Ask Matt: A Yay for Jay, ‘Mrs. America,’ Sitcoms Post-Pandemic, a Network Content Pipeline & More

Cate Blanchett Mrs. America
Sabrina Lantos/FX
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis in Mrs. America

Welcome to the Q&A with TV critic—also known to some TV fans as their “TV therapist”—Matt Roush, who’ll try to address whatever you love, loathe, are confused or frustrated or thrilled by in today’s vast TV landscape. (We know background music is too loud, but there’s always closed-captioning.)

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 many Tuesdays and Fridays.

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Is Jay R. Ferguson TV’s Next Leading Man?

Question: How about that Jay R. Ferguson? I haven’t seen him in Mad Men yet since I am just catching up with that terrific show. (Although people I respect loved it, I just figured it was a show glorifying ’60s Madison Avenue. How wrong could I be?) Anyway, seeing Ferguson on The Conners and Briarpatch, I think he has got to blow up, career-wise. Is he leading-man material or not? I don’t want him to do a sitcom post The Conners as charming-funny as he is as Ben. I expect charming-funny-damaged-dangerous to be his thing. But would you bet on big things in his future? (I am not good at judging these things. Between David Boreanaz and James Marsters on Buffy, I would have bet the farm on Marsters getting the big career. But Boreanaz hasn’t missed a season since 1997.) If you use this in Ask Matt, I would expect editing it down to “Jay R. Ferguson is James Garner great, no?” — Mike in NJ

Matt Roush: Ha, I do sometimes edit submissions for length (believe it or not in some cases), but your enthusiasm for Jay R. Ferguson’s recent breakthrough tickled me enough to run it in full. (Have I mentioned lately how much I appreciate it when people accentuate the positive these days?) I’ve felt much the same way about Ferguson recently, though I’ve followed his career with interest since he first appeared as a teenage actor as Burt Reynolds’ son on Evening Shade back in the 1990s.

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Watching him emerge as an adult and hold his own among the Mad Men ensemble was a revelation, and he was a great sitcom dad in the too-short-lived The Real O’Neals. He has added so much to The Conners, especially this season, and then watching him play a role as robust and flamboyantly entertaining as the anti-hero Jake Spivey on USA’s underappreciated Briarpatch reminded me of his range. I get the James Garner comparison, given Ferguson’s agility with bringing wry comedy and charisma into even a dramatic role. I would hope that casting agents and producers will see his potential as an unorthodox series lead, and when his time on The Conners is over, we could see him land something just as worthy of his talent, rather than being wasted in something formulaic (although the money is good) as part of a procedural ensemble. Whatever happens next, he’s certainly made his mark this season.

Streaming Is the American Way

Question: The new Mrs. America program is being hyped everywhere and it looks like something worth seeing — but when I searched for it, I found nothing because it isn’t a TV show. It’s a streaming show. I believe it will be on Hulu. I thank you and TV Guide Magazine for usually being clear about a program in the title of your articles. Saves me the time of reading and falling in love with something I will probably never see. Just a thought, but isn’t there a difference between TV and streaming? — Mary

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Matt Roush: No more than there’s a difference between TV and cable. These days, to many Netflix is TV, ditto Amazon Prime Video and in this case, Hulu, and numerous other platforms. While I’m very aware that not everyone (especially these days) has the resources to subscribe to all or maybe any of these services, it is the wave of the present, and it’s where many of the most interesting series and limited series are ending up. The confusion about Mrs. America may be that it’s one of the first series to be presented by FX on Hulu, a new exclusive streaming platform for shows developed by the FX network. FX on Hulu was established after FX was acquired as part of the Fox purchase by Disney, which is using the FX brand to enhance the value of Hulu—while also expanding FX’s reach to the cord-cutting universe that has flocked to streaming. I’m still not sure how FX determines which new shows head to Hulu, and which stay on the linear cable network, but as I noted in my review, Mrs. America is sensational, and I expect it will clean up at the Emmys.

