Judging a series based on an upfront sizzle reel is probably just as ill-advised as judging that same show by its pilot, but like upfronts and pilot season, such knee-jerk reactions are a TV tradition that our rapidly accelerating TV culture has yet to evolve beyond. As part of The A.V. Club’s continuing upfronts coverage, Erik Adams, Sonia Saraiya, and Todd VanDerWerff will be weighing in on these trailers all week long, fully aware that a new favorite may be hiding behind bizarre editing choices or poorly emphasized jokes. Today: Fox. (Previously: NBC.)
Todd VanDerWerff: Prequels are a risky business. Storytellers often believe that there’s something naturally interesting in the backstory of famous characters and worlds, because storytellers spend so much time thinking about such things. But the best stories know when to enter the tale, and that’s rarely too early. Better, in fact, to be a little late, to show up, rolling up sleeves and ready to get the job done. It’s hard to tell if Gotham has entered this particular story too early, but I think it’s promising that the show is telling the story of the rise of Batman through the lens of Jim Gordon, a rookie cop forced to work with a grizzled, corrupt one, played by Donal Logue. I’m immensely skeptical of this project, but the trailer, at the very least, made me interested to see what Logue can do with this part. And it looks beautiful.
Sonia Saraiya: Oh wait, Ben McKenzie is in this? He was in The O.C.! I’m not sure I have a lot to add to this. Gotham as a place has never particular moved me, but I’m interested in the idea of a young Officer Gordon taking Bruce Wayne under his wing. Otherwise, Todd, I feel similarly. Skeptical, but interested in Donal Logue. I’d also be interested in Seth Cohen showing up to talk about Batman with his old friend Ryan Atwood, but no one wants to watch the shows I wanna watch.
SS: Only a deep loyalty to John Mulaney prevents me from writing off this multicam sitcom immediately—though this trailer is vastly superior to the interviews with the cast that I also watched. Mulaney is a fantastic stand-up comedian who used to write for Saturday Night Live and guest-stars with devastating hilarity on Kroll Show, where he and Nick Kroll have an incredible and brilliant recurring sketch called Oh, Hello. I’d rather write about Oh, Hello and it’s spin-off Too Much Tuna than this trailer, which looks like a mediocre idea that was focus-grouped to death. His roommates, including one played by the wonderful Nasim Pedrad, are not well-served by the multi-cam format. Mostly, the cramped set and Newman-like fourth character suggest a pale imitation of Seinfeld—complete with the kooky neighbors in the apartment building, the man and woman roommates who are “just friends,” and the fact that the show is named after the last name of the protagonist, who happens to be a stand-up comic in the show, as well. It feels stale and dated to me, unfortunately.
TV: This is the most predictable thing in the world, but I kind of liked this trailer. I chuckled a couple of times at it, and I want to see more. Do I think this is the next Seinfeld, as Kevin Reilly so wants it to be? Of course not. But I think it has a shot at finding its own, original voice, and that’s even more exciting.
Red Band Society (trailer not available; Fox took it down sometime in the last six hours)
SS: In the brief featurette I saw, Steven Spielberg all but admits that Red Band Society is made in the model of Glee; meanwhile, I’m all like, wait, Steven Spielberg has anything to do with television? Spielberg is the executive producer of this teen hospital drama, which follows a group of kids in an intensive-care ward of a children’s hospital. The subject matter is admittedly rich; the kids have to have their whole adolescence inside the confines of hospital walls, which means dating, sex, pot, cheerleading, and Henry V, according to the show. Octavia Spencer plays the ward nurse shepherding these kids through this time. The trailer leans a little too hard on inspirational montage music, but I can see this show working. And though perhaps the pitch was something like “A Fault In Our Stars, but for TV,” it’s a topic worth exploring more than once.
TV: This is another show that hits the Venn diagram intersection of things Todd might be interested in. But the fact that it’s narrated by a boy in a coma? I just don’t know about that. I just don’t know. It feels like magic realism run amok. Also: Spielberg has a really weird track record when it comes to the TV projects he backs. Few of them last too long.
SS: In one of the upfronts interviews, Empire star Terrence Howard described this show as “an incredibly sexy soap,” which is not what I got out of this rather dark trailer, but sure, okay! Empire tells the story of a dying kingpin and his family’s internecine drama; the twist, insofar as network television goes, is that the kingpin is a black man, and his empire is a record label, built with drug money. It is almost too ridiculous to fly, but Howard is an incredible actor, and opposite Taraji P. Henson, who plays his wife Cookie, I can see how Empire might succeed. It’s got glitz, it’s got glam, and it’s got music production by Timbaland, which is very appealing. I think calling it a “soap” glosses over some of its potential nuance, so I hope Empire instead starts calling itself “an incredibly sexy character drama about race and class and stuff.” That’s a surefire winner.
