Ask Matt: TV Horrors (Walking Dead, Exorcist, The Strain) Plus Speechless, Matt LeBlanc's New Sitcom, and More
Welcome back to the weekly Q&A with TV critic (also known to some TV fans as their "TV therapist") Matt Roush, who'll address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today's vast TV landscape. One caution: This is a spoiler-free zone, so we won't be addressing upcoming storylines here unless it's already common knowledge. Please send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Note: Ask Matt will now be posting on Fridays most weeks.
Dread, Not Anticipation, for Dead
Question: Instead of looking forward to the premiere of The Walking Dead, I am dreading it. In different interviews, Greg Nicotero has said people will be really mad and Norman Reedus said people will be kicking their TVs. Why do the writers do this? I hate it when they think no character should be safe. Real actors are a lot different than drawings in a graphic novel and viewers get attached more easily. If they replaced a beloved character with someone even more likable, it would be one thing, but that never seems to be the case. It's also harder to want to get attached when all you can think while watching the show is "I wonder when they're going to kill this one off." - Laura
Matt Roush: Much critical blood has been spilled since the end of last season over the producers’ controversial call to leave us hanging for months about the identity of who’s going to be on the receiving end of Negan’s big bad bat. Seemed a cheap move to me then, and now, though understandable from AMC’s point of view to build even more anticipation for the start of a seventh season. (The network didn’t make the premiere available for critics, which also comes as no surprise.) The “who will die” fascination strikes me as a bit sick as well, but one of the reasons The Walking Dead has endured as one of TV’s most popular series is that it doesn’t shy away from the extreme. There’s nothing safe about it—which doesn’t mean the producers and actors should brag about it with such glee. My advice: Tune out the hype as best you can (which would also mean weaning yourself from those irritating after-shows) and go along for the graphic ride if you can still stomach it. Personally, I’m kind of missing the days when the zombies were still the real enemy.
Would The Exorcist Work Better on Cable?
Question: In regards to Fox's placement of The Exorcist (which even I, who am not a big horror fan, watch on Fridays), perhaps they could move it to their cable channel. There they may be able to do some things that a network showing it may not allow. - Kelly
Matt Roush: FX already has its own American Horror Story (though The Exorcist is way scarier, and more satisfying), so that probably wouldn’t be an option. And all things considered, The Exorcist pushes network boundaries pretty far, probably more than any show has since NBC’s Hannibal (which also aired on Fridays). This gives me a welcome opportunity to plug this week’s episode (9/8c), which deals with the actual exorcism, and it’s every bit as intense as anything you’d find on cable. If you’ve been curious to check out the new Exorcist, now’s the time. This episode delivers some game-changing surprises that impressed even a longtime horror fan like me.
What’s the Rush to Wrap The Strain?
Question: The original press on The Strain talked about its five-year plan. FX recently announced they will end the show with its fourth season next year. How will the show possibly turn two years of material into one season?
And wouldn’t Jessica Jones, Matt Murdock (Daredevil) and Luke Cage popping up on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. be a massive ratings boost for the ABC show? - Dean
Matt Roush: If you look back at some of the original reporting on The Strain, it was never locked in that the vampire battle epic, based on a trilogy of novels, would absolutely go five seasons. Three to five was the estimate, and because shows like this evolve as they go, it was determined that the story could reach its natural conclusion next year. Can’t say if ratings or economics were a factor, but I’m content for it to end on the writers’ timetable, as long as the story has a true ending. I’ve enjoyed it, but think an endgame is a smart move.
And who can say if Netflix’s Marvel heroes would boost S.H.I.E.L.D.? Netflix never reveals how many are watching their shows. Such a stunt would certainly cause a stir among the fan base, I suppose.
What’s Matt LeBlanc’s Plan?
Question: Can you explain to me why, after spending years trying to rid himself of the Joey Tribbiani image and the embarrassment of the fiasco that was the Joey spinoff, and after earning some serious critical and awards-show support with Episodes, why Matt LeBlanc would destroy all that by starring in a multi-cam CBS sitcom (Man With a Plan) that looks about as entertaining as Pucks, the show within a show that his Episodes persona/character starred in? Does this scream of a money grab to you? I just don't understand why after spending years restoring his image within the industry that he'd go for such a lowbrow show?
