Dedicated fans of this television column – hi mom, dad, and assorted stalkers! – have probably noticed a trend in my reviews this season. If you look over my last four write-ups, you might notice that I have been bitter toward most of the new shows I have reviewed this season. In fact, it looks like my only undisputed rave has gone to “Nashville,” or more accurately, to Hayden Panetierre and that show’s brilliant crew for their ability to make her look incredible in nearly every scene. For this I am very sorry. You have to understand, though, that it is so easy to attack bad television. It’s really fun, too, because you get to craft jokes about Honey Boo Boo and Bristol Palin dancing and there are 15 minutes of complete and utter malarkey for every second of quality programming on our airwaves. Please accept this mea culpa as I take this week to point out some returning series that may not be on your radar and repent after a recent change of heart.
“Elementary” has gotten much better; I’m finally starting to accept Jonny Lee Miller’s take on Sherlock as a brilliant-yet-broken idiosyncratic man. Even Lucy Liu is warming up to her role as Ms. Watson and cracking a smile once every four episodes. It is yet to be seen if “Elementary” will be able to escape the trappings of being a CBS drama, existing on a network with shows so similar that characters and plots could be shuffled between series without confusing regular viewers. But if it can differentiate itself stylistically and gains some more viewers to take it off the bubble, I see a bright future.
Perhaps the most surprising news of this past week is the announcement that NBC has been leading in the key 18-49 demographic for the first time in 15 years. We are nearing the end of a golden age of great NBC sitcoms, whether high-concept or grounded in reality. The final season of “30 Rock” is a victory lap that approaches its characters with a frenetic energy not seen since its first season. And by featuring a story in which Alec Baldwin’s network executive Jack Donaghy plots to purposely tank NBC’s ratings so that he can buy the network for a fraction of its worth, Tina Fey and the writing staff are crafting a brilliant meta-commentary on the state of its own network. Likewise, the critical darling and comedy nerd favorite, “Parks and Recreation,” is still going strong, even as its network disowns it and refuses to acknowledge its existence.
Since I’m only noting the good in shows this week, I would also like to mention “Animal Practice.” The concept of a monkey working at a hospital might sound gimmicky. It is. But it is also the best comedy series currently airing on network television that stars a monkey, unless you count “Community.” Don’t worry if you forgot about “Community!” NBC did too! “Community” was to return to the schedule later this month but it has recently been pulled. But in the spirit of trying to accentuate the positive, it’s great to note that “Whitney” has been banished to the same elephant graveyard. But as much as NBC has undergone a sitcom renaissance, the other networks still lag behind. Perhaps their only equal is ABC’s “The Middle,” which creates a portrait of Midwestern life more painfully real and honest than any other series that claims to represent the “modern family.”
Of course, the news of NBC’s ratings triumph comes with one key caveat: this rise in ratings has not come from its Thursday night sitcoms. Rather, endless showings of “The Voice,” “Revolution,” and sports programs have resulted in this increase. This is one of the reasons why we cannot have nice things: NBC will just cancel their sitcoms and replace them with comparatively lame reality programming. Even NBC’s next generation of sitcoms have run into trouble by making terrible decisions. You do not need to greenlight every show starring a “Friends” alum. And you should never greenlight a show starring Dane Cook. That series was to be “Next Caller,” a show reportedly so horrendous that NBC cancelled it before airing a single episode.
There is good television, still. It might be hidden behind political debates, and you might have to wade across a quagmire like those people who craft duck calls as part of their purported “dynasty.” Have you seen what happened to ABC? “Dancing With The Stars: All Stars” has to be singlehandedly propping up the entire sequined dress industry. As much fun as it is to celebrate good television, it just isn’t as fun as writing about the schlock. It probably isn’t as much fun to read, either. But we should celebrate what good television we still have and not what bad television could have been. Except for that Dane Cook show. That would have been good for at least two years’ worth of jokey criticism.