’24’ makes critics real-time happy

Jul 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

As the clock wound down on a strange, slightly delayed 2001-02 season, Fox’s antiterrorism-themed “24” drama retained its title as the best show on television in Electronic Media’s semiannual Critics Poll.
“24’s” victory in the Spring/Summer 2002 Critics Poll proved the first-year show had staying power with critics, who embraced it early in the season and named it the top show in the Fall/Winter 2001 Critics Poll. That victory by the Fox rookie broke a three-year stranglehold on the top spot by NBC’s “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which had flip-flopped as the No. 1 show through six polls.
“A triumph of sustained suspense and continuously riveting narrative, more cinematic than most movies and easily more satisfying,” said Matt Roush, a critic for TV Guide. “Ruthless from the start to finish. Killing Jack’s wife [played by Leslie Hope] on the final night was a stroke of dark genius. The performances weren’t showy, but Kiefer Sutherland, Leslie Hope and Sarah Clarke [as murderous turncoat CTU agent Nina Meyers] were all masterful.”
The critics gave the best comedy vote to another first-year series from Fox, “The Bernie Mac Show.” FX’s “The Shield” and MTV’s “The Osbournes” achieved another milestone, becoming the first basic-cable network series to crack the top 10 list in the 18-year history of the Critics Poll.
HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” which premiered in June 2001 but was unable to squeeze in for voter consideration in EM’s Spring/Summer 2001 poll, gained ground with critics as it climbed from a 12th-place ranking in the Fall/Winter 2001 Critics Poll to a close second in the new poll.
The warm reception for first-year potential breakout series concepts extended to two comedies, NBC’s “Scrubs” (10th) and HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (19th), and to ABC’s spy drama “Alias” (12th).
`24′ cleans critics’ clocks
The wins by “24” in both of this season’s polls stood as vindication for Fox, which was the subject of industrywide speculation over whether a serialized real-time drama could sustain viewer and critical interest. As the season wound along–with all the twists and turns in terrorism agent Jack Bauer’s (played by Mr. Sutherland) chase after Victor Drazen’s (Dennis Hopper) family of Balkan assassins–the 8 million or so viewers going along for the ride did not portend “24’s” being a mainstream hit in the ratings.
“Fox took a leap with this drama’s risky real-time format and was rewarded with solidly mediocre ratings,” said Dave Walker, TV critic for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper. “The show’s renewal for next season probably has more to do with unrelated scheduling issues–Fox is replacing half of its schedule, including `The X-Files’ and `Ally McBeal’–but one of the new season’s most anticipated revelations will be how the `24′ producers will restart Jack Bauer’s clock.”
The year-round vote of confidence from the critics–in co-creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran’s unorthodox concept of doing a real-time drama as it unfolded over a 24-hour period on the eve of the California presidential primary–apparently accomplished what Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman was looking for in trying to launch a “quality” drama that would attract upscale viewers typically associated with the more established Big 3 networks.
“What happened is that Joel and Bob kept up a level of excellence in the show, which made the category of just being an `interesting idea’ [into] something that was a `can’t-miss show’ for upscale viewers and the TV critics,” said Ms. Berman. “24” had the highest concentration of affluent viewers of any new series, according to Nielsen Media Research, indexing 19 percent higher than the average among homes with $75,000-plus incomes in the adults 18 to 49 demographic.
“It has been Sandy’s [Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group] [goal] to get quality shows in but not to lose the Fox voice and brand at the same time,” Ms. Berman said. “The fact that `24′ has the most upscale demos among any of the new shows is important validation of the path we’re going on, but it also really helps validate things by getting the critical recognition for it.”
Despite the stretching out of the Machiavellian subplots, validation for “24’s” season-long rollercoaster ride is indeed coming from lofty critical circles.
“Like one of those old Saturday morning serials, `24′ kept anyone tuned in coming back week after week,” said Jay Handelman of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune. “Surprising twists, occasionally melodramatic turns–and a couple of ridiculous subplots aside, this is the one series I didn’t want to miss. I can’t imagine how the creators can come up with something as compelling without making a mockery of the day we’ve just spent a season watching.”
