Fall check-in: Fox

Hey all. It’s been too long. I’ve been really busy this fall and writing elsewhere (hopefully you’re following me over at This Was Television and TV.com). But frequent contributor Wesley Ambrecht decided to exchange some emails about the state of the broadcast networks with sweeps upon us. Up first is Fox.

Wesley: Believe it or not, it’s been a year since Cory and I posted our ultra-long podcast on the state of network TV. Well, now that we’re 2 months into the 2012-2013, I proposed to Cory that we make it an annual thing. Because he’s sensible, and also working on a book, we’ve decided to take the basic idea of that podcast and break it into 5 articles (one for each broadcast network). Up first, FOX.

With November sweeps upon us, FOX is probably counting the days until January when American Idol rides in on its white horse to save the day. The Mob Doctor continues to live in large part because FOX has nothing to replace it with, Touch was pushed to midseason, and The X Factor is down year-to-year despite the addition of Britney Spears. The only bright spot ratings-wise has been a revamped glee, which although down slightly in live numbers is actually up once L+7s are factored in.

Cory, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how FOX can pick themselves up by the bootstraps and get back in the game. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we should probably touch on each of FOX’s new series. Despite abysmal ratings, Ben & Kate has quickly become one of my favorite shows. It’s one of those rare comedies that was fully realized from the pilot, And, how great is that cast? [Feel free to embed this video here]. The Mindy Project has, sadly, been pretty uneven but I’m enjoying it more often than not. “In the Club” showed me that, when it wants to be, the show can be a great ensemble piece. Then, there’s Mob Doctor, which I was one and done with. Honestly, I couldn’t even hate that pilot because I was too busy being bored. How about you Barker? Let’s hear your take. 

Cory: First, and not to be a politician, but let me say that I’m really excited to be doing this again. I really enjoyed the podcasts last fall and though I wish I had more time to commit to that format, I think we can recreate it here. 

So, FOX. We talked about this in the spring after upfronts, but they made a weird choice by not picking up enough dramas. I think we could tell back then that The Mob Doctor was going to be a fairly sound dud, which submarines the network on Monday all together. Though, with NBC’s nice work on that night, it might something of a lost cause for FOX to really try to compete hard there anyway, at least in the fall. But that’s something we can come back to. 

The Mob Doctor produced a similar level of boredom and apathy in me. Because of time and an increased level of sanity, I decided that I wouldn’t commit to watching every new show for multiple episodes this season like I’ve done over the last handful and there was no show that I appreciated that new self-restriction with than Mob Doctor. You couldn’t make it to a second episode? I never even finished the first. I might have made it to act four, maybe. I think everyone on that show is trying their hardest, but it’s just a silly premise that takes itself way too seriously. It’s as lifeless as the title suggests, despite Jordan Spiro’s best efforts. 

The two new comedies are a different story for sure. The Mindy Project had all the hype in the world coming into the season–I like her too, but some pubs were severely overstating the importance of the show, its success or whatever else; It’s just a sitcom guys–but Ben and Kate has been the better, more fully-formed show from the very beginning. I fell a little behind on Ben and Kate until burning through a couple of episodes this week and goodness is that show great. Like, in the second-season-we’ve-just-figured-it-all-out great that so many of our favorites have reached much later. The cast is tremendous, both as a group and as individual performers, and the show has this inherent sense of warmth and affection that is beyond infectious. There are a lot of “people just hanging out” comedies on right now, but Ben and Kate might already be the best. And I love Happy Endings and New Girl

Mindy is…uneven. There are too many people in the cast and there’s simultaneously too much and not enough going on. I’m not sure Mindy and the rest of the writing team knows what they want the show to be, but if they do know, then they need to figure out a better way to express that within episodes. There are some really good characters being developed in the world. Ed Weeks and Chris Messina are great, particularly Messina, who seems like he’s everywhere in 2012. I’m hoping that Chris McKenna will be able to help Kaling harness her admittedly engaging and charming voice, but as of now, Mindy Project is experiencing typical early-season new comedy blues.

This is more your realm, so I wanted to ask you about X-Factor. I watched the first few episodes and was generally entertained–thanks, bros who tank it–but there’s just so much of it every week that I cannot keep up. How do you feel about the show in year two? And are you surprised that it still isn’t much of a hit? Do people really even care about it?

