Popdose Fall TV Preview: Wednesday

Written by Television, TV Reviews

“Would someone please tell J.J. Abrams that he owes me an hour of my life?” –Kelly Stitzel, reviewing Undercovers

Still with us? Popdose continues our look at the new fall television series on the big four with our reviews of the shows that premiered on Wednesday night.

Undercovers (NBC) – Would someone please tell J.J. Abrams that he owes me an hour of my life – the hour I wasted watching his new show, Undercovers?

I’m not really sure why I wanted to watch this show. Though I did (somewhat surprisingly) enjoy his reboot of Star Trek, I’ve never watched or cared about pretty much anything else he’s been involved with (I’m so sick of hearing about Lost, I don’t even want to use that word when I actually am). For some reason, though, the ads for this show caught my attention and seemed promising – I figured I’d give the dude a chance.

Mistake.

I was 100% bored by what promised to be an action-packed thriller about married, retired CIA agents, Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who now run a catering company, but are reactivated by the Agency to assist in finding a missing agent. I was pretty much over Undercovers within the first 15 minutes. I mean, the most original idea for an opening scene that Abrams and co-creator, Josh Reims, could come up with to start their hot, new spy thriller TV show is one with rooftop chases and deleting files from a computer? Really?

Not only was the plot generic, so were the characters and the dialogue. There was barely an attempt at character development – I felt like I was watching a bunch of action sequences strung together by lame attempts at rapid fire, witty dialogue (I’m sorry, Misters Abrams and Reims, but you are not Aaron Sorkin). Also, “sexpionage” – NO. Just stop.

I felt like everything about this show was forced, including the chemistry between its stars. Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw may be two of the most gorgeous people you’ve ever seen, but I didn’t pick up an ounce of chemistry between them – and I can’t figure out if that was done on purpose. My guess is no, since the ads are playing this up as some sort of Mr. and Mrs. Smith type of relationship.

If you want to watch a drama about the CIA, I suggest you skip this stinker and catch the next marathon of USA Network’s Covert Affairs. It’s actually, you know,good. — Kelly Stitzel

Better with You (ABC) – Better with You was not the strongest sitcom I’ve ever seen; however, they have the right ingredients in a sparkling cast and a creator, Shana Goldberg-Meehan, whose pedigree includes Friends and Mad About You. Of course, she also had a hand in Joey, so that practically cancels out the other two.  There were moments in last night’s pilot episode that elicited genuine laughs, particularly when all six cast members shared the stage and the different personalities were allowed to play off each other. Sadly, this was only in one scene that came late in the half hour.

JoAnna Garcia, the talented actress from Reba and the cult teen series Privileged, leads this cast as Mia, an impulsive young inventor who has been dating the flaky Casey for just 7 ½ weeks.  Jake Lacy, the actor who plays Casey, an avant garde heavy metal musician who usually doesn’t get out of bed before noon, has a sweetness about him that makes the character lovable. Mia has an older sister, Maddie (Jennifer Finnigan), a lawyer who’s been living with her boyfriend, Ben (Josh Cooke), for nine years. The two of them constantly defend their choice not to get married, but you can see cracks in the foundation of their argument, especially in the way Ben reacts to Mia’s news. Cooke plays his character as a neurotic perfectionist; some of his readings in the pilot were excellent. I only wish he had stronger material.

The girls’ parents are played by Debra Jo Rupp (That ’70s Show) and Kurt Fueller (Supernatural). Mom and dad, who’ve been together for 35 years, are bitter and rude to each other. Man, am I tired of seeing this type of marriage played out on television. Rupp and Fueller are just fine in these parts, but once again, the material they’re given is pretty mediocre.

As I said, there was one scene in the pilot that showed promise and will get me to check out the show at least a couple more times. The scene I’m referring to is a dinner scene in which all six characters are together and Mia announces her engagement. Ben also lets slip that she’s pregnant. The timing of the scene was perfect (attributable, no doubt, to the pilot’s director, the legendary James Burrows) and all of the actors really played nicely off of each other.