That’s the challenge Mr. Cochran and Mr. Surnow are now hashing out with Fox and series producers 20th Century Fox Television and Imagine Television. While Mr. Cochran is emphatic that “24” will be coming back in its “signature” real-time 24-hour format, he was keeping mum on the new story line for next season–other than to confirm that Jack’s wife is fatally wounded and won’t be coming back to life next season.
“By all indications it seems like the critics and viewers really embraced our format, and we’re not about to change that,” Mr. Cochran said. “I don’t know if there is one thing we could do to increase other entry points for viewers not watching the show. But we think more people are getting used to the real-time structure of our storytelling. The only thing we might do, and this could be a problem, is to slow down the pacing a tad so the casual viewer checking us out for the first time can find it easier to enter the show at any point.”
At a time when it is hard to measure how the catastrophic terrorist attacks in New York and Washington affected Americans after Sept. 11, Mr. Cochran emphasized that producers are always mindful that “24’s” strength comes from its character-driven stories, which are often emphasized over the terrorism-related aspects of the show.
“People don’t want to see it in a cartoony way and will only be receptive if it is done seriously and realistically,” he said. “Our storytelling is grounded in the emotional lives of our characters, so the logistics and machinations of terrorism will be secondary to the lives our characters. The idea that terrorism is a threat on our soil is something we are dealing with in reality and it is impossible to avoid, so we’re trying to tell our stories [while being] mindful of the obligations that the government has in maintaining public safety. It is a subject we all have to deal with.”
Death becomes HBO
So is death, which might explain why critics and viewers are drawn to the darkly comic irony of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” Created by Alan Ball, the Academy Award-winning writer of “American Beauty,” “Six Feet Under,” a look at a family-owned funeral home, moved up 10 places from its first appearance in EM’s Fall/Winter 2001 Critics Poll.
As Fisher & Sons Funeral Home looks to bring grace and closure to each week’s deceased customer, it’s the internal conflicts that crop up among the dysfunctional Fisher family members that keep viewers and critics tuning in.
“Walking that fine line between adult drama and darkly humorous soap opera, `Six Feet Under’ isn’t always comfortable viewing,” said Terry Morrow of the Knoxville (Tenn.) News. “It’s direct and edgy, sophisticated yet simple. There’s a sadness to every character, but they all have redemptive qualities as well.”
Carolyn Strauss, HBO’s senior VP of original programming, was the person who first came to Mr. Ball and Greenblatt Janollari Studios with the idea to do a funeral home drama. She credits Mr. Ball, the show’s other writers and the actors as “being more comfortable in their roles and hitting their stride” as the show completes its second season.
“Alan has a very ironic sense about him, where he is able to illuminate the personal conflicts that emerge in people–especially after the t
ragic death of a relative or friend,” Ms. Strauss said. “He is able to take the big life, human moments and find the tragedy, the poignancy and the humor, then find the balance between those things to make it so affecting.”
Still, there are critics who feel the gallows humor and the twists and turns behind the characters’ reactions to each week’s featured cadaver are a tad too cynical and removed.
Voting “Six Feet” as the fifth-worst show, TV Guide’s Mr. Roush doubled back a bit: “Not because it’s really one of the worst shows on TV, but because it’s the most slavishly overrated and overpraised. The acting is often stupendous, but the words they must say are even more often stupefying. It’s pretentious, self-conscious and in the second season of 13 episodes downright dull more often than not. I do like the funeral home setting, and when used right, the show can be fascinating. But I honestly think there’s an HBO `Emperor’s New Clothes’ thing going on here; to me, the show’s a mediocre soap opera with a kinky death fetish.”
`West Wing’ down but not out
Critical support for NBC’s “The West Wing,” while still strong–it just dropped a notch from the previous poll to third place–belies a general feeling that the season-opening episode on terrorism and President Josiah Bartlet’s near-season-long struggle with multiple sclerosis was preachy and heavy-handed.