Also, in praise of Speechless (discussed in the last Ask Matt column), as a former special-needs student myself, albeit with issues far less severe than JJ’s, I think this show hits all the right notes and tackles expertly some important issues that are rarely discussed. Minnie Driver is doing fantastic work and has made a wise choice not to overly sentimentalize her character. The special-needs world hasn't had a show that addressed our issues since Life Goes On in the late 1980s, and that show’s focus quickly got diverted and refocused towards AIDS as the Jesse McKenna character took over the show entirely. - MJ
Matt Roush: Far be it from me to defend Matt LeBlanc or Man With a Plan, which starting Monday becomes part of the most depressing night of comedy any network has concocted in years (including the equally lazy Kevin Can Wait, the miserable Odd Couple remake and the past-its-prime 2 Broke Girls). But when asked a more polite version of this question at last summer’s TCA gathering, here are excerpts of LeBlanc’s answer: “I had a really great time doing [Episodes], but … I wanted to work more, and I wanted to be a part of something bigger. But also, Episodes was single-camera, so I wanted to get back to the multi-cam [sitcom] format because I have a family and the hours are shorter.” He says he chose a family sitcom because “I felt like I’m not getting any younger. I’m older now. And I am a parent, so I wanted to explore what that would be like as a character.” He doesn’t appear to be under any delusion that Plan will be the next Friends (though even if it fails, it may attract a bigger audience than niche fare like Episodes), but this is also a reminder of why they call it show business and not show art.
There’s more discussion in support of Speechless later in the column, but it has obviously struck a nerve. And thanks for the call-out to Life Goes On, which may have shifted its focus in later years, but it’s Corky (Chris Burke) that we still remember best about that wonderful family drama.
Does Peak TV (and USA) Have to Be So Dark?
Question: In your review of Goliath and other weekend shows, you asked if there is “too much original programming on TV.” There has probably never been a time when there was so much quality on TV, and I speak as someone who grew up watching Howdy Doody on an 8-inch screen. But your question got me thinking, and about USA Network in particular. USA broke out with Monk, and followed it up with Psych, Burn Notice and White Collar. None of these shows were going to win a bunch of Emmys, but they were well done, enjoyable, and lasted for years. They gave USA an identity (“Characters Welcome”) and enough goodwill that I was always willing to at least sample their new shows. Starting, I guess, with Graceland and Satisfaction, they made the conscious decision to go darker. Admittedly, the shows’ problems were not so much their darkness, but the fact they weren’t very good. But in their current mode of “Prozac Welcome,” I no longer automatically sample their new shows.
USA Network stopped doing something it did very well, in order to join the stampede to have the next watercooler drama. Why is it better to have mediocre, somber drama than quality escapist entertainment, especially if it’s the latter you do so well? In the rush to join the auteur era of TV, they’ve lost their way, and no longer create the tentpole shows that got people to watch their network. In their effort to be FX or SundanceTV, they no longer have an identity at all. So is there too much original programming on TV? No, but I’d like to see some diversity. If we are in an era of auteur TV, we need less Bergman and Scorsese and more Lubitsch and Sturges.
Speaking of quality, escapist entertainment: Is there any chance SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard will have a second season? — Rick
Matt Roush: The shift by networks like USA and TNT to move away from mostly mainstream fare to edgier, darker shows is obviously a calculated risk, and I wholeheartedly agree that there should be a balance of light and dark on any schedule. (The shout-out to Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges made me smile, and thank the TV gods once again for the existence of Turner Classic Movies.) I also applaud USA for taking a risk on a show like Mr. Robot, which may not be for all tastes but is provocative, challenging entertainment—that last word can’t be underestimated, because as I suggested in my recent review of USA’s new Falling Water and Eyewitness, just being murky or downbeat doesn’t make something worth recommending. There’s a self-importance to this trend that is also very off-putting, and not only to viewers.
On a happier note, Hap and Leonard (which I once described as “the most pungently flavorful regional crime drama since Justified) is in production for a second season to air in 2017, and Brian Dennehy has joined the cast as a “boss hog” sheriff. Can’t wait.
In a Not-So-Good Place
Question: Am I the only one who's irritated by The Good Place? I've read so many positive reviews from critics and really, really wanted to like it. I'm fond of Kristen Bell, but her character here is rather unlikable; and Ted Danson is a legend, but his character (and how he plays him) reminds me way too much of Simon Templeman's Larry Bird from The Neighbors. And I'm not thrilled with the supporting characters, except for the quirky and hilarious Janet (D'Arcy Carden). Funnily enough, I'm a fan of whimsical and ridiculous series such as the abovementioned Neighbors as well as Pushing Daisies. But I think what irks me about The Good Place is how there are seemingly no limits to how out-of-hand things can get there: the storm of giant objects from the end of the first episode, and the weeping plant in Eleanor's house come to mind. The endless fantastical possibilities in The Good Place irk me; I think what the show needs is more parameters and limits on how outlandish things can get. Even Janet's existence, really, is silly, but D'Arcy Carden is so funny that I can move past it. Less is more, possibly??
