Could prime-time TV be mirroring the U.S. economy? As the fall season drifts into its critical November ratings sweeps, we have been exposed to wild fluctuations — especially in terms of quality programs — as well as sudden layoffs and unexpected declines by proven winners. With few exceptions, taking stock of the current TV market has been a disappointing investment ... of time.
The new FOX sitcom Do Not Disturb, starring the well-traveled Jerry O'Connell and the insufferable but inexplicably recurring Niecy Nash, was the season's first cancellation after only three episodes. Apparently viewers took the show's title to heart. ABC's prize-patrol game show Opportunity Knocks suffered an equally quick hook, proving executive producer Ashton Kutcher actually can fail at something. The vapid CW dramas Valentine and Easy Money already have ceased production; their return, like the auto industry's, is questionable.
It's too easy to go for the puns with Pushing Daisies and Crash, but the former can't seem to find an audience on ABC despite a great cast and critical acclaim, and the latter, the new drama on Starz featuring Dennis Hopper and based on the Oscar-winning 2004 film, is, simply, a bad idea. Prison Break has become a parody of itself, America's Next Top Model has withered from fierce to foolish, and Heroes is ... well, looking less and less heroic.
On the plus side, CBS's new Monday entry Worst Week, with delightfully schlubby Kyle Bornheimer as the last person you'd want to stand next to in a lightning storm, has returned TV slapstick to a high level. And the great gods of tube did give us Fringe. Hallelujah.
FOX's great fright hope for 2008, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesdays (Channel 2 in Detroit), is unquestionably the best new series of the season. It'd be a standout performer any year, but in this fall of the dramatic downturn it shines beacon-like, drawing viewers to its complex yet charismatic glow. Fringe is the second coming of The X-Files — creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky — and every TV-head can use at least one series that sets both hearts and brains a-pumpin'.
From the overactive imagination of Lost creator J. J. Abrams (and who wants to bump around in his head for a day?), Fringe follows Boston-based FBI agent Olivia Dunham (newcomer Anna Torv) on a grisly, baffling serial murder investigation that causes the death of her partner (we think) and leads her to seek out our generation's Einstein, Dr. Walter Bishop (Aussie John Noble) for assistance. Bishop is truly a mad scientist, locked in the booby hatch for 20 years, and the only way to unlock his knowledge is to enlist his estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), as his handler.
I love the testy interplay between father and son, and how Fringe gets your attention. When Walter pulled the eye out of a stripper on a recent episode to see the last thing she viewed before her death, I was hooked. Aided by strong supporting actors like Blair Brown and Kirk Acevedo, nothing about Fringe looks or sounds like anything that has gone before it. And these days, that's something to be bullish about.
You do the math
In this day of massive mergers, job jeopardy, losing Lions and incarcerated Kwame, Detroit can use a ray of good news anywhere it can be found. Sue Marx, our own Academy Award-winning filmmaker, understands. That's why when she decided to produce It All Adds Up, a 30-minute documentary on the Math Corps program at Wayne State University, airing at 10:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 17, on WTVS (Channel 56), she didn't mind going the extra mile — or additional decimal point, if you will.
"I was at a WSU event in early 2006 and heard someone at our table talking about the Math Corps, and it sounded incredible," Marx says of the program, a six-week summer mentoring session for Detroit Public School students from fifth through 12th grades. "I asked around and no one I knew had ever heard of it. So we did some more exploring, met some of the Math Corps folks and thought it would make a good documentary, a positive Detroit story."
However, Marx didn't go to giant foundations or the university to bankroll the project. "Instead I raised money from people who had small or private foundations, an arduous task," she says. "But we pieced together enough to do a film. When you see the credits roll, you'll see about 20 friends helped make this happen."
A little slice of inspiration, It All Adds Up follows the Math Corps youngsters over two summers, in 2006 and 2007. "[Math Corps coordinator] Steve Kahn and [WSU mathematics lecturer] Leonard Boehm are two remarkable people," Marx marvels. "I would love to go back in about three or four years and film some of the kids who were in this film to see how their lives have changed."Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]