Ask Matt: Oprah’s HBO Movie, Outing on ‘Survivor,’ ‘The Son’ and Period Dramas, and ‘Scandal’s 100th

Bellamy Young

Welcome to the 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 [email protected] (or use the form at the end of the column) and follow me on Twitter. Look for Ask Matt columns on most Tuesdays and Fridays.


Was Scandal’s alt-world 100th episode a waste?

Question: What, exactly, was the point of Scandal‘s alternate-reality episode? I know they wanted to do something to mark the 100th episode, but…seriously? The alternate reality dream has no impact on the events of this season going forward and just seemed like a gimmick to make people react to the differences in the timeline, even though events have nothing to do with anything. Especially since the show has a short episode order this season, it felt like a waste. Why do shows always feel like they have to have to do some kind of stunt for the 100th episode? I understand that 100 episodes is a big deal, but wouldn’t the episode be more significant and memorable if it advanced key plot points this season?

Major Crimes aired its 200th episode this week (if you count The Closer and Major Crimes together), and that was more exciting because it included the conclusion to a great investigation for the team, and managed to advance the storytelling forward with major character moments and the appointment of the new assistant chief, which will certainly matter to the show going forward. I just felt way more entertained and invested in that episode, even though it didn’t have a gimmick and was essentially a regular episode, than I did with Scandal. – Jake

Matt Roush: Either you love or you hate these kind of gimmicks—remember the musical episode of Grey’s Anatomy?—and I’ll go on record saying this was one of my favorites, in part because Scandal itself is such a ludicrous mess most weeks that imagining a what-if reset made me think that alternate reality is something I might actually enjoy watching (with the exception of the ridiculous Cyrus-Mellie faux marriage). I also don’t have a problem with shows celebrating milestones in whatever special way they choose, and in this case having Olivia trace all of their current woes to the ripple effect from their election fraud made a certain thematic sense. Timing a season finale with a 200-episode milestone probably would be more satisfying, but I am wary of giving Major Crimes that kind of credit. The 109 episodes of The Closer were so superior to its spinoff that even if Major Crimes ultimately produces more episodes than the original, quantity does not reflect quality.


The Outing on Survivor

Question: What did you think about the transgender outing of Zeke on Survivor last week? – Matthew

Matt Roush: Confession: I had been sitting this season out, mostly for time reasons (I’d been committing that hour of my precious time to The Amazing Race this spring) and also because of an aversion to all-star seasons, but there was no ignoring this moment. The night it happened, I got various texts and e-mails from friends, so I watched as soon as I was able and was shocked and appalled by Jeff Varner’s clumsy and clueless attempt to depict Zeke’s transgender status as “deception.” But I was also moved by Zeke’s quiet dignity, by Varner’s immediate descent into despairing regret and shame, and by the rest of the tribe rallying to Zeke’s defense and condemnation of Varner’s ignorant, desperate and ill-fated tactic. There seems to be some question about whether Survivor should even have aired that tribal council. But it happened, and it led to something ultimately illuminating, and Zeke himself could almost instantly see the positive in the way it played out. If Zeke had requested this not be shown, that would be another matter. And now I think I’m in for the rest of the season.


Why can’t network TV do period dramas?

Question: Just wanted to say how much we enjoyed The Son. Everything about it is interesting: the time period, the flashbacks, the characters, the setting, the future. Pierce Brosnan could not be more perfect for this role. Even though I recorded it and watched later, do you think Saturday night is the best time for a show this good? Given how popular period dramas are on PBS, why don’t the main networks seek to produce these shows, too? Instead, we seem to get an endless supply of lawyers, doctors, hospitals, crime solvers and politicians. I remember catching McLeod’s Daughters years ago on cable and loving it because it was all women-driven and such a different type of scenario running a ranch in a man’s world. How I wish that could be redone here. A girl can dream, though! – Teresa

Matt Roush: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t with Saturday night programming. I continually hear from viewers who wish networks and cable would program the night more aggressively, though viewing habits have shifted to the point that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for most networks to turn the night over to repeats, movies, sports, true crime, etc. For AMC, airing original Westerns on Saturdays has paid off in the past with projects including the Broken Trail miniseries and Hell on Wheels, and the premiere of The Son did fairly well, especially when time-shifting is factored in with Live+3 ratings. If The Son aired on a busier night, it might get lost in the clutter.