TV: It’s hard to tell much of what this show is meant to be from the trailer, which really plays up the more melodramatic aspects, but I’m glad that there’s a show about this world on TV. Hip-hop moguls are a perfect fit for a Dallas or Dynasty for a new generation, and it’s fun to see Howard and Taraji P. Henson reunited. Quibble: Are they seriously going to just rip off the Boardwalk Empire logo like that?
TV: Fox has been trying to clone House for quite some time now, but the mix of difficult personality, genuine pathos, and acerbic humor that that earlier show managed isn’t the easiest thing to just pull out of a hat. Now, too much of Backstrom’s trailer relies on Rainn Wilson inviting us into his mind palace for my liking, but I do think he’s a good fit for the role of a schlubbier House. Will the writing around him be enough to keep this afloat? Who knows. I laughed at a couple of the lines in here, but there’s also the sense that this is yet another cop show… with a twist, of which we have too many already.
SS: Yeah, I feel like I’ve seen this show already. Wilson’s got his Hugh Laurie voice down, though. I think Rainn Wilson is wonderful, but I have no interest in pursuing this show, which is kind of a failed trailer, right?
TV: This isn’t a trailer so much as a quick reel introducing us to all of the people involved in the show. But I have to admit that it’s sort of fitting to find that after Survivor inadvertently inspired Lost, we now have the reality show version of Lost, because that’s how television eats itself in this modern era. I hope this show is a big enough hit that we get a celebrity version of it, which features Shailene Woodley and Ted Nugent trying to build the perfect society together. Also: Bonus points for the use of the phrase “most purest.”
SS: Hold on. This is literally a reality competition about competing visions of utopia? A reality show about paradise? Who thought that was a good idea?! It’s particularly bizarre that those contestants who fail to provide appropriate utopias will be asked to leave. Not perfect enough, sorry. This is an ouroboros of reality and fiction and dystopia and utopia all feeding into each other, and I am pretty sure it is a disaster waiting to happen. I’m very concerned by the footage from the Dutch version of the show that is currently airing—because hey, that’s a really disappointing utopia, the “hot-bath bare-feet” utopia.
TV: A lot of people have been skeptical of the idea of remaking the searing British series Broadchurch for an American audience. No matter how much Fox might have enjoyed that show, did it really need to do it all over again, particularly when we all speak, y’know, English? Some of the casting alleviated those concerns a tiny bit, since there’s an all-star cast on hand to deliver this particular version of the story. But what’s worrying me is the way that so much of this trailer appears to be a shot-for-shot remake of the British original. Why? What’s the point of that, especially if you’re going to change an ending I found pretty perfect? There are hints here and there that this version of the story will play with some new angles and different sides of the story (which it will have to with two additional episodes), but this is the rare trailer that took me from being a mild defender of the project’s right to exist to wondering why it’s even happening in the first place. Anna Gunn looks good, though! (She also doesn’t appear to be the most natural kicker in the world.)
SS: It confuses me that American networks believe that domestic audiences won’t watch shows from other places. Like: I refuse to watch this show if it isn’t set in the American suburbs, with American cars and an American house and American accents! But all that being said, this looks haunting and searing, just from the trailer. David Tennant’s big American debut showcases him well. And if it has to be a show about a murder, at least it’s not The Following.
TV: So Twin Peaks and The Prisoner had a child together, and then they cast it with some of the foremost names and faces of the American independent film scene? Got it. Truth be told, this looks like exactly my kind of bullshit. I love stories about mysterious locations where everything is not as it seems, and I love to watch as the desperate protagonists unravel all of their mysteries. Granted, so few of these shows end up being good (particularly in the wake of Lost, which seemingly everyone in Hollywood misunderstood the appeal of), but maybe being just a handful of episodes will allow Wayward Pines a chance at something like satisfying closure. Also, if the twist is that they’re all dead, M. Night Shyamalan, so help me…
SS: Hey, Terrence Howard was already in one of these trailers—no fair, bro. I’m intrigued by the premise, although it’s hard to sink into a story that already feels a lot like The Village. That being said, maybe Shyamalan’s twisty storytelling will be better suited to serialized television, where he can recover from missteps in later episodes. But I’m not like, setting my DVR anytime soon.
SS: It’s difficult to ascertain exactly where and when this show is planning to take place—present-day Egypt? Ancient Sumeria? Present-day Egyptian-themed section of Magic Kingdom? The trailer is entirely mood music and atmospheric shots of something resembling Hollywood’s sense of ancient Egypt. But what is the deal with the woman with wing tattoos on her back, and the man wearing a dirty t-shirt and black eyeliner? Not clear, but anyway, there’s a lot of kissing to tide us over while we wait for these questions to be answered. Kissing, and the terror of women being abused by a ruthless pharaoh who is also wearing eyeliner. Good. Great. Who signs off on these things?!
TV: Wait. Is this a series about ancient Egyptians chasing vampires? Never change, Fox. And pop the popcorn, because I am in.