On another note, I know you were a fan of Supernatural for its first five seasons, but what are your thoughts on the show's longevity and dependable ratings (by The CW's standards)? I'm a supporter of this show through and through, so its ongoing success thrills me. And even though Supernatural's myth-arc storylines tend to be unwieldy and unsatisfactory (I'm looking at the God/Amara storyline in Season 11), I still think there's enough quality in the standalone episodes, as well as in the show's production values and dedicated performances of the actors, to allow it to remain thoroughly entertaining. Have you seen any of the episodes in the last couple of seasons? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this seemingly immortal show. — Nick
Matt Roush: That’s an interesting take on The Good Place, because most shows get criticized for not going far enough, and you’re suggesting they limit the possibilities. My problem is that it’s basically a one-joke fish-out-of-hell premise, and while I’m enjoying Danson’s dithering and even Bell’s selfish manipulations in keeping her secret from coming out—if she were likable, there wouldn’t be a show, or a character arc worth following—I find the most humor in her ill-matched “soulmate” Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who’s in a constant state of torment always trying to do what’s right while knowing he’s doing wrong by playing along with her charade. I also appreciate the show’s originality, but can’t say I breathlessly await each new episode. (Right now, my favorite Thursday comedy is FX’s Better Things, although in a week The Big Bang Theory and Mom will be back on CBS, which gives me even more to enjoy.)
To your Supernatural question: I am continually astonished and impressed by the show’s staying power and high level of execution. Personally, I just can’t get with the mythology any more, but I do dip back in from time to time for old time’s sake when I see it’s going to be a standalone—especially if I’m tipped off that it’s going to be one of the meta parody episodes—and I totally get why fans are still watching and cheering the brothers on. As a horror fan from way back, I’m thrilled there’s still a place for a show like this on The CW’s schedule.
Full-Season Orders Aren’t as Full Any More
Question: Why are shows like This Is Us and Lethal Weapon only getting back-five episode orders for a full season instead of the usual back-nine for a full 22? Is it to make room for midseason shows, or is it for other reasons (like Lethal Weapon co-star Jordana Brewster's busy movie career with The Fast and the Furious film franchise the reason for Weapon only having 18 episodes for its first season)? - Chris
Matt Roush: These not-quite-full-season renewals tend to be about a network’s needs to keep the schedule churning with original material. NBC no doubt believes This Is Us, with its deeply personal and somewhat serialized storylines, wouldn’t repeat all that well, and when the pickup was announced, executive producer Dan Fogleman said he had mapped out an 18-chapter first season so was happy with the order. With Lethal Weapon, I can’t imagine Jordana Brewster’s schedule had much to do with anything. She’d be easy enough to write out of episodes if needed. This is more an inventory issue. In Fox’s original announcement for the 2016-17 season, Lethal Weapon was always expected to make way on Wednesday for the limited series Shots Fired at some point in the midseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more network series opting for shorter seasons in years to come, with the exception of big hits, easy-to-repeat procedurals and sitcoms.
Standing Up for Speechless
Question: I have a comment about the new show Speechless. I have MS but I can't walk, therefore needing a scooter or wheelchair ramp everywhere I go. I found the garbage ramp scene hysterical!! You'd be surprised at the inaccessibility of many places. I'm always complaining about that. We were in Orlando at Universal waiting for a ride when they announced the ride was broken and would have to exit out a door, everybody was cool, everyone was patiently filing out when a man, in front of his wife and children, climbed over me and my wheelchair. My 6' 4", 250-pound boyfriend was using my wheelchair to ram into the guy. People were so appalled, some chased after the guy. My point is this show is bringing awareness to the challenge of realizing a handicapped person is still a person. – Jesse
Question: While I understand David’s point of view about the mother on Speechless, the reality is that many of us moms with special-needs kids, who regularly have to fight the school system (and everyone else, it seems, who "don't get it"), really love her character. She is only a mildly exaggerated version of us warrior moms who regularly have to go to bat for our children. The combination of humor and passion makes many of us moms feel like we can both laugh at ourselves and at the same time have a voice through this wonderful show, and the wonderful cast, including the talented Minnie Driver. — Marcy
Matt Roush: ABC deserves high marks for the variety and diversity of its many first-rate family sitcoms, and what Speechless accomplishes is in its own way as groundbreaking as the gay dads on Modern Family, the issues confronted by the black-ish family and the assimilation woes depicted in Fresh Off the Boat. Even more important, these shows rarely seem like they’re straining for “very special episode” significance, and that’s even more remarkable.
Is American Housewife Trying Too Hard?
