Tuned In

Why I Know Which Fall Shows Stink, and Why I'm Not Telling You

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been getting DVD mailers of the broadcast networks’ new fall-series pilots. When ABC arrives, this week, I’ll have the full set of fall previews. Movie critics have the film-festival circuit. (Cannes! Venice! Toronto!) TV critics have the delivery guy. (DHL! UPS! FedEx!)

You’d think that this would provide a good opportunity to get my reviewing done ahead of time: I could thumbs-up, thumbs-down the whole fall season for you by the end of next week and spend my fall leaf-peeping. Unfortunately, the pilots I get in May and June are specifically "not for review," in part because they may be retooled, recast and reshot before the fall. (Some lucky shows may even get yanked from the schedule altogether, as Fox usually does once a year.) The fact is, most fall pilots usually either air pretty much as originally sent out, or with cosmetic changes and edits that make no real difference to the quality of the show.

But no network wants bad buzz to kill a show in the cradle, so if I actually tell you that a new show sucks, they’ll scream that I’m being horribly unfair: You have to wait! The show will be perfect after they recast the love interest’s best friend with some girl who used to have a recurring role on One Tree Hill! (Of course, if I said I loved the show after seeing the not-for-review pilot, I’m sure they would also protest, integrity being so important to TV networks.)

Regardless, the networks send the screeners as a courtesy, so it wouldn’t be fair to burn them. So TV critics in the summer are kind of like election reporters before the polls close. They know how the vote is likely to go, but they’re forced to spend all afternoon teasing and hinting. So I could tell you, say, that NBC and Fox have two kidnapping dramas (Kidnapped and Vanished), that one has an intriguing story and bland acting and the other fine acting and a boring story—raising the question of which matters more–but I couldn’t say which is which.

Or I could say that Twenty Good Years—with Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow playing an odd-couple pair of 60-something pals having wild adventures—is exactly as good as I thought it would be: I just can’t tell you whether I thought it was going to be comic genius or a big steaming pile of, um, network product. (Scroll to the bottom of the link for the definition.) But I’ll bet you have a guess, don’t you?

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