To your larger point about the lack of period drama on commercial network TV, it’s a genre that has lost favor for quite a while, and any time you read about a network developing a pilot with a Western or even more ancient theme, they rarely come to fruition or they’re a quick failure. (Remember ABC’s Biblical Of Kings and Prophets last year? Didn’t think so.) ABC is trying again, with the post-Romeo & Juliet Still Star-Crossed costume drama, which is getting a summer run when expectations are lower. My suspicion is that the tyranny of demographics leads programmers to worry about how to make shows in this genre feel relevant in today’s cluttered, fragmented environment. PBS had great success with Downton Abbey, and we may yet see a network try to cash in on that craze somehow, but even the British have trouble creating hits of that magnitude often anymore.


Oprah’s HBO Debut Rankles a Fan

Question: I was very disappointed to discover that an important drama like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is running on HBO rather than a network that would provide access to more viewers. One would think an Oprah project would have made accessibility a higher priority. — Jill

Matt Roush: The priority here, I’d think, is getting the film made at all, and with very few exceptions, broadcast networks are pretty much out of that business entirely. (According to my research, it has been 10 years since an Oprah-produced movie aired on ABC.) Given the tricky subject matter, and HBO’s long track record of developing prestige projects, this was probably the perfect home for The Immortal Life. Lifetime might also have made sense thematially, and periodically that network does try to raise the bar with serious movies, but given the talent associated with turning the Henrietta Lacks book into a movie (including director George C. Wolfe), I doubt it would have turned out with this much distinction anywhere but HBO. I feel for those who can’t afford subscriptions for pay cable or subscription streaming services (the debate over The Good Fight comes to mind), but that’s the reality of the business.


Keeping It Brockmire

Question: My husband and I LOVE Brockmire on IFC. The writing is terrific, but with the freedom they seem to have (the language) guess it’s not hard. It’s been a long time since we have laughed out loud during a TV show. Curious as to your opinion and what the current buzz is about this show. – Lorna

Matt Roush: I have been plugging this show since its premiere, so from my corner, the critical buzz is strong, and I hope more discover it during its run. Happily, Brockmire already has been renewed for a second season. It qualifies as one of the happiest surprises of the TV year to date, and the performances of Hank Azaria, Amanda Peet and Tyrel Jackson Williams in this profane comeback fable couldn’t be better. This is high on my list these days when people ask me what they should be watching.


Should CBS Schedule Comedies on Sundays?

Question: I don’t know if this would work, but I really think that CBS should put ONLY half-hour comedy shows on Sundays and put the good shows on other days. Like so many other people out there, I get tired of the sports fans getting the privileged treatment over the other fans out there. My question: Do you think this will ever happen? – Mike

Matt Roush: In a word: No. And I am amused by the distinction between CBS comedies and “good shows,” as if all hour shows are “good” and all sitcoms aren’t. (On CBS, I would agree that its Monday sitcoms are pretty awful, and with the exception of The Big Bang Theory and Mom, mostly unwatchable.) Another clarification: CBS isn’t giving sports fans privileged treatment. It’s acknowledging the draw of live sports as one of the few sure-fire ratings events on TV anymore, and cutting off a sports event before its natural end has been a no-no since the infamous Heidi incident of 1968.

In the past, CBS has scheduled a block of comedies on Sundays from time to time, especially when they were a bridge between 60 Minutes and the Sunday night movie (which, as previously discussed, is a thing of the past). While it would obviously be easier to drop a show out of the lineup if CBS aired comedies, the fact is that Sundays are traditionally one of the most-watched nights of any week, and with 60 Minutes such a reliable presence, airing signature hit dramas to fill out the schedule has been a successful strategy for years. I maintain that CBS would be better off starting its lineup at 8/7c the way Fox does on nights of potential significant sports overruns (meaning dropping one entire show that night, and never 60 Minutes).


Question: I was heartbroken at the news that WGN America canceled Outsiders. Is there any chance another network could pick it up? AMC, USA, A&E, FX, anyone?! Or at least do a final season on Netflix or Hulu? – Karl

Matt Roush: It may be a long shot, but Sony, which produces the series, is known for aggressively pitching its properties to new homes after premature cancellation. If Outsiders had only produced one season, I’d say it was a lost cause. But with two seasons worth of episodes under its belt, there might be a chance for another outlet, especially in the streaming universe, to keep it going.


That’s all for now. We’ll pick up the conversation again next week. Thanks as always for reading, and remember that I can’t do this without your participation, so please keep sending questions and comments about TV to [email protected] or shoot me a line on Twitter (@TVGMMattRoush), and you can also submit questions via the handy form below.