“It’s still my favorite hour of TV, and there is nothing on the air as intelligent, witty or well-intentioned,” said Rick Kushman of the Sacramento Bee. “It drops from No. 1 for me [to third place in his vote] because the MS story line seemed to stall the show for a while, though give the producers credit for recognizing that and bailing out.”
“Many fans would argue that NBC’s White House drama had an off year, starting with its preachy-teachy terrorism episode,” added Mr. Walker, who also ranked “West Wing” third. “Mark Harmon’s Secret Service character probably did not have to die in the season finale. But the rest of the season was filled, as usual, with terrific writing and ambitious storytelling. By a mile, it’s the best drama not on HBO.”
FX from behind `The Shield’
Critics felt the other best drama not on HBO is “The Shield,” the first series from a basic cable network to crack into the top 10 (as the fourth-best series overall in the poll). From the pilot premiere of “The Shield” last March, which set a then-record 4.1 Nielsen Media Research household rating for the network, viewers and critics seemed hooked on the good-cop/bad-cop melodrama led by a bald and buffed Michael Chiklis (previously star of ABC’s fair-minded “The Commish”).
“It may not be `The Sopranos’ [from HBO] but it comes close in its tone, more ambiguity and style,” said Charlie McCollum, TV critic for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. “And Michael Chiklis has created the season’s most mesmerizing character in [detective] Vic Mackey.”
“Michael Chiklis deserves an Emmy” for outstanding actor in a drama, added Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Nobody can touch him for best actor, no matter what happens.”
Shawn Ryan, the creator and executive producer of “The Shield,” said he was gratified by any comparisons to “The Sopranos” but acknowledged that when it comes to getting nominations or Emmy trophies, members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences tend to vote on what is “familiar”–a code word for perennial favorites that air on the Big 3 broadcast networks and premium cable networks.
“When I see Michael Chiklis and see what he did in `The Commish’ [and then see] his transformation here, he just grabbed the role of Vic Mackey by the throat with this transformation to a flawed character empowered to uphold the law but often crossing the line in doing so,” Mr. Ryan said. “I’m hoping he gets recognition, along with CCH Pounder and our director of photography, Ronn Schmidt, who makes the show look as good as anything produced on a [broadcast] network budget.”
More often than not, it is TV critics who recognize and embrace the underdogs–even if the Emmys and a handful of other award shows fail to reward new talent. Such may be the case with two cutting-edge shows, “Bernie Mac” and “The Osbournes,” rising to the elite top 10.
Bernie, the family Mac!
Moving up from No. 8 to No. 5 and taking the top comedy title, “Bernie Mac” proved to be the first African American-dominant show perhaps since NBC’s “The Cosby Show” to prove it had crossover appeal with nonblack viewers. The broad embrace of the family show came despite preseason concerns that Mr. Mac’s brand of tough love with kids (e.g., “I’m going to beat your head till the white meat shows”) would scare away some viewers and advertisers.
“When’s the last time a family show was cutting-edge funny, not cute Middle America? Answer: A [long] time,” Mr. Goodman said. “Plus, it crossed over, and that’s saying something. Bernie Mac is Bill Cosby for the 21st century.”
Let’s just say he’s Cosby but with a somewhat darker, twisted sense of humor. Times-Picayune’s Mr. Walker thinks it is Mr. Mac’s on-camera “confessional” segments that draw “more genuine laughter” from critics and viewers of the single-camera sitcom.
“I think it is the narrative that helps us the most,” said Larry Wilmore, creator and executive producer of the Regency Television and 20th Century Fox Television-produced show. “It is when Bernie sits in that chair and expresses what he feels. That’s when he draws us in his world. Understandably, single-camera shows are more difficult, but it lends itself to the kind of really funny narrative you’d find in [Fox’s] `Malcolm in the Middle,’ [NBC’s] `Scrubs’ and [ABC’s former] “The Wonder Years.”