Question: What are your thoughts on American Housewife? I saw the pilot and I know it's early yet, but I honestly didn't enjoy it. I thought I would, given the concept of the sitcom. I felt it was too forced, but then after seeing all the other great shows, it could just be me. On a different note, how much are you enjoying Westworld? This is filling the void until Humans returns, but it’s shocking that I am really looking forward to Sunday nights and willing to give up football to watch it. - Amy
Matt Roush: Agreed on how forced the humor is. As I noted in my review, when a sitcom’s only attribute is its non-stop quirkiness, it loses whatever relevance it might aspire to. I like Katy Mixon a lot, so I hope it settles down. Switching gears, I couldn’t be more fascinated by Westworld. So intrigued to see where this is heading.
Question: I really want to like American Housewife, but find myself annoyed by the overly exaggerated characters the show presents. The husband is especially annoying with his classic "dumb luck clueless" archetype. Does it get better? Should I stick with it or just abandon it? — Amy
Matt Roush: I’ve only seen as much as you at this point, so can’t predict it if it will get better or worse. (Network shows, unlike many cable and streaming series, tend not to feed us that many episodes in advance.) My problem isn’t so much with the husband—I’ve enjoyed Diedrich Bader since The Drew Carey Show—as with the awful Alex Keaton clone. So basically, if you haven’t liked what you’ve seen so far, chances are it’s just not for you. Although if you’re watching the other ABC comedies on Tuesday, starting with The Middle (and who could blame you), maybe you can just look at this as an opportunity to take a break, the way we used to do with NBC’s Thursday comedies in the same 8:30/7:30c time period back in the Friends-Seinfeld heyday (the show in between almost always was a dud).
Question: What is going on in TV land? All of my TV shows are doing pregnancy storylines, make it stop!! How to Get Away With Murder, Scorpion, Blindspot, etc. Of course The Blacklist kickstarted it last season. I hope it's a trend that goes away. — Kristin
Matt Roush: I wouldn’t count on it. Babies are a part of life, and obviously a way too easy way to break stories and flesh out characters when all else fails. (It’s also a useful device, as on Blacklist, when a star actually gets pregnant, though that doesn’t seem to be the case with many of these new storylines.)
No TV Casualties Yet, and Who’s No. 1?
Question: Here we are at the end of October and no new shows have been cancelled. When do you think the ax will start to fall? - Dawn
Matt Roush: Eager, are we? Be patient, because the networks aren’t in as big a rush as they used to be to pull the trigger. (Just this week, we learned the unsurprising news that CBS wasn’t going to renew its summer series BrainDead, which I liked, and American Gothic, which I didn’t.) There were also considerably fewer new shows launching this fall, and not all have even premiered yet (because of CBS waiting until its football commitment ended on Thursdays). It shouldn’t be long, though, before some show gets the bad news that it won’t be around for a full season. Most likely early casualty would be ABC’s Notorious, panned by critics and largely shunned by Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday groupies. But even it might hang around until the end of the calendar year, when it would naturally bow out for Scandal. Speaking of which …
Question: I know it won't be back until midseason, but when will Scandal be back? Also, how many episodes will be produced? Did it get a full 22 or less since it's not on the fall schedule? I'm sure ABC would like it back sooner than later, as it looks like Notorious isn't pulling in the same numbers as Scandal does. — Dave
Matt Roush: With Scandal sitting out the fall to accommodate Kerry Washington’s pregnancy, ABC hasn’t announced an official return date, but January (or early winter) is most likely. Because of the late start, the order is reportedly for 16 episodes, to run interrupted without repeats, which for this show is something of a blessing. And yes, I’m sure ABC is as eager as fans are, if not more so, to have the show back on Thursdays.
Question: I have a question for you involving new shows that started this TV season. I know that the people behind these shows want to sell them to the public, but how can so many shows—I have counted at least five—proclaim themselves as the No. 1 show. To my understanding, and I know I am right, there can only be one No. 1 show. So how can they all claim to be No. 1? — Gary
Question: How are new shows declared to be the No. 1 new comedy or whatever when they have had one episode aired or none aired? Who writes this nonsense and why is it allowed? It makes me not want to watch them at all. — Ralph
Matt Roush: Welcome to the world of new fall-season hype. Every network is looking for some sort of bragging rights, and it’s best to just ignore it all as best you can, and try not to judge a show by its promos, because usually they’re not responsible. How you get competing claims for No. 1 depends on what metric they’re using. They might be talking top for the night, or just the time period, or just in the younger demographic, or possibly overall viewership, or maybe just the genre (top comedy, top drama, top reality). It’s all mostly meaningless anyway. But the upside is if the network has incentive to spin the numbers, that means they probably haven’t given up on the show yet.
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