Laughing in Post-Pandemic Sitcoms

Question: Once sitcoms go back into production, post-COVID: do you anticipate that more comedies will rely solely on laugh tracks in lieu of a live studio audience? At least until a vaccine is ready? I know canned laughter isn’t the same as the real thing, but it seems like it would be the most practical short-term solution to get TV content back out there. By that same token: I’d imagine sitcoms and dramas will minimize their use of background players/extras as much as possible, due to continued physical/social-distancing precautions. It’s doable, but it just means writers will need to get more creative with their scenes. I doubt the “post-Corona” world will be as much about getting “back to normal” as it will be about working around the physical risks posed by these revolving doors of guest stars and extras on sound stages. — Kristina

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Matt Roush: As with all questions of this nature, it’s purely speculative until we know more about the arc of this outbreak and whether and when widespread-enough testing, let alone a vaccine, will allow the industry to establish new routines. These suggestions seem practical to me, and the traditional multi-camera sitcoms were already planning to film without a live audience before the shutdown took effect. (Some may have filmed an episode or two this way before going dark.) As for regular series production, and the use of background extras among other “atmosphere” effects, we may see producers keep that to a minimum or go a more digital CGI route going forward. However things proceed, the emphasis will obviously be to minimize risk for everyone on a film and TV set in front of and behind the cameras.

Will Networks Turn to Cable/Streaming Partners?

Question: As the broadcast networks figure out how to fill their presumably emptier schedules this fall, might they consider replacing the lack of original content in September and October, and possibly November and December, with recent reruns of original series from their cable and streaming counterparts? CBS could tap into many of the programs from CBS All Access. ABC could pull shows from Freeform, such as grown-ish, Good Trouble and the Party of Five remake. NBC could borrow originals from SyFy, maybe marathon-style. They would give these shows extra exposure in front of the viewers who’ve tended to stick with broadcast channels or who haven’t had the time to check out the plethora of cable and streaming offerings out there. It might even draw new viewers to these shows, once they return for new seasons on their original cable home networks. – Edith

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Matt Roush: Variations on this question appear frequently, and depending on how long the production shutdown continues, and how that might affect the start of the fall season (especially if, as has been reported, regular production might not be able to get up to speed until August, if then), looking close to home for new-to-viewers product will be an obvious solution. I was intrigued by the recent announcement that AMC was picking up the anthology Creepshow, which originally aired on AMC Networks’ horror-themed streaming service Shudder, for a run on Mondays in May. Likewise, migrating cable or streaming shows to their corporate network partners is a viable option — the wonderful reinvention of Party of Five would be such a good fit on ABC. We’ll likely also see more from international sources (starting with Canada, the U.K., maybe Australia, for obvious language reasons) and perhaps some creative recycling of past favorites. Nothing’s off the table at this point, as far as I’m concerned.

A Chicago Exit, or Transfer?

Question: Can you please clarify the recent news involving Chicago Fire actress Annie Llonzeh? Is she actually leaving the entire One Chicago franchise, or is her character (Emily Foster) simply being transferred over to Chicago Med? — Alex

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Matt Roush: All that is confirmed for now, from the reporting I’ve seen on this subject, is that Annie’s character of paramedic Emily Foster is definitely leaving Chicago Fire to presumably head to med school. She hadn’t been accepted to Northwestern by the end of the last episode, which means her exit was hastened by the premature shutdown of the current season, so what comes next is more in limbo than usual because the producers of all of these shows weren’t able to get to the natural end of the current storylines. Whether Emily’s new career path means she’ll show up on Med, the way original Fire cast member Jeff Hephner’s Jeff Clarke character did when he went a similar route, apparently remains to be seen.

And Finally

Question: I’m happy to hear that the producers of one of my favorite shows, God Friended Me, were given enough of a head’s-up to be able to try to do a series wrap-up episode for April 26, but I’m still shocked that they pulled the plug on a very well-written and acted series with a strong point of view and some solid and heartwarming stories. Finally, is this CBS’s way of saying that there is no God? – Michael

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Matt Roush: I can hear the voice of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady behind your facetious final question. (“Was it canceled by SATAN?!?!”) While fans have every right to lament the sudden exit of this show, CBS should get some credit for airing such an outlier in the first place, no?

That’s all for now. 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. Please include a first name with your question. Everyone stay safe and healthy!