Wesley: Before I get into The X Factor, I feel like it’s worth noting that (for me) Ike Barinholtz has been the absolute best thing about The Mindy Project, thus far. His stuff in the 2nd episode of this season was just about the only thing that worked, and his odd transformation into a bathroom attendant in the aforementioned “In the Club” had me rolling. 

Now, about The X Factor, my thoughts haven’t change all that much since last year. The opening rounds of the show are still pretty boring. Whereas The Voice has found a way to make live auditions work (ie Spinning Chairs), X Factor has not. Whenever a contestant is able to get the crowd behind them, regardless of how talented they are, the judges feel compelled to send them though. That takes all of the suspense away. Moreover, without a host to guide the audition process this year, everything felt very producer manipulated.

What X Factor does have going for it is a sufficiently entertaining 2nd round of auditions and a top notch 3rd round set at the judges’ homes. So, if you were able to get through the muck of the first few weeks, you’re probably still watching. That amounts to about 7 million viewers, enough to earn the show an early 3rd season pickup, but nowhere near what FOX was likely expecting when they ponied up the money for Britney Spears. Spears has been fine so far, but in the early episodes she was out-shined by Demi Lovato, who has a natural charisma. In recent weeks, however, Lovato has inadvertently torpedoed contestants, while Spears has allowed the producers to supplement her coaching to the benefit of her group. A weird flip-flop, indeed.

To answer your question about whether or not people care about X Factor, I guess we’ll see when 1st season victor Melanie Amaro releases her album next month. Amaro has yet to strike a chord with radio programmers, despite two fairly commercial singles, but Simon isn’t one to lay down and take a loss. If Amaro’s album moves a sizable number of copies, X Factor could see a credibility bump in S3. Though, if Spears leaves, that bump may be moot.
Cory, what do you make of FOX slashing The Goodwin Games’ order and pushing Touch to midseason? Would you have given a small episode order to Guilty, which they still have options on? And, what do you think FOX needs to do this winter/spring to feel good about the 2012-2013 season?

Cory: Like all the singing competition shows, I just can’t invest the kind of time The X Factor asks of me. The first few hours were entertaining, but that longer commitment is tough — especially when, as you said, the competition isn’t actually for anything valuable. Maybe last year’s winner will do well, but I can’t imagine so. Do you think it was smart to go ahead and renew the show for a third season? I know that Fox’s is probably doing better in those timeslots than it would without XF, but the costs have to be pretty steep, right? 

Otherwise, I’m not sure what Fox is doing. We’ve talked about the weird, low amount of hour-long orders, and I guess the Goodwin Games and Touch moves fall in-line with that kind of thinking. Perhaps the network sees the writing on the wall with this season and would just prefer to ride it out, hoping that Idol does well enough, that the comedies hold their own on Tuesdays (which I guess is happening, though I’m very curious to see if any of New Girl‘s partners on that night make it to next fall) and that all their ad money for The Following pays off. I don’t totally hate that plan considering the low ratings across the board, but I’m very, very curious to see how Following does in January. While Kevin Bacon is famous enough to draw an audience at first, I’m not sure that it’s a show people will want to stick with. Maybe I’m wrong though. Goodwin Games doesn’t feel like a winner and no one really cares about Touch anyway. 

The problem is, however, if The Following doesn’t work, then Fox is in even bigger trouble next season, with an older IdolBones and I guess Glee, with New Girl and X Factor doing okay. Those singing competitions anchor the schedule so much that legitimate freaking out isn’t worthwhile, but shouldn’t Fox be at least somewhat concerned?

Wesley: I don’t know that it’s time to hit the panic button. That won’t be necessary, until American Idol starts doing worse than The Voice. But, I would certainly be worried, if I were Kevin Reilly. Bones is an aging franchise and, even if The Following takes off, that only sures up one night.

Thus, I can see why FOX would go all in on X Factor. Even with expensive contracts for Simon and the other judges, it’s still probably cheaper than scripted content would be. Moreover, it allows them to focus their promotional budget on a few select shows. Now, that didn’t exactly work for Ben and Kate or The Mindy Project, but building an entire comedy block around one semi-successful show [New Girl] was a risky move to begin with.

Renewing Touch based solely on the foreign money it generates didn’t make sense to me last spring and FOX’s lack of enthusiasm about actually airing 2nd season has only exacerbated my confusion. I can’t see it doing better numbers than Fringe has on Fridays and that will likely spell cancellation for it. In theory, that leaves FOX with between 2.5 and 3 hours of new programming next fall, which is definitely doable. I just think they need to manage their bench better going forward. 

