There is a fearful asymmetry between the way that critics and audiences experience the fall TV season. The former watch shows straight through on DVD; the latter take them as the Lord and David Sarnoff intended, with commercials. Critics tend to watch new shows alone with their wretched selves; normal people frequently gather around the electronic hearth in groups with the opportunity to talk over the programming in a social fashion, as opposed to just yelling at the cable box. Most unnaturally of all, it's the duty of the critic working on assignment to view even the most obvious dreck in its entirety (in order to confirm that it keeps being drecky), whereas regular audience members presented with substandard entertainment are at liberty to follow their tastes and change the channel—or, if the situation demands and local gun laws permit, shoot the television.
On Wednesday night—nagged by these last two points and hopeful of closing the gap between viewer and reviewer—your correspondent acted on a lark and tried an experiment. I invited some friends over, gathered a handful of promotional screeners of new pilots, and established some loose rules: Whenever a member of our little focus group grew hopelessly fed up with (or insulted by, or contemptuous of …) a show, she would signal her weariness by tinkling a bell. Once someone else had seconded the motion, we would be done with that program and move on to the next. Tyranny in action!
First we tried Kath & Kim (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET), adapted from an Australian sitcom about a batty divorcee in her 50s and her princess of a grown daughter. (This fall, development executives have been less shy than ever about importing their ideas.) Molly Shannon, as Kath, opens the episode in deep-purple tights and a delightfully unspeakable pastel leotard, devoting herself to her home-gym routine with daffy gusto. Selma Blair comes huffing back home as Kim, her recently married daughter: "I'm getting a divorce. It's over. O-V-U-R." The two tacky ladies coo and bat at each other, and between their mall-culture comic argot and the fruit-colored costumes, our group was captivated until Kim's husband made the scene to explain that he just needed her to microwave dinner every now and then: "We cannot go to Applebee's every single night, Kim. We are not billionaires." Ding ding ding went the bell, and up went an agreeing groan, six minutes in. Perhaps this was less a judgment of Kath & Kim's general quality—it was one of the better shows we screened, or at least one of the not-as-bad—than a kind of focus-group verdict on its weakest link.
Next up: Eleventh Hour (CBS, Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET), adapted from a British procedural about a professor working with government agents to investigate medical oddities. In the cold open, a boy recklessly pedals his BMX through a quaint Georgia town. Then, with one last overbearing pulse of a heartbeat on the audio, he collapses. On screen, actor Rufus Sewell is soon shifting his eyebrows around in a pantomime of an eccentric and muttering about 11-year-olds suffering heart attacks: "People fear what they don't understand." In my living room, someone was saying, "I think this is funnier than the last show." We noted stylistic debts to Six Feet Under, CSI, and especially House. Eleventh Hour is ambitiously shameless in patterning its counterintuitive crank of an ill-socialized hero on the Hugh Laurie character. We sent it down after nine minutes as yet another generic detective drama, though not without a dispute: "Don't you want to know what other shows they're ripping off?"
My Own Worst Enemy (NBC, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) stars Christian Slater as a mild-mannered suburban dad who, unbeknownst to himself, leads a double life as a globe-trotting superspy. The first big scene is set in Paris, where the hero repairs to a hotel room with a pert-bosomed Russian agent named, of course, Natasha. We quickly raised objections to the sheer curtains billowing at the balcony, to the sheer imprudence of whatever cosmetic procedure had overinflated Natasha lips, and to a cheap crib from Dr. No. Alfre Woodard plays Slater's boss, and the show establishes her intelligence by showing her playing chess with herself. "How long are they gonna make us wait to get the two-characters thing?" Far too long, it would seem. Stop. Eject. The show's success may depend on whether the public's fascination with Slater trumps its collective attention-deficit disorders.
Crusoe (NBC, debuts Friday, Oct, 17, at 8 p.m. ET) is loosely and slackly adapted from Daniel Defoe's 1719 castaway yarn. Someone said, "The pitch meeting for this is, 'It's like Lost, but in the past.' " Someone said, regarding the unkempt pirates very soon triggering Crusoe's booby traps: "This should be Episode 3. The fun part is watching the person build it." Someone else said, "When does Lost start again?" Someone rang the bell three minutes in. Someone objected, "I want to see more of how awful it is," and someone overruled the objection. Is it fair to write Crusoe off as "awful"? Probably, though that curt dismissal doesn't do justice to its perversely fascinating texture—the frilly flashbacks to the hero's lady love; the noble savagery of Friday; the post-Pirates of the Caribbean campiness of the interloping sea, unkempt buccaneers, and their saucy wench.
Thus we came to The Ex List (CBS, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), adapted from an Israeli romantic comedy about a single babe who, says a fortuneteller, will discover her future husband among the ranks of her old boyfriends. We bailed after the first of these dudes entered the frame, jolted by his frankly cheesy display of torso—"infomercial abs" was the damning phrase. But, until that moment, The Ex List had commanded our full attention in a way that the previous shows hadn't. The room had, for once, been quiet of snark. The show's pint-of-ice-cream pleasures almost feel designed for covert consumption.
I seemed to have run through all the network pilots I had within reach in about 40 minutes. There had been no sustained entertainment, and a detour into cable provided no relief. Despite its tremendous title, Sex Change Hospital (WE) failed to deliver. A nonfiction endeavor that splits the difference between sincere anthropology and earnest exploitation, it was, in context, a buzz kill. (Sometimes you choose the show; sometimes the show has to choose you.) Gimme My Reality Show (Fox Reality), on which people who meet the most meager requirements of celebrity vie to win a reality show, proved so apocalyptically vapid as to stun us into deep loathing. Living With the Wolfman (Animal Planet) is a hybrid of a domestic docu-series and a wildlife program. Loopy for lupines, it was clearly geared to palates more refined than ours.
Unwilling to let this project end on that freakily howling note, I cracked open Stylista (CW, debuts Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 9 p.m.). Billed as a reality-competition take on The Devil Wears Prada, it sets an assortment of glamour-industry neophytes chasing the dream of a menial job at Elle. It was kind of a ringer. Our group was disproportionately heavy with members of the media, and for the CW, as for the John McCain of old, the media is the base. (Note the oft-noted gap between Gossip Girl's coverage and its actual popularity.) Stylista is awesome in several respects, and this column intends to limn its charms at a later date. For now, it suffices to say that the CW engineers ideal party television—fun to bitch at, perfect to quip over. On Stylista's own terms, it doesn't matter if it's any good. It's on a mission to convert jaded viewers into alert critics, and that's entertainment in itself.