Welcome to the 2015 Matinee Culture fall pilot watch. As usual, this fall Ryan will be watching (almost) all of the scripted network TV pilots and bringing you some brief reviews, hopefully cutting down on the time you might otherwise waste checking out “Minority Report.” Shows will be rated on a scale of “Watch it,” “Try it,” “Skip it” or “Avoid it.” Let’s dive in!
This time, we’re looking at the new shows that have come out in the last week: “Grandfathered,” “The Grinder,” “Code Black” and “Dr. Ken.” All times are eastern. The final pilot post will come out in a few weeks to catch the straggler premieres. Don’t forget to check out parts one and two.
Tuesdays at 7, comedy, Fox
One-sentence summary: John Stamos’s aging playboy image is deflated when he finds out he has a long-lost son (Josh Peck) – and a granddaughter to boot.
“Grandfathered’s” first episode isn’t an amazing one, but for a comedy pilot, it’s solid enough, and “solid enough” has been a rare find in this network pilot season so far. The episode’s success largely depends on audiences appreciating Stamos’s roguish charm shtick, so your mileage may vary if you find him tiresome. In its own way, “Grandfathered” is a throwback to the kind of broad, low-stakes sitcom on which Stamos made his name, and once the tone is established, most of the limited cast comports itself along those lines well.
There are signs of “Grandfathered” becoming more than its well-tread premise. Stamos is willing and able to perform, but his antics could quickly get old if unchecked; fortunately, Peck and Stamos’s former flame Paget Brewster inject some off-kilter life into the proceedings. Brewster, fresh off a stellar turn as new regular Frankie Dart on Season Six of “Community,” was my main reason to anticipate “Grandfathered” before it aired, and though she doesn’t get a ton of screen time in the pilot, she fills her minutes with a whip-smart delivery and some of the episode’s biggest laugh lines. She also elevates Stamos’s game; the best moment in the pilot is a heated exchange between the two about who gave whom a dental disease.
Perhaps my optimism for “Grandfathered” is a consequence of a dire fall, and I won’t stick with this if continues simply at the same level of comedy as the pilot. However, a really good comedy pilot is a rare thing indeed, and a fully-formed one is rarer still. This one has enough good ideas to earn a repeat viewing or two.
Ryan’s recommendation: Try it.
Tuesdays at 7:30, comedy, Fox
One-sentence summary: Continuing Fox’s “mid-life crisis Tuesday” block, Rob Lowe and Fred Savage star as an actor, aimless after leaving his legal drama, and his brother, a real lawyer frustrated by his sibling’s intrusion into his practice.
There are dead spots in “The Grinder’s” pilot, but all signs point to this being the best new network comedy of the fall. Even though some of the jokes don’t land, there is clearly style and care being put into this, and one can imagine a far more confident version of “The Grinder” by midseason. Look no further than the clips of Lowe’s old show within a show (also called “The Grinder”) which effectively skewer real legal dramas with each melodramatic second the family watches them on TV. This is one of the few shows I’ve seen in a long time that regularly crafts jokes via music choice (listen for the harried strings of a stock drama every time Lowe is faced with an important decision), and that detail alone signals that someone is working hard to make this good.
Longtime TV vet Lowe, essentially playing a delusional Sam Seaborn or a slightly more grounded Chris Traeger – there’s even a “literally” thrown in at the end of the pilot for “Parks and Rec” fans – is clearly having fun in the role, though it seems at times like he’s still searching for what level of out-of-touch to play the character. I hope that level is somewhere that can replicate the success of the episode’s best moment, when Lowe demands that a high school jock make his nephew look good by including him in social media photos that must be labeled “#teenlife.” On “Parks and Rec,” Lowe could sell an otherwise inscrutable joke with unshakeable conviction, and “The Grinder” suggests that the talent is still intact.
Fred Savage is also effective as he humorously struggles with being upstaged by his brother, though his neuroses of stage fright and an inferiority complex may come off a little too strong. The rest of the family is still a question mark – save for William Devane as the men’s father, stupidly but amusingly agreeing with every bad idea Lowe dreams up – but the brothers’ antics were enough to carry the day in the first episode. I’m excited to see where this one goes.
Ryan’s recommendation: Watch it.
Wednesdays at 10, drama, CBS
One-sentence summary: Several medical residents and a no-nonsense doctor (Marcia Gay Harden of the dearly departed “Trophy Wife”) work an L.A. hospital emergency room so busy that it frequently enters “code black,” a state in which the patients and work load outpace the resources of staff.
Aside from the obvious question – “If staff are so frequently overwhelmed, why don’t you hire more people?” – the pilot to “Code Black” is a perfectly serviceable medical drama. Unlike many of its modern peers, it focuses almost exclusively on the doctors working on patients, rather than personal life drama and sexy liaisons. I found that aspect of “Code Black” refreshing, and I suspect people who watch medical dramas for the, you know, medical drama will likely feel the same.
Beyond the pilot’s rock-steady commitment to its premise, there isn’t a lot else to say about “Code Black.” You either like this kind of show or you don’t, and while it’s not my thing, it’s a workmanlike, professional version of the genre. Harden plays a stern version of the “I care about results, not manners” doctor cliché that’s gained a lot of pop culture cachet in the last few years, but she does so in a way that’s toned down enough to be believable. Luis Guzman has a key role as an experienced nurse guiding the residents through their new environment, and his confident calmness makes for good drama even as he doles out exposition. In short, all of this is a pretty good version of what it is.
Ryan’s recommendation: Watch it if you like medical dramas; skip it otherwise.
Fridays at 8:30, comedy, ABC
One-sentence summary: Ken Jeong used to be a doctor in real life, which is apparently an interesting enough fact on which to base a workplace/family sitcom.
“Dr. Ken” has taken a critical raking after its premiere on Friday, and while the criticisms leveled at it are fair, I’ll be honest: I didn’t hate this. I didn’t really like it, either, but if for some reason you had a multi-cam, laugh tracked, “clueless dad learns lessons at work and at home” itch that “Last Man Standing” wasn’t scratching, you could probably do worse than Dr. Ken – which at least features Ken Jeong, Dave Foley and Albert Tsai (another “Trophy Wife” alum) among its cast.
That said, if broad, third or fourth generation descendants of 90s staples like “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “Home Improvement” aren’t for you – in other words, if you liked Jeong on “Community” or even the “Hangover” movies – this is probably not going to be your thing. Jeong does his best to enliven a dull script, but the facial expressions and wild gesticulation that served him so well as Señor Chang only work if the underlying material is funny enough to justify it. There are some good moments and even scenes – Foley’s first turn as an insensitive hospital administrator desperate to fire Jeong is amusing – but it doesn’t make for an engaging whole. I wasn’t upset to watch it, but I also wasn’t particularly keen to watch more of it after was over.
In addition to suffering from overall hackishness and an underwhelming premise – it really is just Jeong cracking jokes at a hospital and in his home – “Dr. Ken” suffers from one other malady that will be hard to heal. When successful, Jeong’s comedy comes from his ability, maybe even his propensity, to be abnormal and unsettling. On “Community,” Señor Chang worked best when Jeong and the writing staff found something very specific and strange for the character to throw himself into. “Dr. Ken” wants nothing more from Jeong than wisecracks and group hugs, and that strategy doesn’t play to his strengths.
Ryan’s recommendation: Skip it.
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