Putting aside facts and figures for a moment, I’m curious to hear what you’ve thought of Glee this season. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit so far… and not in a hate-watching sort of way.

Cory: That’s a good point about keeping X Factor around. I guess if I’m Reilly, I’m at least moderately concerned that we haven’t established a drama hit in a while. Having less real estate to fill is beneficial, but it can’t be all singing competitions. Or at least I hope not.

I’m glad you brought up Glee. I would argue that this is the most consistent the show has ever been (even the first 13 of season one that we now look back on so fondly had their low-points). There’s not as much to complain or snark about this season. Despite a few random annoyances like the ease at which Kurt does everything–from getting a Vogue internship apropos of nothing to scoring that apartment–I think the show has found good stories to tell about the core characters (Rachel, Kurt, Finn and actually Will too). The break-up episode was wonderful. 

One thing though: the new students aren’t clicking. It’s not that they are terrible or that the performances are bad, because that’s not the case at all. I actually think these folks are better than just about any newbies they tried to integrate into the series in the previous three seasons (save Blaine). It’s just hard to care about them, which was always going to be the challenge I guess. We’ve talked a lot about what Murphy and company had in mind once Rachel graduated and it now seems like the show would have been better to just move on from McKinley. Despite Will’s presence in the narrative and the insistence that the New Directions serve as this safe space for all outsiders, this is Rachel’s (and Finn’s and Kurt’s) story, period. What are your thoughts on the show?

Wesley: Oddly enough, and this is why I love chatting with you, I fall completely on the opposite side of the fence, insomuch as I’ve found the McKinley stories far more engaging than the NYC based material. Melissa Benoist is a tremendous find and she brings a heart-breaking vulnerability to Marley. Jacob Artist stumbled out of the gate by over-acting in the season premiere, but he has since eased into the role of Puck 2. Even Becca Tobin, who has taken a whipping from die-hards, won me over with the “Left Behind” gag in “The Break Up.” PS: I probably laughed harder at that than anything else this fall.

Where I think the show has faltered, in terms of McKinley stories, is integrating The Glee Project kids. Last season they squandered Damian McGinty, before unceremoniously dropping him during the hiatus. By that same token Sam Larsen has had almost no presence this fall. I will credit the writers for giving Alex Newell meaty stories, but he didn’t even win! Last week’s “The Role You Were Born to Play,” seem to indicate that Blake Jenner will be the new male lead, but only time will tell if that’s true.

I haven’t disliked any of the NYC material, but none of it feels especially fresh. Kurt suddenly realizing that he might not be destined for Broadway stardom is a true-to-life story. Plenty of twenty-somethings go out into the world and discover they knew nothing about themselves in high school. And yet, I don’t feel like the writers are telling that story. Their version has played more like “Let’s have Kurt work at Vogue for now.” Rachel and Cassandra’s material has been incredibly fun but her relationship with Brody has done nothing for me. The other graduates have been largely under-served by this new format. Amber Riley and Harry Shum Jr. did next to nothing in their return this week and, while funny, Mark Sailing’s return was equally pointless. None of those losses hurt terribly, but the lack of Naya Rivera in the early-going has stung. Like you, I would also spotlight “The Break Up” as one of the series’ best episodes, and Rivera was dynamite in it. She just needs to work more!

It will be interesting to see if Glee can maintain this level of consistency moving forward, especially as they continue to grow their cast and split their narrative. I’ll admit I’m somewhat frightened about the Mr. Schu Goes to Washington stories we could soon see.

Cory: You’re definitely right about the post-grad stories being unoriginal. They are giving us nothing new. I just have such an affection for Rachel, Finn and Kurt that anytime the show actually takes their emotions and circumstances seriously, I’m in — and it has done that all season. But no matter how we feel individually, we can both agree that Glee has been strong this season. So why does it seem like no one cares? Obviously, Twitter can create something of an echo chamber, but even on broader entertainment and popular culture web sites, Glee is less prominent than ever. Is its time simply passed? Is the move to Thursday solely to blame? I can’t imagine that the quality is, considering that season three, despite its obvious issues, was far and away better than season two. 

Wesley: This may be a question for the readers. I’m honestly confused about the lack of Glee talk, given that ratings having declined. Readers, what say you?

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