TV Eye

Midseason Malaise

Daniel Stern and Judd Hirsch in <i>Regular Joe</i>
Daniel Stern and Judd Hirsch in Regular Joe

I've found myself marinating in a sour mood lately. I blame it on really bad TV, particularly several new midseason series. And I don't mean that these shows are so bad they're funny. That would at least make all this whining fun. No, I'm talking annoyingly, bafflingly, brain-dead bad.

Black Sash (WB), Lost at Home (ABC), and Regular Joe (ABC) have left me wondering why good people find themselves in bad series. Russell Wong in Black Sash is a prime example. Wong is charismatic. Unfortunately, a cast of weak young actors and even weaker writing surrounds him in what turns out to be an excuse to see martial arts action (not so bad), teenagers with problems (poorly acted), and Wong's lead character constantly painting the outside of his martial arts studio.

Judd Hirsch (Regular Joe) is no slouch, and neither is Connie Britton (Lost at Home). But even they can't save their respective shows. The former suffers from an over-earnest Daniel Stern trying very hard to be funny. The latter may be the first sitcom in history to take itself too seriously. Think Once and Again squashed into 22 minutes with a laugh track tacked on to remind us it's a comedy.

I admit to finding a few laughs in Oliver Beene (Fox), but I think it's mostly the automatic reflex of a couch potato gone catatonic. And The Pitts (Fox)? The name says it all.

I still hold out hope for Wanda Sykes in Wanda at Large (Fox). The series falters by trying too hard to stuff Sykes into the sitcom mold. Sykes is an independent, shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners kind of woman. The creators seem to want to capitalize on that, but at the same time they appear worried she's too out there. She is out there, and therein lies her appeal. The series works best when Sykes' Wanda Hawkins is exposing hypocrisy in her special news segments or hanging out with her buddy Keith (Dale Godboldo) and sister-in-law Jenny (Tammy Lauren). The rest of it -- the surrogate parenting of her niece and nephew, the potential love interest in Phil Morris' Bradley -- just bugs me, it's so off, off the mark.

Here are some other TV-related things that bug me:

Those idiot kids on Sorority Life and Fraternity Life (MTV). The sorority girls steal bricks from the frat boys. The frat boys retaliate by stealing the sorority girls' banner. The girls snatch T-shirts from the boys. The boys retaliate with a panty raid on the girls. Lots of talk about respect and crossing the line ensues, resulting in lame-brained, written apologies followed by attacks with flour, shaving cream, and -- horror of horrors -- unwrapped tampons doused in ketchup and thrown into the frat boys' bushes. So much for all that community service the Greeks are supposed to be known for.

Monica Lewinsky's return to the spotlight of popular culture as host of the reality series Mr. Personality on Fox.

The slap-fest between MSNBC and Fox News. Fox's Geraldo Rivera exposes the position of the troops he's embedded with, while MSNBC stringer Peter Arnett goes on Iraqi TV to critique the war. MSNBC scurries to air a promo, promising never to "compromise military security or jeopardize a single American life." Fox responds with their own promo showing an image of Peter Arnett with the voice-over: "He spoke out against America's armed forces; he said America's war against terrorism had failed; he even vilified America's leadership. And he worked for MSNBC. ... Now ask yourself, is this 'America's News Channel?'"

Now ask yourself, why don't these two "news" networks spend more time trying to report news instead of creating it?

And finally, the biggest thing that bugs me: stringing viewers along by the nose. After Corey Clark became the latest contestant booted from American Idol for troubles with the law, the next AI episode to reveal which of the remaining contestants would get the boot resulted in a big fat nothing! Since Corey was canned, there was no need to eliminate a contestant until next time. And yet, the series creators had the gall to stretch the entire nonevent into an hourlong ordeal. Talk about a waste of time.

If there's a bright side to any of this, it's that TV can only get better. As with Wanda at Large, I'm holding out hope for Watching Ellie (NBC), starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, even though it sounds like it's been reworked to within an inch of its original life. In TV terms, that usually spells trouble. The very appealing John Corbett stars in a new USA series called Lucky that premiered on Tuesday (not screened at press time). He's a charmer, as is Louis-Dreyfus. So please, baby, please -- give us something, anything worth watching.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Russell Wong, Black Sash, Judd Hirsch, Regular Joe, Connie Britton, Lost at Home, Daniel Stern, Oliver Beene, The Pitts, Wanda Sykes, Wanda at Large, Dale Godboldo, Phil Morris, Sorority Life, Fraternity Life, Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Personality, MSNBC, Fox News, Geraldo Rivera

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