It's awfully early for the summer TCA press tour — which began over the weekend, and continues through next week — to have peaked. It's even more rare for an entity like PBS to steal the bigger, richer, more hype-heavy broadcast networks' thunder.
But it's hard to imagine any single event, or show, generating a more enthusiastic, jubilant vibe during the annual gathering of the Television Critics Association than the opening night party in honor of Downton Abbey, perfectly timed to celebrate the period drama's astounding 16 Emmy nominations. (More than one PBS executive button-holed me to speculate on the show's chances of snagging the Best Drama prize away from Mad Men — and the more I think about it, the better I think its odds are, although I'm torn between these shows and Showtime's Homeland.)
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The Downton night included a tantalizing teaser trailer with scenes from Season 3, plus an appearance by new co-star Shirley MacLaine (as Elizabeth McGovern's American mother, sparring with the equally legendary Maggie Smith) regaling the packed Beverly Hilton ballroom with hilarious and salty anecdotes, capped by nominee Hugh Bonneville bringing the house down by tearing open his shirt to reveal a "Free Bates" T-shirt (in honor of fellow nominee Brendan Coyle, who plays the ill-fated and currently jailed valet). Try topping that, everyone.
The PBS weekend also touted such promising new programs as the compelling six-part Call the Midwife (Sept. 30), a '50s drama about young women delivering babies in less than ideal conditions, which became a monster hit in England; Ken Burns' latest opus The Dust Bowl (Nov. 18-19), a grim but gripping oral history of the Depression-era ecological disaster; a new American Masters profile of the reclusive mogul David Geffen (Nov. 20); and for a much younger audience, the charming preschool-aimed animated series Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (Sept. 3), inspired by Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and introduced by a panel including Fred Rogers' plain-spoken widow Joanne, rekindling our affection for that unassuming classic.
All in all, a class act, the entire presentation buoyed by PBS' impressive 58 nominations (including 13 for the terrific Sherlock), second only to CBS among non-cable networks.
From these rarefied heights, the transition was almost whiplash-inducing as Monday shifted gears to Fox's TCA day — dominated by reality-competition news, most notably the this-just-in signing of Mariah Carey to American Idol, staged as a stunt with entertainment president Kevin Reilly placing a call to the gushing superstar in front of the gathered press. The day's sessions opened with a rousing performance from So You Think You Can Dance contestants, and later in the day The X Factor judges were piped in via satellite to spar and jokingly bicker, while the buzz throughout the room focused on how the giant screen was doing Britney Spears no favors.
The emphasis on reality may have something to do with the fact that Fox's new fall lineup of scripted shows is less than robust. Only three new series — and one of them is the hokey melodrama The Mob Doctor, the sole new drama on the network's slate. (A much better and more riveting thriller, The Following, will premiere in early 2013 for a 15-episode limited run on Mondays, starring Kevin Bacon as a damaged FBI agent on the graphic trail of a diabolical serial killer, played by James Purefoy. The consensus is that this harrowing series has "cable" written all over it, but also represents the sort of edgy risks Fox has taken in the past, with brand-defining shows including 24 and The X-Files. Fingers crossed on that one. For The Mob Doctor: Not so much.)
When Reilly was pressed to respond to the fact that not a single Big 4 broadcast drama made the best-series Emmy cut, he countered that none of this year's nominees would likely be able to survive in the world of broadcast and its business model. "I don't like having no shows there, and I can tell you as far as Fox, I think next year we will have some." Which may be wishful thinking, as he pointed to the underwhelming Touch (being revamped into more of an action thriller in its second season) and one other, which must be The Following (which may be too rough for many Emmy voters) because The Mob Doctor, though described by its producer as "ER meets The Sopranos," doesn't stand a chance.
Fox's main priority this fall is to firm up a block of four half-hour comedies on Tuesday. Paired with Raising Hope in the first hour is the slight but cute Ben and Kate, also about the upbringing of a child (8-year-old charmer Maggie Elizabeth Jones), this time by an uptight single mom (Dakota Johnson) and her lovable lunk of a man-child brother (Nat Faxon) — a character based on series creator Dana Fox's own brother, also named Ben. (Dana's stories about "the real Ben Fox" were at least as funny as anything in the pilot.) Joining last season's breakout New Girl in the second hour is The Mindy Project, written by and starring The Office's irreverent Mindy Kaling as a hopeless romantic whose career as an OB-GYN is going better than her personal and love life. Developed for NBC, which passed on it, Mindy's pilot episode is a bit disjointed and scattershot, but Kaling is an unconventional sitcom heroine, undercutting her rom-com wistfulness with irrepressible snark.
Neither new comedy inspired the sort of fawning that greeted New Girl and its star Zooey Deschanel last summer — Kaling described Deschanel as "charm on a plate" and said she's thrilled to be following her on Tuesdays — but there are far worse sitcoms this season, and these could grow on you.
The fawning this time around was reserved for Fringe, presenting its last-ever TCA panel, with Joshua Jackson and Anna Torv joined by co-star Lance Reddick, much more emotional than the stoic Broyles as he contemplated the show's end. They've just begun filming the final 13 episodes, dealing with the future war against the Observers, and Jackson said it's a "really rare gift" to be able to end the show on its own terms: "It's not bittersweet for me, to tell you the God's honest, because all shows end. I would rather have the ability to end well rather than just get to the end of the season and have that be that. I'm really looking forward to the process of putting this to bed, together, knowing that it's going to be the end so we can actually enjoy that ride off into the sunset."
It will be bittersweet for fans, to be sure, but Reilly hopes that giving Fringe closure will help repair the "checkered history" the network has with genre fans: "I think, at least hopefully, we've got a little bit of cred for seeing one through that deserved it." (Grudges run deep, so I wouldn't count on it.) Reilly also made the fair point that at least Fox is one of the few networks that keeps going back to the sci-fi/fantasy arena, even when the shows (like last season's Terra Nova and Alcatraz) don't work out.
Besides, if The Following breaks out at midseason the way it deserves to, it could help restore Fox's reputation as a place for cutting-edge (in this case literally) drama.
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