Because Mr. Wilmore has infused “Bernie Mac” with a decided point of view, a number critics responding to the poll feel the show will stand up to ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” when the African American sitcoms go head to head in the 8 p.m.-to-8:30 p.m. (ET) Wednesday time period next fall.
“Bernie is a natural, as a performer and as a soul-weary father figure,” TV Guide’s Mr. Roush said. “The show is fresh and funny, sometimes painfully so. Compare it to a derivative comedy like Damon Wayans’ `Wife and Kids,’ and `Bernie Mac’s’ emotional honesty emerges as a clear winner. It’s the most seriously entertaining comedy on TV.”
Mr. Wilmore seems a bit amused but somewhat wary of the inevitable comparisons made in the media between “Bernie Mac” and “My Wife and Kids” as “those African American shows ready to do battle.”
“The styles of the shows are so different, and what makes `My Wife and Kids’ stand out is its broad comedy, not just because it’s another black comedy like `Bernie Mac’–they’re both unique ways of speaking to the audience,” Mr. Wilmore said. “You could say it is kind of racist because [NBC’s] `Ed’ is a minority in this time period, even if he is part of the majority,” he added with a laugh.
Ozzy to Cosby: Who cares?
Another unexpected hit came in the form of the MTV cinema-verite-style show about rocker Ozzy Osbourne’s off-kilter family life.
“Who knew the Artist Formerly Known As The Prince of Darkness was such a hoot at home?” asked one critic.
“At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the noise, the screaming, the profanity and the insanity,” Mr. Kushman said, adding, “Then I realized, who cares what you make of it, just laugh along with the strangest family to hit television in decades.”
“Ozzie and Harriet” it isn’t, that’s for sure. But in what is being coined in media circles as a reality/comedy, the unscripted family antics of “The Osbournes” have drawn ratings as high as 9 in key teen and adults 18 to 49 demographics, which at the far end of the age spectrum is bringing some new viewers to youth-skewing MTV.
Despite the critics’ embrace of the envelope-pushing nature of “The Osbournes,” family TV icon Bill Cosby recently was quoted in the press as saying that the show sets a bad precedent for family viewing and is recommending that parents who are sensitive ab
out its content block their children from watching the show.
Brian Graden, MTV’s president of programming, seemed unfazed by Mr. Cosby’s comments, instead noting that the critics’ validation of “The Osbournes”’ content offered an “endorsement” more closely in tune with the rest of America.
“[Cosby’s remarks] did not even make a blip on my day,” Mr. Graden said. “If this gets America to have a healthy dialogue about their family relationships instead of coming from the highest moral authority on families, then we’re happy that it has generated some national debate.”
Other picks and pans
For the best movie, miniseries and specials, HBO’s World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers” swept up honors in both of EM’s twice-annual polls, while CBS’s special “9/11” documentary and HBO’s telefilm “Gathering Storm” earned new entries.
Among the “worst” shows voted in the poll, the Big 3 networks were well-represented with new spring/summer entries –“The Bachelor” (ABC), “Baby Bob” (CBS), “Fear Factor” (NBC) and “Leap of Faith” (NBC). They joined previous top dogs such as “Bob Patterson” (ABC), “Emeril” (NBC), “Off Centre” (The WB) and “Inside Schwartz” (NBC).
In the bad-omen category, ABC’s “Dinotopia” took top honors as the worst long-form project of the spring/summer season; the network plans to debut a series adaptation next fall.
As for next season’s prospects, the critics voted CBS as having the greatest potential to build on its ratings position, due in large part to a trio of new 10 p.m. dramas (Jerry Bruckheimer’s “CSI: Miami” and “Vanished” and Michael Mann’s “RHD/LA”) joining its schedule. ABC came in second in that category, but critics most often said the Alphabet Network has “only one way to go” after two seasons of 20 percent-plus ratings declines.
Conversely, about nine critics suggested that ABC has not hit bottom. About a dozen critics pegged NBC as likely to have the biggest drop next season–due in large part to not having the Olympics next year and losing the rights to National Basketball Association telecasts next season.