Monday, October 16, 2006

Week Two of the "New TV Show Power Rankings"

It is time for Week Two of the "New TV Shows Power Rankings," which can't happen soon enough, with so many of the decent new shows in danger of being cancelled at any moment.

If you've ever wondered why it is hard for a new studio show to make it in this day and age, look no further than the carnage from last Tuesday night. The brilliant Friday Night Lights again had a horrible showing in its 8:00 time slot, because it was going up against ratings monster Dancing With the Stars. Meanwhile, as predicted in this space last week, a rerun of CSI at 9:00 managed to bring in more viewers than the recently cancelled Smith had in its first three weeks.

Whether these new shows just aren't visible enough, whether we as a nation are too lazy to tune in to anything new, or whether we all just love watching Emmitt Smith and Mario Lopez dance that much, it seems obvious that the populous' obsession with reality television isn't going away. So sad.

Therefore, what follows is a an edition of the "Power Rankings" that focuses heavily on ratings performance, because, unfortunately, that is all the the networks care about and the only thing that will keep these shows around.

The Top 10

1. Heroes (Last week: 2). We already have a shift at the top. Both Drew (my TV expert brother and silent partner on this column) and I still like Studio 60 more than any other new show, but the sheer success of Heroes - coupled with the fact that it doesn't suck - puts it at the top of the heap. There is good news abounding for NBC's hit new show. It is pulling in solid ratings, a full first season has been ordered by the network, and last week's episode ("One Giant Leap") was one of the better shows of the fall season up to this point. Our only complaint with Heroes so far is that the Flying Male Nurse is getting the most airtime but is the least compelling character. (How many times have we seen "Peter" trying to talk to his older brother about flying? 100?) He will probably wind up being the key to the whole mystery, but for now, we are simply getting a heavy dose of a mediocre actor who whines a lot. On the other hand we have a crazy Japanese guy, an indestructible cheerleader (who somehow is always wearing her cheerleading outfit), a mysterious single-name villain who can't be killed (at least not by bullets), and Ali Larter trying to act. That is more than enough to keep us watching.

2. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (1). Last week might have been Studio 60's best episode yet, as the possibility of copyright infringement really brought some tension to the set and showed how complex a live show can be. The genius of Sorkin's dramas is that he puts all of these fast-talking, somewhat ridiculous characters in truly intriguing settings. The "blood and guts" of a sports news broadcast (Sports Night), the White House, and now a sketch comedy show ... that is interesting stuff. Not only that, but Sorkin's "talk as they walk" writing style works better here than either of his previous shows, because this one is set in Hollywood, where people actually do interact in this way. Of course, despite all of the praise we are heaping on Studio 60, it still drops a spot in the rankings. Why? Because the ratings suck and it is probably going to get cancelled. We finally get a smart show that respects its audience enough to avoid writing to the lowest common denominator and no one is watching it. Which is what always seems to happen when people challenge the notion that the audience isn't smart enough to follow a "real" show. Next time you get upset that network television churns out formulaic, dumbed-down comedies like Two and a Half Men just know that we have no one to blame but ourselves. If we don't tune in to the good stuff, how can we expect people to keep trying to make it?

3. Jericho(4). These rankings are a mighty perverse instrument. Jericho seems to be getting worse, but it's stock is going up. Why? Because, like Heroes, the show just got a phone call from the network (in this case CBS) ordering a full 22 episodes for the first season. Now, don't get us wrong, unlike some people out there, we don't harbor any ill will for Jericho. The show features a decent enough premise, some mystery (the "Hawkins" character is certainly up to something secretive), and is just entertaining enough to keep you from falling asleep on your couch, which means that it is better than pretty much any new show from Fox or any new sitcom, from any network. That said, Jericho doesn't challenge the viewer and it doesn't feature any dynamic characters that will capture your attention once the dust/radioactive rain settles (read: The Lost Factor).

4. Ugly Betty.(8) The highest riser of the week, Ugly Betty has a lot going for it. For starters, it became the third new show to get an order for a full season. It is also battling Survivor for the 8:00 time slot on Thursday nights. Anytime a "real" show detracts from a reality show is good news for everyone. Not only that, but it is actually very good. We toggled this with the baseball playoffs (while TiVo-ing The Office for pure television pleasure at a time of our choosing) and actually came away impressed. It is often funny, big-hearted, and relevant, sometimes all at once.

