Tuesday, September 24, 2013

REVIEW: ABC Tries to Rebuild Tuesday Nights with an Entirely New Lineup but Does It Wow Enough?

ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Episode 1.01 Pilot

ABC's The Goldbergs - Episode 1.01 Circle of Driving

ABC's Trophy Wife - Episode 1.01 Pilot

ABC's Lucky 7 - Episode 1.01 Pilot

ABC's Tuesday night lineup was the biggest issue for the network at the end of last season. The Dancing with the Stars results show was dwindling in the ratings - enough to get the network to cut that series down from 3 hours a week to 2. Every rotation of comedies they tried couldn't hold on especially when battling comedies on FOX and NBC as well. And whatever they put in the 10 o'clock hour would be defeated by its competitors.

So this year ABC is completely reworking their Tuesday night schedule - opting to debut four new series on the evening. They are placing all their bets on the buzz surrounding Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will amount to strong ratings. They are also hoping that that audience will stay with the lineup to test out another attempt at a comedy block (with The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife) and a new somewhat off-brand drama (Lucky 7). Will it work at all? That's a huge question mark. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is going up against the most viewed show on television NCIS which is similar in genre surprisingly. The two new comedies are still facing stiff competition from strong comedies on FOX. And finally, Lucky 7 has the smallest buzz amongst its time slot competition as the offerings on CBS (Person of Interest) and NBC (Chicago Fire) are also new to the night and time. Everything is untested which makes this lineup one of the more interesting bits of scheduling to watch this fall.

But everything ultimately comes down to the content. So, are Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Goldbergs, Trophy Wife and Lucky 7 worth sticking with?

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - It's just after the battle of New York, and now that the existence of super heroes and aliens has become public knowledge, the world is trying to come to grips with this new reality. Agent Phil Coulson is back in action and has his eye on a mysterious group called The Rising Tide. In order to track this unseen, unknown enemy, he has assembled a small, highly select group of Agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. The group's first assignment together as a team finds them trying to track down an ordinary man who has gained extraordinary powers. Powers that could have devastating consequences.

This pilot is pleasant and quite quippy but probably is not as remarkable as one might hope.

A lot of people have their hands in this project. The list of executive producers is one of the longest of any new series this year. Because it boasts Joss Whedon - and to a lesser extant frequent contributors Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen who will work as showrunners on the series - we are expecting it to be great on impact. It isn't quite that.

This pilot is trying to bridge between the events of the Marvel movies and the TV series. It helps a lot that Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson was chosen to play the leading role here. He's been a fan favorite and recognizable face from the movies but also was the most mysterious choice. He did die after all in The Avengers. And here, he is perfectly alive - albeit with almost no explanation whatsoever. But a much deeper mythology to it is coyly teased as well. Coulson doesn't know what happened to him or how he's alive again. And that will be a huge mystery that plays out over the first season. That is my favorite little piece from this pilot mostly because of how attached I am to him as a character. Audiences were devastated when he was killed in the movies. His reappearance here needed to be earned in order to not lessen that moment. And it's just fun watching him be the authoritative figure while still being the amusing Coulson we love from the movies.

Elsewhere, the structure of the pilot works overly hard to establish the characters of S.H.I.E.L.D. and its newfound team. The characters played by Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet and J. August Richards all basically function as plot-entry characters. They are all new to these situations and thusly the other, more experienced, characters can explain the basic functions of everything to them. This plot device is common but to have three just seems overbearing. Of the trio, Richards succeeds the most because of the desperation and devastation he is asked to give in his role. In his final monologue, it feels accurate to how someone just discovering this world of superpowers and gods would feel. Bennet is spunky and I initially like her better simply because she doesn't go along with the rules of the team as easily as everyone else does. Unfortunately, I think a lot of how the series works will be how well they utilize Dalton's character. In this hour, I don't think they succeeded with that as he mostly came across as pompous and cocky.

Overly, it's a fine show and one I'm eager to see more episodes from. However, I fear that it may have to many chefs in the kitchen to truly get to some interesting places.

The Goldbergs - Barry wakes on his birthday expecting to get a car, but is disappointed at the kitchen table when Beverly says that he's not ready for that responsibility and gives him something else that shocks him. Pop complicates matters by giving Barry the car he wants, but Beverly instantly makes her father take the car back. Meanwhile, Adam seeks Pop's advice on his crush at the local diner.

ABC's two new comedies feel like they are cut from the same cloth. They are both strong family comedies and they even feature some of the same jokes! For example, both pilots feature sequences with the families arguing outside and someone joking about the neighbors watching.

