Sunday, August 29, 2010

The End of Summer Television

With the summer television season coming to an end next week and the new season starting soon after with the premiere of The CW's Hellcats on September 8, I thought it would be fun to take a look back on some of the ups and downs of the 2010 summer television season.

Many believe that summer is the dumping ground for television, and to some extent that's true. Unsucessful series which are pulled from the schedule are usually aired in the summer months to fulfill contract obligations without losing as much money as they would in the regular viewing season (for examples from this summer, see Sons of Tucson, The Forgotten, Past Life, etc.). But this summer, many of the broadcast networks tried to schedule brand new, scripted programming; it was mixed in with the usual reality offerings and cable shows.

Best New Scripted Show, Broadcast Networks: Rookie Blue on ABC

This new series is a pretty standard police show, this time focusing on a newly graduated class of rookie cops in an unknown city who are thrown into the realities of the job immediately. The storylines are formulaic, but it's entertaining. Missy Peregrym brings a lot of depth to the lead character, a young woman who struggles when her personal relationships with a detective and her training officer overlap with their professional relationships. There are enough personal storylines to make you care about the characters, even though it follows a standard procedural format of introducing a new crime each week and solving it by the episode's end. It's also the best-performing new scripted show on any of the big broadcasters and has already been renewed for a second season.

Best New Scripted Show, Cable Networks: Huge on ABC Family

It's wonderful (and even necessary, I think) to finally have a show that doesn't have a cast of models and size zero teen beauty queens. This shameless new series follows a group of teens at a fat camp for the summer, as they struggle with their weight, romance, parental pressures, and accepting themselves. It stars Nikki Blonsky as a girl whose parents sent her to the camp because they are embarassed by her weight; but she loves her body and is determined to actually gain weight over the summer. She starts to come around to the plight of people her size as she overcomes "thinspiration," binge eating, and teenage love. Huge is smartly written, perfectly acted by a large ensemble cast, and it provides a nice counterpoint to all of the ridiculous modeling competitions and even weight-loss reality shows that are completely unrealistic in portraying a healty lifestyle.

Worst New Scripted Show: Persons Unknown on NBC

I had high hopes for this series about a group of strangers who wake up in an abandoned town with no recollection of how they got there. It started strong with an interesting core of mysteries, but as they began to reveal who the strangers are and who has placed them there, it became much less interesting and entertaining. It should have been better, coming from Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie, but it's just tedious now. I'm not the only who feels this way, as it performed so terribly (even for a summer show on NBC) that it was moved to Saturday nights at 8:00. The finale aired tonight, August 28; perhaps the final few answers will redeem this show a little, but as of now it was just an attempt to fill the void left by Lost, and one that failed.

Best New Unscripted Show: The Fabulous Beekman Boys on Planet Green

At first glance this series seems to only appeal to niche audience: it follows the lives of two gay men who used to live in Manhattan (one a former drag queen and the other a former health expert for Martha Stewart) and bought a large farm in upstate New York as they attempt to make a living on the products produced on their land. The struggles were often hilarious (killing their own turkey for Thanksgiving, birthing baby goats, fulfilling thousands of orders of goatmilk soap without outside help) and often heartwarming (throwing the perfect wedding, dealing with the difficulties of one partner being in the city all week), but always entertaining. These boys know what makes for good television; in many ways they reminded me of a gay, modern-day sitcom duo like Lucky and Ricky Ricardo. They bicker, they fight, they argue, they work hard... and they know that with perseverance and love, they can make it through the day.

Worst New Unscripted Show: Downfall on ABC

Not only is this one of the most confusing game shows I've ever watched, it wasn't even all that entertaining. The host is a former professional wrestler, and people compete for money for prizes that slowly creep toward the edge of a tall building on a conveyor belt. If they don't answer enough questions correctly before the prize and/or money gets to the edge, it falls over and they lose it. But what's the worst part is that each contestant comes with a friend or spouse and they can replay the round but with that person at the end of the belt; so if they miss the questions, their partner is dropped off the side of the building.

Exactly. It was confusing, stupid and mostly boring.

Best Format Change of a Returning Show: Project Runway on Lifetime

As Project Runway entered its eighth season (third on Lifetime), the formula had gotten tired. The format has been ripped off endlessly with a wide variety of skills, but as the pioneers, the producers had to do something to set the show apart. So this summer we were introduced to the new, extended format of Project Runway. Episodes are now 90 minutes, giving the viewer extra time to focus on the skill of the individual designers and the judging process. It gives the viewer a better base of judgment to see the outfits more fully and to understand where the judges are coming from in deciding who moves on and who goes home. The extended judging has also led to an increase in crazy dramatic tension, as evidenced in the most recent episode, and runway meltdowns. Thank you!

Worst Format Change of a Returning Show: So You Think You Can Dance on Fox

This season saw the judges pick only 10 dancers to compete, rather than 20. They were each paired with a returning member (deemed an "All Star"), and they danced in the returning member's genre. It started out fine, but with only one dancer being eliminated each week and no rules on what gender that dancer had to be, it quickly dissolved into chaos. Well, it actually started there. First of all, long-time judge Mary Murphy was eliminated from the panel and they set up Mia Michaels as a new permanent judge, also eliminating the weekly guest judges. Then, the judges didn't follow their own rules and actually cast 11 dancers (6 boys, 5 girls); then the girls were picked off one-by-one until only one remained with four males. It forced the choreographers to work with same-sex couples, a first for the show, to varying degrees of success. Then with the All Stars' schedules, it became difficult to work in many dancers, as they are professionals who are constantly taking on new jobs or finishing out previous committments (Mark was on tour with Lady Gaga, etc). After three dancers injured themselves, it became clear that this was not a format change that was working. Many viewers must have felt the same, since the ratings fell significantly versus last summer.

Of course there are other noteworthy shows that came into or returned to our lives this summer: Jersey Shore, which continues to break ratings records (and whose move to Miami makes its title meaningless); True Blood, which continues to be HBO's strongest performer and has moved past its humble beginnings to full-on cult status; The Good Guys, which Fox had debuted in the summer in hopes of gaining interest when it returns to the regular season line-up... and has consistently underperformed; The Real Housewives of New Jersey, which has shot into the stratosphere with the infamous hair-pulling incident and become Bravo's most-watched and highest-rated series; Hot in Cleveland, which brought Betty White back to starring status in a sitcom and broke cable records upon its premiere on TV Land; and many others. While I'm sad to see summer programming go, there's a lot to look forward to this fall and beyond. Here's to hoping for an even better summer 2011.

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