5. Friday Night Lights(5). Even though Lights seems doomed for failure, we have to keep it at #5 for at least one more week. The writing and execution is just too good to put it below something formulaic and unoriginal. We refuse. We also contend that Peter Berg might very well be a genius. He is one of those guys that seems to know and understand a great deal about the world, yet he delivers it in a way that is easy to digest and is completely lacking in pretense. Is that a genius? I think it might be. The hosts of The View stepped up and pimped Lights on their show last week and wondered if perhaps a show with Friday in the title is causing confusion by being aired on a Tuesday. If this is true, then A) we as a culture truly have no hope, and B) NBC should go ahead and move this thing to Fridays and hope for the best. It can't do any worse, ratings-wise.

6. Dexter(9). Based on quality, this show would probably rank in the top three. However, because Dexter is on Showtime, it gets to play by different rules and thereby has a big advantage. The writers can weave a new subplot into the second episode ("Crocodile") in the form of a new Dexter "target" (an acquitted drunk driver, which, admittedly, seems borrowed from season two of Rescue Me) while slow-playing the "Ice Truck" killer from the pilot. Things are tense and layered, but moving at a rich, easy pace that not only vastly improves the quality of the production, but also indicates that those in charge have confidence in their staying power. We still contend that the supporting cast is woeful, but Michael C. Hall has been very good so far. Even the narration is working, which is a stunning fact, in and of itself. (Since, you know, narration almost always sucks.) If the network shows above continue to slide, it won't be long before Dexter is in the top five and climbing.

7. Shark(6). This show isn't going to reinvent the genre, but as far as "episodic legal dramas" go, this isn't half bad. James Woods continues to blow people off the screen and the stories are pretty good. I thought Shark was far more interesting than Boston Legal last week, which is a pretty good sign. All told though, we aren't real excited. Can you tell?

8. The Nine(3). This is the biggest drop of the week and the rationale is two-fold. First, the story for episode two wasn't nearly as compelling as the pilot. The whole "say what we want and get a medal and if you don't, your life will suck" storyline is kind of tired. We've seen this a hundred times before. The fledgling love interests are boring, Scott Wolf's Kavorikian impression was transparent (but still strangely riveting), and we are pretty sure we overrated Tim Daly as an actor in last week's edition. The Nine needs to focus more on the odd, Stockholm Syndrom-type relationship between the the hostake taker and the bank manager's daughter. Well, that and somehow convince an additional six million people to start watching the show. How do you fail to hold the time spot after Lost?

9. Brothers and Sisters (NR). The show has some pacing issues, but it makes up for it in the fact that there are plenty of good actors and well-written dialogue. Last week's episode wasn't really our style (some sort of love triangle), but the mere fact that it is winning the ratings game - when so many new shows are not - is enough to put it in the top 10. Plus, one of the actors is named Balthazar, so they have that going for them.

10. Six Degrees(10). I think the good people making this show know that the writing is on the wall, given the way they are absolutely flying through story arcs. The burnout photographer has already resolved things with his son, Monyahan's character has already discovered her fiance to be a philandering loser with a bad accent, and The Limo Driver has already warned The Public Defender that "people might be looking for" his pseudo-girlfriend. It is hard to see how this show can improve, with so many cats being out of the bag. We envision this moving toward melodrama and losing whatever nuance is currently making this compelling television. Of course, a few more Thursday nights like the last one and no one will ever find out either way. Six Degrees truly has one foot out the door right now.

Falling Out: The Class (7). When Drew sat down to watch the second episode as "homework" for the column, he had a revelation: "Here is what we do. We write an unbearable, moronic sitcom and plan to use a laugh track extensively. When networks are hesitant to buy it - because it sucks and all - we just point to The Class as proof that people love that kind of thing." Needless to say, we aren't high on The Class.

Just Missed: Nothing. Maybe Justice, but that is a stretch. Men in Trees?

On The Way: Dirt, Mis/Guided, Daybreak, and Knights of Prosperity.

Little Chance of Ever Making This List: Vanished, Standoff, Happy Hour, 30 Rock (the last 15 minutes of the pilot might have been the worst television we've ever seen), and 20 Good Years (is the laugh track necessary?).

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