Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fall TV

I love the fall TV season. The buzz and anticipation surrounding new shows; the looking forward to returning favorites; the obsessive comparing of personal and critical reactions to the major pilots – it’s all very intense, very geeky, and a lot of fun.

The disappointments are as much a part of it as the good stuff. There’s the inevitable batch of cringeworthy sitcoms, few of which are likely to see in the new year; the critically acclaimed but entirely unwatched show that gets canceled after two episodes (farewell, Lone Star; we hardly knew ye); the new show from Arrested Development alumni, which never had a chance of living up to the weight of expectations; the turgid sci-fi drama you wanted to like, but just couldn’t.

This is a period of ups and downs, of surprise delights and unforeseen let-downs, a time when all the new shows are in fierce contest for a voice and an audience. In a few weeks, we’ll know for certain which nonessential shows we should drop from our overcrowded viewing schedule, which sleeper hits turn out to be unexpectedly enchanting, and which worlds cancelation or quality decline will make us regret falling in love with; a year from now, many of the titles we discuss will provoke nary a flicker of recognition. But for now, we’ll have our fun.

Fall 2010 is not looking like an especially memorable season so far. Compared with last year – which brought us a unique dramedy in the ubiquitous Glee, an old-fashioned sitcom with a contemporary twist in Modern Family, and the absolutely terrific Community – the new crop of shows looks pretty unexciting. Apart from Boardwalk Empire and the late lamented Lone Star, nothing has really gotten the critical saliva gushing, and the majority of the new shows can be described as nothing more flattering than “watchable”.

In terms of diversity on television, however, a couple of potentially quite exciting things are happening. While Glee, Modern Family, and Community were and remain self-conscious about the diversity of their respective ensemble casts, they still have a tendency to foreground the straight white people and give their minority characters short shrift: Glee’s main character is straight white Rachel, Community’s is straight white Jeff, and Modern Family is just now starting to address the problems in its portrayal of its gay couple.

Now, Undercovers gives us a main couple of characters who are both non-white and happily married. Mike & Molly is a surprisingly funny sitcom about two overweight people, who are (for the most part) portrayed as sympathetic and complex human beings, not just walking slapstick factories. It’s not that much to go on, but it gives me hope because both these shows are offering something that the rest simply aren’t. An action-adventure series whose leads happen to be African-American? A show – ANY show – whose main characters are plus-sized? In a country where ethnic minorities constitute over a third of the population, obese people are almost as many, and the demographics in TV shows are obscenely skewed toward thin white people, every step in the right direction is something to be celebrated.

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