged, which is important, considering that if Reaser tracks exes 22 weeks a season, that's gonna mean she has shared more than a bed or two. Or seven.

Grandma isn't gonna like that, but grandma can't live forever, which The Ex List would indicate CBS finally realizes. The pace, the chatter, the attitudes are Fox-like. And whew, boy, that pilot subplot about the Brazilian and the merkin is mondo out-there for the eye net.

CBS was otherwise pretty much business-as-usual in its Q&A sessions. Program chief Nina Tassler, who never seems to say much of anything about anything, did say in response to direct questions that William Petersen is indeed leaving CSI, after 10 episodes this season, to be "not necessarily replaced" by a new character: a non-CSI outsider, "a doctor, a scientist, who's got a very interesting DNA that is going to inform the duality of the character." Translation: the as-yet-uncast science guy comes into the fold knowing he shares the sort of genetic pattern often exhibited in serial killers, thus embarking through his new CSI work on a "journey of self-discovery." And no, his name isn't Dexter. (At least we don't think so.) The show is also adding a new CSI played by Lauren Lee Smith, "who is a terrific young actress," Tassler said, boasting about this being "the DVR-proof season of CSI." Whatever that means.

Who cares what it means? Critics also actually asked Tassler about the future of The Price Is Right (really!), and Million Dollar Password (honest!), and the inevitable annual question about prime-time diversity, which only ever gets a platitude answer, and about Britney Spears on How I Met Your Mother, which at least elicited that Sarah Chalke is coming back as Ted's is-she/isn't-she-the-mother girlfriend.

And at least critics had the day-ending Showtime sessions to look forward to. Program chief Greenblatt also announced a September production start for the series The United States of Tara, a funky multiple-personality character study of a different-daily mom played by Toni Collette, with John Corbett as her flexible husband, from Oscar-winning Juno writer Diablo Cody. The cabler has ordered two more seasons of Weeds, and is considering a spinoff of The L Word that next year's series finale would lead into. Two more royal wives go down (in more ways than one) on The Tudors next year (with a fourth season but not much more possible beyond that). Jimmy Smits becomes Michael C. Hall's good friend on Dexter when the third season starts Sept. 28, playing a district attorney who makes a surprising human connection with the killer-of-killers.

Any element of which might get us gathered 'round the water cooler. It's hard to say the same about a hotshot reformed crime-solver who's haunted by a horrific... zzzzz.

TAGS: tca, cbs,

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