The smell of rot: This fall's TV shows mostly stink

Sep 15 2013 - 10:46am

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Giovanni Ribisi (left), Martin Mull (center) and Brenda Song star in Fox’s “Dads,” about entrepreneurial game designers who have troubled relationships with their clingy fathers. TV critic Hank Steuver gives it an “F” rating. (Fox/The Washington Post)
Giovanni Ribisi (left), Martin Mull (center) and Brenda Song star in Fox’s “Dads,” about entrepreneurial game designers who have troubled relationships with their clingy fathers. TV critic Hank Steuver gives it an “F” rating. (Fox/The Washington Post)

Let's get right to it: This is a lousy fall TV season, the most lackluster assortment of new shows I've seen since I became The Post's TV critic in 2009.

I kept reaching for the word "flat" as I wrote reviews of 30 new dramas and comedies premiering between now and November. After typing "flat" so many times, I got out the usual synonyms -- uninspired, disappointing, boring, unimaginative, rote, predictable, same-old.

It's not that there aren't bright spots or areas of potential; there always are, but this is the first time I haven't been able to give any show an "A" based on its first episode or two. (I usually give at least two or three A's in our annual fall TV preview.)

The highest grade I've given this year is a lone B+ to Showtime's "Masters of Sex." Just below that, I think "Trophy Wife" and "Lucky 7" are fairly good; "Ironside" was a smoother and more sophisticated remake than I expected; "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." will likely appease the geek chorus that awaits it. But from there it's a sharp drop -- a whole lot of C's, and more D's and F's than there ever should be, especially in the comedy genre.

Mediocrity is nothing new to television, and there's a good argument to be made that when it comes to TV, much of what we find comfort in is the lukewarm, easy-on-the-brain stuff. Not every show has to be the next cultural watershed event.

However, as you're doubtless aware, television is undergoing profound change. Traditional viewership models are waning now that the customer has crowned himself king, cut his cords and brags that he no longer has a cable or satellite bill. (Instead he has a big broadband Internet bill and various commitments to subscriber-based streaming services for his many, constantly upgrading devices.)

We are now at a multimedia moment where the concept of a "fall season" -- with its emphasis on advertising, ratings and a flood of new shows all premiering within days or weeks of one another -- seems like an ancient and outdated ritual. That it happens to be the way many, many millions of people still ingest television doesn't mean that it will be for much longer. The market is changing fast.

This is a crucial fall for not only the big four networks, but also the cable channels -- anyone who wants to sell content and advertising to an audience willing to watch. If ever there was a season when the networks needed to improve their content and send out a message that TV is here to stay, it would be this one.

They haven't brought it.

They have brought some familiar excuses and caveats, however: The midseason looks really exciting! We'll be doing more "event" miniseries and specials! You can stream us anyplace, anytime! Don't judge a show by its pilot episode! And, my particular favorite, came during the TV Critics Association summer press tour when Fox's chairman of entertainment, Kevin Reilly, whipped out some initial bad reviews of CBS' "Big Bang Theory" when it premiered in 2007, to demonstrate how wrong critics can be. (This was Reilly's subtle tactic for pre-defending the Seth MacFarlane-produced "Dads," a show that has become for me emblematic of the sad and broken state of TV. Even if "Dads" becomes a huge hit, I can still smell its rot from over here and I stand by the F I've given it.)

As a critic, it's difficult sometimes to steer clear of the stereotype of being a joyless crank. To check myself and my mood this season, I calculated the grade-point averages of the last five fall seasons, based on how I (and my predecessor) reviewed the new shows. The metaphor couldn't be more apt: If TV were a student, it would be facing academic probation and unable to participate in activities, because this year it has earned a 1.88 GPA.

What do you when your kid brings home that sort of report card? You think about punishments. You exploit new reserves of guilt and shame. And you make a new rule: No more TV until things improve.

Declining grades

Grade-point averages for the last five fall TV seasons, based on Hank Stuever's reviews:

Fall 2013

30 new shows

GPA: 1.88 (D+/C-)

Hits: "Masters of Sex," "Trophy Wife"

Misses: "Dads," "Back in the Game"

Fall 2012

22 new shows

GPA: 2.29 (C)

Hits: "Nashville," "The Mindy Project"

Misses: "The Mob Doctor," "Malibu Country"

Fall 2011

28 new shows

GPA: 1.98 (C-)

Hits: "Once Upon a Time," "Homeland"

Misses: "Charlie's Angels," "How to Be a Gentleman"

Fall 2010

25 new shows

GPA: 2.48 (C+/B-)

Hits: "The Walking Dead," "Hawaii Five-O"

Misses: "Running Wilde," "Outlaw"

Fall 2009

21 new shows

GPA: 2.29 (C)

Hits: "The Good Wife," "Modern Family"

Misses: "Hank," "Three Rivers"

Note: Reviews of the 2009 season were split by Stuever and The Post's former TV critic, Tom Shales, and not assigned a letter grade; Stuever has retroactively graded those shows.

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