If there’s any theme that unites the several dozen pilots to be seen on American screens a few months from now, it is ‘the single word’. After the success of last season’s Revenge, series creators seem to have a fascination for creating hype around one particular act or concept. Gone are the shows named after families, like the seventies hit The Waltons or The Sopranos. Police procedural or detective series such as Law and Order or CSI also seem to have fallen out of fashion. The pattern for the upcoming season’s selection of pilots is the single-word title.
One of the forthcoming series creating the most hype is ABC’s Betrayal. ‘Isn’t that the name of a Harold Pinter play?’ you might ask. But the commonness of the name is not really at issue. If the project were a film or play, it might still stand a chance despite its unoriginal title. But how is the idea of Betrayal to fill a series intended to go on for four, five, or maybe seven years? The premise of the show is a bored female photographer, stuck in a stiff, dull marriage, who begins an affair with the lawyer for the defendant her husband happens to be prosecuting. Among the critical responses for previews of pilots so far, Betrayal is probably the most panned, despite having the most conventional and maybe even accessible storyline. The initial plot of the series arouses some interest. But the problem with it as a series is its lack of one theme. In examining the hit television dramas that have been aired on our screens for the past thirty years, each one has revolved around one particular setting or one particular goal which has always allowed something new to happen. The abundance of legal dramas – L.A. Law, Boston Legal, and most recently The Good Wife, means that scandal and power play will always be on the cards. The second most popular category is the medical drama – where strange diseases and risky operations, plus a character’s life on the line every week, tends to hook viewers. Otherwise, more unconventional institutions have domineered the series – like the Italian mafia in The Sopranos, the White House in The West Wing, and a family business-run funeral parlour in Six Feet Under. Other dramas which don’t depend heavily on their settings depend on their characters. Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives relied almost wholly on the extent to which they garnered viewers’ sympathy; precisely because both dramas had four female leads around whom the series revolved.
If we take this new drama Betrayal, what is the series actually about? Betrayal? And, in that case, how many betrayals will there be? Will there surely not be a temptation for the series to become a legal drama – given that lover and husband are attorney and prosecutor? Or will this just be a drama focused on the characters all betraying each other? If so, how do we know who is ‘good’, and who is supposedly ‘bad’? Would it not be easier to simply have the series revolve around its protagonist Hannah?
The other series planned for ABC likewise don’t show much promise, with one recent article telling the readers there is ‘not much to celebrate’. Another one-word title drama, Resurrection, is already apt to create controversy. It focuses on a small boy who ‘returns from the dead’ thirty-two years after his untimely demise. One has to question how much ‘resurrection’ there plans to be in a series initially about the comeback of this one boy. If it wavers somewhere between fantasy and reality, how much can the audience handle that? Even the most successful vampire-oriented shows have their share of relationship problems most audiences can relate to. If the subject of a show is resurrection, is it going to tell us about how difficult it is to connect with the living when one comes back from the dead? And, furthermore, this being a completely impossible idea, is that something we would want to explore?
Although one-word titles can often be limiting, of all the names of forthcoming series nothing is quite as exclusive as Killer Women. Immediately there is something clichéd about such a name; and when the viewer finds out what it really alludes to, it just becomes laughable. To some it might sound like a documentary about female murderers. Actually, it’s a drama about women in the highest ranking investigative branch of the South: the Texas Rangers. It’s a police procedural with a twist, but its Mexican predecessor, Mujeres Asesinas, was responsible for its ambiguous name. To give it even more of an anti-police procedural slant, the lead detective is a former Texas beauty queen. ‘Why?’ you might ask. Does that make her a ‘cooler’ detective?
In terms of whose list exudes the most charm, NBC scores slightly better. The Blacklist has James Spader as an ex-con prepared to sell out his former co-cons to the FBI, and in particular, a certain female agent played by Megan Boone. The premise of the show certainly outdoes a lot of its competitors; as a fugitive spared prosecution for his effort to collaborate could make for some interesting intrigue, illicit romances, and twisted loyalties. It does have the capacity, however, to become one of those thrillers where the loud film music tells us more about the action than the dialogue. One of the common trends in today’s television series market is having the soundtrack do the talking for you. Why? If a murder takes place on screen, we don’t need the banging of drums drowning out all noise. Or if there’s a love scene, there’s no need for any brass instruments. What we see will translate the message. To have the message transmitted through ridiculously unusual camera angles or a blaring soundtrack is the equivalent of someone coming out onstage mid-Romeo and Juliet, and telling us: “They’re in love; it’s very dramatic, be suspicious of what’s to come.” The viewers get the hint.
When it comes to obscenely implausible plots, nothing quite wins like NBC’s Crisis. It centres on the ambush of a group of school students including the President’s son, which then plunges the whole nation into the unthinkable: a crisis. All very well for the first episode, but will there be a crisis every week? Or is this going to be a six-year series about America being besieged by some group of kidnappers? It has the potential to make a good B-movie, but not a successful series. If it’s lucky, it won’t be substituted by a mid-season replacement.
That said, Crisis has nothing on CBS’s Hostages. It is about a doctor, recently asked to operate on the President, whose family is taken hostage by a corrupt FBI agent. The agent then demands that she kill the President to save her family. It will be interesting to see how long it takes her to make up her mind, and for how long the show can have the title ‘Hostages’ with her family no longer being ‘Hostages’. Unless of course, it becomes a show about the FBI kidnapping White House-associated people and their families at random, something I’m sure would sit comfortably with the actual Federal Bureau of Investigation. For all the massive hype the series is bound to receive (it stars Toni Collette and is produced by Warner Bros.), the direction which the plot could go in is unwaveringly unpredictable. Of course in most series this is a good thing. But here the very concept which infuses this series seems lost.
The next of the CBS dramas is Intelligence, about a superlatively clever guy who is the first to have a microchip inserted in his brain which allows him to ‘detect anything’. His ‘intelligence’ means that he must be guarded by a Secret Service agent. There seems to be a desire to replicate Homeland, purely, it must be said, because it won the most Emmys last year. Crisis has a fictitious President; so does Hostages, and here we have another series citing secret service agents. Again it’s something which might be intriguing for viewers with a penchant for high-tech thrillers, watching people breaking into computers and mind-reading, but what are all the rest of us supposed to do?
The rest of CBS’s new shows appear to be sitcoms, and it’s Fox which has possibly the most believable idea for a show: Rake, a drama about a womanising, gambling, father-lawyer played by Greg Kinnear. Based on a successful Australian series, at least it stands a chance of being renewed for a second season. However, that depends entirely on the main part. If all the drama revolves around the lead, then it’s Greg Kinnear who carries the show on his shoulders. Critic Jaimie Etkin has already written of the character: “Kinnear’s Keegan Deane is not charismatic in the least, he’s just a backwards mess.” So one can only hope.
Lastly, and most disappointingly, cable channel HBO does not look like it has a new hit on its hands. Although its schedule is not yet absolutely certain (unlike network television schedules), so far the most talked-about series is Getting On, a US adaptation of the British sitcom about doctors and nurses working in the geriatric wing of a hospital. More promising is the conceit of Criminal Justice, about a man who wakes up in the morning to find his party girl mate stabbed to death, with no recollection of what happened. The only reason that it’s promising, however, is because it has James Gandolfini. Its focus not being sufficient for a multi-year series means that it will only run as a long mini-series. Another hyped-up programme, The Missionary, does have some potential. A period drama, it follows an American missionary in Berlin in the late 1960’s, who somehow becomes involved with the CIA. At least it might salvage the channel’s prestige, and make up for the holes in viewing schedules that ABC and CBS are about to create for the average American.