Surviving Pilot Season

To fans of network television, pilot week—the first seven days of the fall TV season—is easily the most stressful.  Not only are all of your favorite shows set to premiere, but a new slate of much-hyped fare makes its bow, draining your DVR of precious space and leaving you tired and irritable at work every morning.  Or maybe this only describes me.  No matter.  In order to ease the burdens imposed by this stressful time, I have come up with a handy guide to separate the haves from the have-nots, the future classics from those never-to-again-be-seen-on-television.

The Lost-Lost Scale

The former television show is of course a reference to the recently concluded epic saga, to my mind The Greatest Show of All-Time.  As for the low end of the pilot spectrum, the latter references the program that debuted the same evening as The Amazing Race—and likely has not been thought about since.

Bowing on September 4, 2001, the show dropped three (blindfolded) teams of two thousands of miles away from their destination with only a backpack full of clothes and other necessities at their disposal.  To this day, I remain unsure if they—or the producers—ever found their respective compasses as only a handful of episodes were ever aired.  The Amazing Race, meanwhile, won the first seven Emmy Awards for Best Reality Series—Top Chef ended its remarkable run this year—and just commenced its 17th season on Sunday.

Below I have provided a brief review and numerical analysis (11 being the best, zero the worst) of all recently debuted pilots—only those new shows I deign to watch—as well as analysis of reality shows—Survivor, The Apprentice, and the heretofore mentioned Race—that features new casts and formats.  (Call me snooty if you must, but the newest edition of Dancing with the Stars and undoubtedly God-awful Sarah Palin’s Alaska probably will refuse to be recorded by my highfalutin DVR anyway.)

Without further ado . . . (reviews listed in order of debut)

Survivor: Nicaragua (debuted Wednesday, Sep. 15, 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS)—I don’t know if any edition will ever top the intensity, strategy, and devious machinations of last season’s tour-de-force of ‘Heroes vs. Villians’, but so far so good on the latest edition.  One of the shows that benefit most from lush high definition, the producers of Survivor are also apt at staying ahead of those who have watched every minute of every season, unveiling new talismans like the Medallion of Power into a game already more taxing—mentally, physically, psychologically—than any couch potato can imagine.  Host Jeff Probst, too, remains at the top of his profession.  His questions at Tribal Council are all incisive, probing, and on point.  Lost-Lost Scale: 10.0.

Outlaw (debuted Wednesday, Sep. 15, airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC)—Oy.  After great turns on L.A. Law and, of course, The West Wing, I’m admittedly a big Jimmy Smits fan.  And the plot—a Supreme Court justice steps down from his lifetime post to Fight the Good Fight, ala his famous father—is both novel and noble.  But its execution is too flippant and incongruous.  I would much prefer a far grittier take on such pressing matters as the death penalty, the focus of the pilot.  Perhaps it will begin to trend that way in future episodes; if so, I will tune in next summer on DVD.  As for now, though, it has the auspicious distinction of being the first show cancelled by my DVR.  LLS: 4.7.

The Apprentice (Thursday, Sep. 16, 10 p.m., NBC)—I vowed never to watch this show again until the horrid ‘celebrities’ were barred from the boardroom.  I am very pleased to report the boycott has ended.  Going back to its gritty roots—the first few seasons were ridiculously entertaining, extremely competitive, and thrilling television—Donald Trump and reality-maven Mark Burnett (he also of Survivor fame) have made an inspired choice by jettisoning the famous and embracing the talented unemployed—stark archetypes of the depth and severity of America’s economic downturn.  LLS: 8.3.

Boardwalk Empire (Sunday, Sep. 19, 9 p.m., HBO)—Set in Atlantic City in 1920 as Prohibition first goes into effect, the series is a breath of fresh air in a cable market saturated by police procedurals.  Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg—and with star Steve Buscemi at the top of his already elevated game—it is must-see TV.  Three years after The Sopranos signed off, HBO finally has its new signature show.  LLS: 11.

Lone Star (Monday, Sep. 20, 9 p.m., FOX)—Like it has previously with The X-Files and 24, FOX has unearthed another gem.  Capitalizing on the height of the conman in American television (see: Ford, James in Lost and Caffrey, Neal in White Collar), James Wolk—a Kyle Chandler döppleganger—brings grace and depth to his black gold swindler living double lives with different wives.  Already in too deep, he aspires to get out, to go straight.  His daddy, also a confidence man, has other ideas.  I can’t wait to find out what happens next.  LLS: 10.

The Event (Monday Sep. 20, 9 p.m., NBC)—Not quite as epic as Heroes’ debut (9.2 on the 11.0 scale), but it has definite potential.  I am anxious to see its next episode.  LLS: 6.5.