The Goldbergs, however, is set in the 1980s and focuses on a simple nuclear family - a mom, a dad, two sons, a daughter and the offbeat grandfather. It is a familial setting and everything about this show feels familiar. That isn't necessary a good or a bad thing. There is a comfort in the familiarity. However, it largely brings up emotions of been-there done-that. The Goldbergs isn't groundbreaking to the genre and you should only watch it if you enjoy the actors and the characters they get to play.

None of the performers truly standout above anyone else on the show except for the fact that yelling is a major characterization for pretty much everyone. Of course, yelling can be funny. But when it's used almost all of the time it deludes sentimentality. There is such an imbalance of quiet moments compared to when the family is being loud and wacky. And the show simply can't be loud and wacky 100 percent of the time.

I do love Patton Oswalt as the narrator though. As long as the show presents him with more snarky banter a la Ron Howard on Arrested Development, then I can see the continued use of that narrative device. I also enjoyed the airing of the real-life taped footage at the very end.

Trophy Wife - Kate feels she's still proving herself to Pete's ex-wives and the kids, so she offers to handle a parent-teacher meeting at Warren's school. Unfortunately she finds Warren's mom, Diane, there as well, and things just spiral out of control when a vodka incident leaves Kate in a compromising position and another child locks himself inside a car. It all comes hilariously to a head back at home - just another day in the life of this new, big, blended family.

The Trophy Wife pilot is a very strong setup for a series. After all the character introductions are done, it feels like it could be the fourth or fifth episode of a new comedy. That's refreshing as most comedy pilots are expositional messes. It feels very reminiscent of Modern Family but also feeling honestly original. The fact that it didn't land the coveted post-Modern Family slot is one of the most confusing bits of scheduling ABC did this year.

In order for this show to work, Kate needed to be likable but believably out of her comfort zone. Malin Akerman fills the role with such genuine energy that you can't help but root for as she tries her best as the new part in this dynamic family. Her chugging of the vodka is hands-down the funniest bit of physical comedy from any new show this year.

But perhaps, the best thing that this pilot establishes is everyone's distinct point-of-view. It's very clearly shown how Pete and Diane worked as couple and how Pete and Jackie worked as couple while at the same time how they don't work in the long term. The show could very easily make the ex-wives villainous. Instead it offers them as a counter-view which works extremely well in a large ensemble. It's good use of Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins - as well as Natalie Morales as Kate's best friend Meg.

Finally, the title is meant as an ironic joke. The show never treats Kate like a trophy wife. But we've seen before that the ABC audience can be tepid at judging a series beyond its title before - ahem Cougar Town.

Lucky 7 - The Gold Star pals have never lost hope that they could potentially cash in on the winnings of a lifetime. Matt could get his very pregnant girlfriend and their other child out of his mother's house. Nicky, an ex-con, could pay off a dangerous debt and pursue the crush he has on co-worker Samira, a second-generation Pakistani immigrant and a talented musician, who could finally attend her dream school. Denise, the tender-hearted cashier, is struggling to lose weight and regain her former glory, but the winnings could provide a chance to rebuild her crumbling marriage. Leanne, a single mother, will try to keep her past hidden despite the spotlight the lottery puts on her. Bob, the store's manager, wants to buy the Gold Star and make it into the perfect workplace. And cheerful and charming Antonio will discover ways to capitalize on the group's win in order to give his wife and their three kids a whole new life.

Lucky 7 feels very different from your typical ABC fare. It's a gritty tale about seven down-on-their-luck gas station employees basically at the end of their ropes. Different is good for a network looking for a new hit. It's an experimentation that ABC is willing to try.

So the pilot of Lucky 7 moves at a finely tuned pace. Paul McGuigan did an excellent job in that respect. I do believe the show is well-cast as well. However, none of these characters nor the actors playing them really jumped out of the screen. They are all explicitly given their defining plot as their main characteristic. Just look at the press release detailing this pilot above! That is all exposition. Because of that, I want to give this show another handful of episodes just to see how it balances these human relationships as they all undergo unexpected changes.

The in media res - the most overused plot device used this development season - is probably the most intriguing bit from this pilot -- even though I had completely forgotten about it by the end of the hour. That does a decent job of teasing just how getting all this money may not be the greatest thing in the world for these characters. Unfortunately, I also think the staged robbery will take up a huge bulk of the storytelling moving forward and that wasn't an entirely pleasant story to sit through here. It was actually pretty grating.

So, what do you all think? Does this lineup of shows turn ABC's Tuesdays around? Or will they fail just as easily as everything else the network has tried here?