Thursday, Nov. 2 marks the beginning of November sweeps, the first period of the TV season when Nielsen Media Research gathers detailed ratings information that will be used to set advertising rates for the rest of the year. Television shows often live or die based on their performance in the sweeps months periods (which also include February, May and July), which is why the biggest episodes and specials are crammed into those periods. It’s as good of a time as any to examine how some of the most promising new shows are doing and how some old favorites are faring.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Mondays on NBC at 10 EST) was the show that many critics and TV-heads were most excited about when the season started. The pilot had significant flaws, but the cast was enjoyable, and individual scenes propelled the episode along. The show has since become the biggest all-around disappointment of the new season; as bad as creator Aaron Sorkin’s last two seasons on The West Wing got, they were never as bad as Studio 60 on a week-to-week basis. For every little bit that works (Matthew Perry’s performance, the scene in the last episode where Steven Weber got to sneer at Bradley Whitford), there’s even more that feels deeply self-serving or condescending. What’s more, Sorkin’s skills at writing sketch comedy are so deficient that the bad sketches throw the rest of the show into question for even for ardent fans.
Meanwhile, Friday Night Lights (Tuesdays on NBC at 8 EST), which inherited Studio 60’s Monday night slot for one week only this week, has essentially solidified its argument for being the best new show of the season. While there are a few missteps in every episode and the pacing could still stand to settle down, the series has evolved into a potent blend of sports drama, small-town show and teen soap (any viewer could have seen the hook-up of the head cheerleader/girlfriend of the paralyzed former quarterback and the team’s resident bad boy coming from a mile away, but the series managed to find enough emotional truth in the moment to make it feel less like the cliché it was). The show’s ratings have been anemic so far, but NBC seems to have finally realized what they have; their renewed efforts to promote it and their order of additional scripts bodes well for the series’s future.
The Nine (Wednesdays on ABC at 10 EST), my other favorite new show, has also seen horrible ratings, especially when compared to its still hugely popular (if fading a bit) lead-in Lost. While a milder disappointment than Studio 60, The Nine hasn’t managed to blend its flashback-to-the-bank-robbery elements with its post-bank robbery elements. The performances are still stellar (when Chi McBride ended the most recent episode with a speech about his faith after the robbery that felt both honest and earned), and the central concept does a lot of heavy lifting, but the rest of the show lacks urgency. This is one case where knowing how everything turned out is not necessarily a good thing.
I’m still unconvinced by Heroes (Mondays on NBC at 9 EST), but the series certainly knows how to construct a cliffhanger. It could stand to slice its pretentiousness in half (it doesn’t have the emotional weight that lets some of the more pretentious graphic novels get away with their super-serious ruminations), and the painful voiceovers by Suresh (the over-obvious Sendhil Ramamurthy) just need to go. There’s also a weirdly nasty streak of sadism against women floating throughout (though that could have a lot to do with the fact that it must be fun to come up with new ways to maim Hayden Panetierre’s indestructible cheerleader, Claire Bennet. Still, the series does just enough right—particularly in the storylines involving Bennet and Hiro (Masi Oka)—to earn its growing legion of fans.
Finally, there’s Jericho (Wednesdays on CBS at 8 EST), a truly, truly awful series that is worth watching just to see if any given episode will unleash something as gloriously cinematic as the scene in its second episode when Rod Hawkins (Lennie James) sat quietly at his HAM radio, listening for signals from major American cities, then sticking red pushpins in the cities where he couldn’t raise any contact (cities whose residents were presumably exterminated in the show’s opening nuclear blasts). The sequence was capped with a closeup of a bin full of push pins, James’ hand going to take one after another. A rapidly diminishing pile of push pins was a more chilling metaphor for the death of millions than anything the show’s dialogue could conjure up. Unfortunately, the rest of Jericho is as bad as network TV gets—bad dialogue that underlines every bit of subtext, bad performances that butcher that subtext, and bad direction that turns the show into a 24-esque action adventure more often than not. What’s more, none of the events onscreen seem to be taking place in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The town has simply moved on with its life, with little thought given to the national tragedy that has surely ensued. While it might be admirable in the abstract to suggest that Americans would go on as business with usual, it’s deeply unrealistic. The brief glimpses of the carnage surrounding Jericho are tantalizing, but certainly not enough to keep this drama on the must-watch list.
Speaking of returning favorites, The O.C. returns Thursday night on Fox at 9 EST, one of the last network shows to make its way back to the schedule this fall (Scrubs will be the very last, returning Nov. 30). I was never a big fan. The first six episodes were a fairly sly reinvention of the rich-teens-in-love-triangles paradigm that has dominated the teen soap since its invention, but the series seemed to go inexorably downhill from there, reaching a low point last season with the introduction of Marissa Cooper’s (Mischa Barton, whose character died at the end of last season) little sister Kaitlyn (Willa Holland, whose performance was so awkward that it inspired a hilarious online montage) and lots of moralizing about pot smoking.
The first four installments of The O.C.’s new season actually manage to let the show slough off all of its bad third season plotlines save Kaitlyn (though the efforts to do this are easily the worst moments in any given episode), and the show is, if not fresh as it was in its first season, as least as good as it was then. The O.C. has never lived up to the praise that greeted its freshman year (most of which could easily be understood in the context of a medium that seemed to be slipping ever deeper into a reality wasteland), but it’s always been funny, and willing to examine just how seriously teens take their romances. There are much better youth-oriented soaps on the air right now (namely Veronica Mars and the aforementioned Friday Night Lights). But if you were an O.C. fan who ditched the show as it worsened, it’s safe to dive back in now.
PBS debuts its latest military documentary series Warplane next week (check local listings). It’s handsomely produced, as one would expect from PBS, and it’s a fine primer on its subject, but it’s neither arresting enough to draw in those who aren’t interested in the history of air combat nor deep enough to offer anything to surprise those who already know it all. Fortunately, for the curious, the four-part series’s best hour is its first, which tracks efforts to rebuild the original planes constructed by the Wright brothers and also tells the truly amazing stories of the men who flew the planes of World War I. From there, the series trends downward, going through motions that will be familiar to anyone who has attended an air show or turned on the History Channel for any length of time.