Chase (Monday, Sep. 20, 10 p.m., NBC)—Less predictable and more exciting than I had expected, it nonetheless needs a few more excellent episodes before I commit to the whole season.  As Deputy United States Marshal Annie Frost, Kelli Giddish is intriguing.  And seeing as how I am currently employed by the USMS, I ought to give it the benefit of the doubt.  (Kudos for including highly accurate USMS business cards in the pilot!)  LLS: 7.

Raising Hope (Tuesday, Sep. 23, 9 p.m., FOX)—Created and helmed by My Name is Earl’s Greg Garcia, Hope follows a similarly wacky blue-collar clan, down-on-their-luck but—in their own odd way—also optimistic and loving.  Unlike Earl, though, the laughs are few and far between.  A noble effort but not worth the 22 minutes per week of investment, especially when there are so many other great comedies currently in their prime.  LLS: 4.4.

Running Wilde (Tuesday, Sep. 23, 9.30 p.m., FOX)—It’s an Arrested Development reunion!  With Mitchell Hurwitz as its creator and co-writer with fellow scribe—and lead actor—Will Arnett (not to mention David Cross as Tobias Fünke, er, Andy Weeks), this series has all the ingredients for comedic gold.  Add in the perpetually underappreciated Keri Russell and the great Stefania Owen as her 13 year-old daughter Puddle (Her?!), and I suggest you tune in before the network cancels it, as it always seems to do with hilarious, future Emmy-winning shows.  It is not yet at Arrested’s level of hilarity—to be fair: no show ever has been—but it definitely has promise.  So catch it while you can.  LLS: 8.8.

Undercovers (Wednesday, Sep. 22, 8 p.m., NBC)—Two (three?) words: J.J. Abrams.  Has he ever taken a misstep on primetime television?  Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe.  Wow.  And as co-creator, co-writer and director of the pilot, his footing is as firm as ever.  Replete with the best action scenes seen on TV in years—think, well, Alias—and the ridiculous chemistry of newcomers Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe and this is a series worth prioritizing on your DVR.  Simply put?  It’s an ultra-rich man’s Covert AffairsLLS: 10.4.

The Whole Truth (Wednesday, Sep. 22, 10 p.m., ABC)—Smart, fast-paced, and extremely entertaining, I think this show—ala The Good Wife last year—might just be the surprise of the fall season.  Having intriguing leads in Rob Morrow (RIP Numb3rs!) and Maura Tierney definitely doesn’t hurt either.  A high recommendation.  LLS: 10.5.

My Generation (Thursday, Sep. 23, 8 p.m., ABC)—Clever show weaving in historic moments—the disputed 2000 presidential election, September 11, 2001, and the collapse of Enron—into the fabric of the first high school graduates of the new millennium.  Utilizing the conceit of a documentary tracking down its subjects a decade letter, it does an excellent job of bringing verisimilitude to its characters and poignancy to a 10-year span that arguably affected this exact generation more than any other.  LLS: 9.2.

Outsourced (Thursday, Sep. 23, 9.30 p.m., NBC)—Ala Parks and Recreation, this one needs a chance to grow on you.  I think.  Undecided if I will give it a chance to do so.  LLS: 6.5

The Amazing Race (Sunday, Sep. 26, 8 p.m., CBS)—It’s back!  And exciting as ever!  Among the teams competing for a million dollars are a tattooed couple, a pair of professional sand volleyball players, two dorks, er, A cappella singers from Princeton, dreamy emergency room doctors with rhyming names (Nat and Kat!), and in the oddest casting since the infamous USA-only family edition, a mother and her biological daughter . . . who have only met three times!  Like last year, the roadblocks are harder and the tension ratcheted up—all which make host Phil Keoghan (aka the Philemenator!) that much more engaging.  (And my AR pool that much tougher to win!)  Race remains the best reality show on television.  LLS: 10.6.

As other shows premiere—and as I have time to watch ones I already recorded ($#*! My Day Says and the unfortunately named Detroit 1-8-7, for instance) but not yet viewed—I will review them in subsequent blog posts.

Overheard . . .

at 1789:

Older Man: ‘And then Rock Hudson came out of the closet’

in Crystal City:

Young Man: ‘. . . and he’s talking about how his little daughter has a twisted mind like he does.’

on the Metro

Young Man: ‘I don’t want to go to dinner at Hooters. I’m always hungry after leaving there.’

on the Metro (redux)

Young Woman: ‘. . . because she’s next to the skinny kitty, she looks bigger.’

On Literature

Reading Now: 1776 and A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.

Immersed but On Hold: A History of Rome, Undaunted Courage, and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Recently Finished: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968.

Up Next: Obama’s Wars, eminent journalist Bob Woodward’s latest behind-the-scenes look at the construction and implementation of American’s foreign policy; John Adams; and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (yes: again)!

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