In order for Better with You to succeed, the producers and writers will need to open up the scenes and let the show breathe, like that dinner scene. Too many times throughout the half hour, a punch line was delivered in one scene and we immediately cut to a new scene and new characters. Look at shows like Frasier and Cheers — classic ensemble comedies that gave their characters time to grow before our eyes. The cast of Better with You is strong enough to pull that off. They just need to be given a chance, and really strong writing.

Better with You could turn out to be a fine addition to ABC’s Wednesday lineup, laugh track and all.  But if the entire season is consistent with the quality of the pilot, then this show is doomed. If that’s the case it’s a shame; actors as talented as this cast deserve better. — Scott Malchus

The Defenders (CBS) – I’m shocked that I’m going to write this, but Jim Belushi is actually pretty good in his new series, The Defenders. He stars as a Vegas defense attorney, the kind you see on billboards as you drive through the middle of the desert on your way to the strip. Belushi’s character, Nick Morelli, is partners in a firm with the younger and faster Pete Kaczmarek, played by a smarmy Jerry O’Connell. Together they take on the kind of cases that other, bigger firms won’t handle, cases that involve taking on the system, defending the little guy, and having to get creative in the courtroom.

Yes, it’s one of those “underdog lawyers who are smarter than everyone else” type of shows.

The pilot was as predictable as they come. It included a new associate lawyer coming to the firm who used to be an exotic dancer. She’s played by Friday Night Light’s Jurnee Smollett. Her character, Lisa, is idealistic and just looking for a chance to prove herself. Guess who comes up with the surprise witness that helps the guys win their case? You got that right. Another character that appears to have relevance is a smoking hot D.A. played by Natalie Zea (Dirty Sexy Money). She just happens to be sleeping with O’Connell’s character. Yawn.

All of my low expectations were met with this one. The slick music. The slick editing. The slick shots of Vegas. They even had an ending that featured the slick music of Frank Sinatra, Jr.

But then there was Belushi, a character actor I’d written off back in the ’80s when he was doing buddy films with Schwarzenegger and German shepherds. His Morelli seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Belushi shows this quite effectively in his expressions and posture. Damn it if I wasn’t impressed with some of his acting chops in this first episode. There was a certain gravitas in his courtroom closing statement that seemed to rise above the clichés of the scene and the dialogue. For the first time in, like, ever, Belushi seemed to be channeling some of his own life into a character — and it worked.

Will I ever watch The Defenders again? Not on purpose. I won’t set it on my DVR schedule, that’s for sure. But, during those months when my favorite shows are on hiatus and I’ve caught up with everything in my Netflix queue, I certainly won’t turn it off if it happens to be on. —Scott Malchus

The Whole Truth (ABC) — Here’s the bad news about The Whole Truth: It’s yet another goddamn legal procedural drama — one that thinks it’s smarter than it is, but hinges on the same old fast-paced banter, sensationalistic, lurid cases, and ludicrous coincidences you’ve been watching since L.A. Law was just a twinkle in Steven Bochco’s eye. It’s also a Jerry Bruckheimer production, which means it’s all topped off with a sticky layer of dummy sauce.

But here’s the good news: While it might not be as clever as it wants to be, The Whole Truth does have some important things going for it, chiefly the presences (and instantly enjoyable chemistry) of its stars, Rob Morrow and Maura Tierney. As the unconventional, wisecracking defense attorney Jimmy Brogan, Morrow is playing little more than a minor, stubbled variation on the type of character he always plays, but hey — he’s good at it. And Tierney, as assistant DA Kathryn Peale, once again plays a driven, uptight career woman — but while you can fault these actors for not stretching, you can’t argue with their performances here. They do what TV stars are supposed to: Even when they’re given garbage to work with, they do enough with it to keep you from switching the channel.

There’s a decent show lurking somewhere within The Whole Truth, but during the pilot, it was buried under a story about a history teacher accused of murdering a student — a story that sprouted all the absurd twists and last-minute confessions I was praying it wouldn’t, until the episode’s final shot, which made me shout “Oh, for God’s sake” and erase the damn thing from my TiVo. Viewers can’t seem to get enough of this stuff, so that probably won’t be enough to keep the show from doing well, but the network could have something special here, if they’d only tighten up the writing and focus more on Morrow and Tierney’s characters. You can see murder-of-the-week stories on a dozen other shows, but few of them boast stars this eminently watchable. —Jeff Giles