Saturday, November 26, 2011

Networks' Fall TV At Midseason: Half-Hour Comedies One Bright Light

By DONNA J. PLESH

It’s nearly December and we are beginning the third month of the fall 2011 TV season. So, how are things going for the new shows ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW premiered in September? Well, I would say so-so and if I was giving a letter grade to the shows it would be a B-.

The one bright light has been the re-emergence of half-hour comedies that, unlike previous seasons (anyone remember the dreadful NBC version of the Brit comedy hit “Coupling” a few seasons back?) viewers are watching them every week as indicated by their ratings.

In addition, women headline four of these comedies. Yes, folks, women. Not like in the comedy series heydays of the 1980s and 1990s when Ted Danson, Bill Cosby and Kelsey Grammer were the marquee names on hit series. This season some relative unknowns (at least to most TV viewers) are fronting what can be considered, at this point, hit new series: Kat Dennings, Beth Behrs and Zooey Deschanel. Dennings and Behrs are the stars of “2 Broke Girls” on CBS Mondays, and Zooey Deschanel headlines the cast of “New Girl” on Fox Tuesday nights. Both series have gotten full-season pickups.

A third series, “Whitney,” airing Thursday nights on NBC and starring Whitney Cummings (also the co-creator of “2 Broke Girls”) has not gotten great ratings but still received a full season pickup from the network. A fourth comedy featuring female leads, “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” premieres Nov. 30 on Fox. Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran star.

Tim Allen’s return to series comedy with ABC’s “Last Man Standing” on Tuesday nights has received a full season pickup, as has the network’s freshman life-in-the-suburbs-can-be-hell “Suburgatory” airing as part of the network’s Wednesday night comedy block. Also, NBC has given a full season order to the Wednesday night parenthood comedy “Up all Night.”

What needs to be remembered for all new series is the impact of fall sports events on the weekly Nielsen ratings. NBC airs Sunday night football and ESPN has Monday night football which, if impact games are airing, means more eyes will be on the games than the shows on the networks. Also, baseball playoffs and the World Series telecasts drew more eyes away from new network fare.

So the new comedies are doing pretty well. But how about dramas? So-so. But it looks like the fairy-tale themed “Grimm” on NBC Friday nights and “Once Upon a Time” on ABC Sunday nights have caught the fancy of viewers. When it comes to more standard drama fare – police procedurals – CBS’ “Unforgettable” on Tuesday nights is the clear winner. Often winding up in the Nielsen Top 20. On the other hand, NBC’s much publicized “Prime Suspect,” despite multiple weeknight airings one recent week, is not doing well in the ratings. In its regular 10 p.m. Thursday time period it comes in a distant third behind CBS’ “The Mentalist” and ABC’s “Private Practice.” In last week’s Nielsen ratings for the week of Nov. 14-20, “Prime Suspect” was ranked 79, not a good spot for a show hoping for a full-season pickup.
CBS has already given a full season pickup to the Thursday night thriller “Person of Interest,” but the jury is still out on ABC’s Sunday night 1960s throwback series “Pan Am.” The network has ordered more scripts for “Pan Am,” but has yet to commit to giving it a full season. Such is not the case for ABC’s Wednesday night hit “Revenge.” The soap-opera like drama has already received a full season pickup.

Then there is CBS’ “A Gifted Man,” airing Friday nights at 8 p.m. So far this drama about a brilliant surgeon getting life lessons from his dead wife is hard pressed to climb out of the 40s of the Nielsen ratings.

Granted Friday nights are no longer must-see or must watch TV nights, but CBS’s second season “Blue Bloods” seems to have bucked the trend and last week was ranked 13th in the most recent Nielsens. Or maybe it’s because “Blue Bloods” stars long time TV favorite Tom Selleck?

Then there is “The X Factor” music competition show airing on Fox Wednesday and Thursday nights. The show may not be attracting as many eyeballs as Simon Cowell predicted last summer, but is still doing respectably well in the Nielsens (23 and 33) and has been given a full season pickup by the network.

And what about “Terra Nova” on Fox Monday nights? The series about an ordinary family transported back to and living in prehistoric times, is a go until at least December, when it ends its run of 13-hour episodes. Will it be back for a second season? Who knows? It’s very expensive to produce and its ratings (47 in the most recent Nielsens) have not been great.

Over on The CW the network had given full-season pickups for freshmen series “The Secret Circle,” “Ringer” (starring Sarah Michelle Gellar in her return to prime time) and “Hart of Dixie.” The latter, a fish-out-of-water light-hearted drama starring Rachel Bilson as a big city doctor in a small Alabama town, is one of the nice surprises of the season. Though it is not a Nielsen Top 20 show, it still has struck a chord with many viewers who seem to like the slower pace and inherent sweetness of the show.

All things considered, this fall season’s new shows have done better than those of the fall season 2010 shows. Granted there have been some missteps – but enough has already been said and written about the late (and not lamented) “Playboy Club,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Free Agents” and “How to Be a Gentleman.” Soon, if there is any justice, to be joined by “Man Up” on the scrap heap.

Donna J. Plesh is a veteran television writer and reviewer whose stories may also be viewed at www.thecolumnists.com

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