Ratings news from last night appears to have been what was expected — despite the shakeups, everything was at its normal level. I must have been the only person in the world who was disappointed by the premiere of Community, which was very well-put-together and developed the characters even further, but had few actual jokes — and the ones they did have went not to the regulars but to Betty White. (I like the show best when it’s doing an actual story more or less straightforwardly, even if it’s a story from another genre like in the paintball episode. I lose interest when they do sitcom plots that they’re actively deconstructing; it’s like watching TVTropes, the series.) However, the ratings level for the show was not a disaster: like many shows with low viewership but a strong fan base, it will pull the same numbers no matter what the competition. (And at least it didn’t have a bad rape joke like 30 Rock.) So it certainly isn’t down for the count; numbers like these got it renewed for a second season and they might lead to a third if they continue. The ratings of Big Bang Theory can be read one of several ways: either it’s good because it did the same alone as it did after Two and a Half Men, or it’s a little soft because it didn’t increase its audience substantially. Networks will probably choose to assume, as usual, that three-camera sitcoms are on the way out if they just wait a little longer.
The ratings also reminded me how insane and silly the 18-49 demographic domination is: the teenage fans who flocked to CSI because of Justin Bieber don’t count in that demographic, and The Mentalist looks like much less of a hit than it actually is — all of which would make more sense only if teenagers and people over 50 had no money to spend on products. Maybe that’s why there’s a certain amount of overlap between the programming strategies of HBO and CBS (which is increasingly turning to HBO people to deliver shows like The Mentalist and Blue Bloods); if you care more about viewers, as opposed to viewers in an arbitrary age group, your shows wind up looking and feeling a little different, even if you’re making shows with very different subjects and approaches. Update: See this comment for a good explanation of why advertisers don’t think they can reach viewers out of at age raings. They may well be right, too.
In further TV news, Jeff Zucker is leaving NBC. I have trouble hating on him as much as everyone. Zucker’s problem was that he believed, like many executives but more strongly, that the old broadcast model was on its way out and that he needed to do things to adjust for the coming changes. In one way, he was almost successful: he placed a lot of emphasis on co-ordinating all of NBC’s corporate TV-related holdings, not just the main network, and most of those other networks wound up doing well. Trouble was that he thought the basic principles of network broadcasting — shows that start and end at the usual time, using the 10 o’clock hour for something other than disposable programming, the popularity of multi-camera sitcoms and mysteries — were on their way out. Turns out none of this was true, and much of the Zucker-era NBC strategy makes more sense if you realize that it’s all based on a mistaken idea of what audiences would want In The Future.
Now, to Friday and Sunday premieres. I’ll leave out Saturday because so do the networks. (This, too, is part of that demographic domination thing; networks used to have lots of shows on Saturday, until they realized that the 18-49 people were probably out. And the over-49 people, or kids, deserve nothing.)
9:00 Csi New York
10:00 Blue Bloods
8:00 Human Target (returning next week)
9:00 The Good Guys
What can we say about Fridays? It’s further proof that networks have almost given up on a lot of prime-time real estate: viewership isn’t all that much lower on Fridays than the rest of the week, but it’s turned into a death slot for almost every network except possibly CBS. NBC’s Outlaw is the worst new show of the season and may be worth an occasional glance just to see how bad it gets. Fox’s The Good Guys has an idea that is dear to my heart — reviving the ’80s-style cop show — but it doesn’t quite work; as with Community, it’s so self-conscious about the kind of show it is that it can forget to just be that kind of show.
Blue Bloods has some potential: the cast is good, but more importantly it feels like it’s going for a Good Wife kind of vibe where the personal issues of the characters are given more attention. Tom Selleck reportedly got the original showrunner fired because he was leaning too much toward the mysteries and not enough on the character conflicts and family drama provided by the show’s Sopranos-trained creators. (CBS usually pairs its creators up with a more experienced showrunner, but it didn’t work out this time.) That suggests some interesting possibilities for the show if the current team is willing to go where Selleck seems to want.
Sunday [Note: some of these shows aren’t premiering till next week, and The Amazing Race is starting Sunday at 8:30; it’s all a bit confusing, as Sunday can sometimes be]
8:00 Extreme Makeover
9:00 Desperate Housewives
10:00 Brothers & Sisters
8:00 The Amazing Race
9:00 Undercover Boss
10:00 CSI Sunglasses
8:00 The Simpsons
8:30 The Cleveland Show
9:00 Family Guy
9:30 American Dad
Everything here is in the Known Quantity category, so ratings prognostications are pointless; it’s not a night for surprises. Those come from cable, where Boardwalk Empire is trying to build on its initial success (I’m finding it a bit “respectable” and not very exciting, though very well made) and Mad Men is continuing what I consider to be its most enjoyable and genuinely thought-provoking season so far.
I find it kind of impressive that Desperate Housewives continues to do well. During its sophomore slump season, a lot of people wrote it off, and one major website even shut down because nobody, including the webmaster, seemed to care about it any more. Yet unlike Heroes or other sophomore-jinx’d shows, it just kept on being popular. They’ll probably keep going until they run out of Stephen Sondheim songs to use as episode titles.
The Fox animated lineup always invites speculation on which one will be the best of the lot. It’s been American Dad in previous years, though the often extreme surrealism can sometimes get on your nerves — which may be why it isn’t as successful as the other shows from the MacFarlane stable. (Family Guy is usually a little more grounded, even if it’s grounded in old sitcom plots.) I still don’t like Family Guy, though I can’t get as upset at it as I used to — partly because I respect success to a certain extent, and partly because when the show gets serious, as in Quagmire’s two-minute speech to Brian about why he’s become such an awful character, it can be pretty good.
The Cleveland Show is the blandest of this bunch, and The Simpsons will never be very good or very bad again, not unless it gets another showrunner. I think one reason the show was so good was that, because of the difficulty of running an animated show, no one could stick with it for more than two years: they’d give it their all, leave, and turn it over to someone with a fresh perspective. Then Mike Scully made the show easier to run (lasting four years) and Al Jean has turned it into a well-oiled machine that will never burn him out — except that means that the show will never hit the highs it did when it was a wearying, soul-sapping job. I guess I feel the same way about Jean’s tenure on the show as Archie Bunker said his family felt about FDR: “We supported him for one term, but that was it. We didn’t know the guy was gonna hang onto the job like a Pope!”