Critic's Notebook: Fox at TCA

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Kevin Reilly | Photo Credits: Frank Micelotta/Fox
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Kevin Reilly | Photo Credits: Frank Micelotta/Fox

When the Fox network burst on the scene back in 1986, it changed the broadcast map with its bold shows and brash style. But the TV landscape and the way we consume the increasing tide of product (on cable, online and On Demand) continues to evolve, so the network's entertainment president Kevin Reilly put on his Professor Television cap to kick off Fox's day at the summer TCA press tour on Thursday with a long soliloquy, or was it a filibuster, rattling off statistics to show that network TV is far from dead. Promising (not for the first time) to schedule and develop shows year round with fewer "fallow" periods of repeats, while changing up the way this new wave of "event" series is being programmed — most notably, launching the 12-hour 24 reboot next May, with the M. Night Shyamalan miniseries Wayward Pines to follow in July — Reilly declared, "The one-size-fits-all business is over."

We're cool with that, but in the short term, how do Fox's new fall shows size up? Some quick thoughts on a full day of panels:

"Fun" was the buzzword for the producers of Sleepy Hollow (Mondays at 9/8c) — including Fringe veterans Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci — in describing this wackadoo rethinking of the Ichabod Crane legend, which transforms the Washington Irving character into a Revolutionary War hero reborn, Rip Van Winkle-style, 250 years into the present, where he faces off against a resurrected Headless Horseman (one of the four harbingers of the Apocalypse) in a heady brew of beheadings, witches' spells and assorted other nonsense. (Fox got in the spirit by welcoming critics to breakfast with headless sentries at the door.) While it's a hoot watching Crane (the charismatic Tom Mison) acclimate to 21st-century customs, the more the show piles on the hysterically convoluted mythology, the more it threatens to become next season's Zero Hour.

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A scheduling note: Fox, as is its custom, announced a plan during the May upfronts that includes replacing Bones in late fall (post World Series in November) on Mondays with the futuristic crime drama Almost Human, with Bones moving to the dead zone of Fridays — a night Reilly insisted will not be programmed with "leftovers" anymore. (The current Friday lineup calls for Bones to air alongside Raising Hope and the new military comedy Enlisted, which feels as weirdly benign and anachronistic as a remake of Gomer Pyle, USMC.) If Sleepy doesn't awaken a Monday following, my bet is that Bones will stay put and Sleepy will make way for Human, thematically a much better Monday fit with Bones.

The Almost Human panel, led by another Fringe veteran (J.H. Wyman), made a strong and thoughtful case for this buddy-cop sci-fi/procedural hybrid starring Karl Urban (the new Star Trek movie franchise) as a human cop reluctantly paired with an empathetic android (the appealing Michael Ealy) to solve cases in a crime-ridden 2048. Refreshingly, Human is not adopting the usual dystopian future-shock approach to fantasy. "I believe in hope," said Wyman, "[and] that it's not too late for humanity, that humanity has to deal with some incredible technological advances that double and triple and quadruple the dangers that we face as a society and as a human race. ... We want to tell stories about where the human race still has a chance." Wyman's "hyper-mythology-driven" background on Fringe, paired with fellow executive producer Naren Shankar's years of experience on CSI, results in an intriguing and entertaining study of what it means to be human, in a show its producers likened to NYPD Blue as an episodic police drama with serialized characters — one of whom happens to be a robot.

In comedy, Fox is a contrast in extremes, with the well-received cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Tuesdays at 8:30/7:30c) citing as inspiration the classic Barney Miller, another character-driven "workplace comedy that happens to be set in a police precinct" (as exec producer Michael Schur put it), starring Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg as a "comedy McNulty" — The Wire reference alert! — playing a cut-up who nonetheless is established early on as a gifted detective. Andre Braugher, who won an Emmy playing a much more serious detective on Homicide: Life on the Street, leads the diverse ensemble as the squad's by-the-books new captain who's not as conventional as he looks. The comedy will be grounded in reality, not Police Squad!-style goofy parody.

Irreverent and smart, Brooklyn is perfectly positioned for Fox's Tuesday comedy line-up — whereas its lead-in, the smarmy and stale multi-camera sitcom Dads (from Seth McFarlane and co-writers on Ted and Family Guy), took knocks from the critics for a barrage of crude ethnic jokes that hits a nadir when an Asian-American co-worker dresses as a "Hello Kitty" schoolgirl to impress visiting businessmen. (The show's charm-free premise involves video-game business partners Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi beset by their annoying fathers, played by Martin Mull and Peter Riegert.) "We don't want the show to be the racial insult comedy show," insisted exec producer Mike Scully (a veteran of The Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond), describing Dads as "a comedy about fathers and sons ... where they're telling stories about their dads and the inappropriate things they do but also how that [behavior] kind of slips out through you." The producers said they're still working on the show's tone — while Green overreached by comparing Dads to provocative milestones like All in the Family and The Jeffersons — but the real problem is that humor that might work in cutting-edge animation can bomb and turn sour when clumsily put in the mouths of actual human beings.

Even with MacFarlane's clout at the network, Dads is such an unfunny dud that no one will be shocked if Raising Hope isn't returned to its rightful place on Tuesdays before long.

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