What to make of Joss Whedon's ABC show, why Millenials matter (or don't) and laughing at bigoted white guys
The best advice we heard at the Television Critics Association summer tour came from Charlie Rose: "The wind-up is not as necessary as you might think. It is, in the end, the pitch that makes the difference."
Let's assume that applies to introductions, too, and keep this one short: Wednesday ended two weeks of networks rolling out new shows to television critics and reporters at the Beverly Hilton hotel, bribing us with T-shirts, booze and food. In return, we asked uncomfortable questions as we tried to understand the shows a little better.
Here's what we learned:
1. 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' Ain't Bad: "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is the fourth-place network's biggest swing for the fall – and its only big departure from a lineup of one-word dramas and family-oriented sitcoms. The network played it for reporters Sunday, after showing it previously at Comic-Con, and it delivers. It doesn't have the CGI budget of "The Avengers," but it does have something more important: the Joss Whedon blockbuster's sense of humor.
2. 'Dads' Isn't Racist, OK?: The lone contentious panel was one for Seth MacFarlane's "Dads," which features two older white guys who embarrass their sons with their politically uncool observations. Stars like Seth Green and Vanessa Lachey made the case that the butt of the racial jokes were the white guys making them. Reporters were skeptical, accusing the show of laziness or hackwork. But it's notable that a show accused of racism is one of the few with three women of color in the cast.
3. Critics Are Flawed Heroes: Fox chief Kevin Reilly urged critics to give shows time to grow, noting initial reviews that ripped "The Big Bang Theory." But at the TCA Awards, Louis C.K. and "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan noted that critics also help shows find audiences. "They can also sneak into the nursery and kill the baby," quipped "Big Bang co-creator Chuck Lorre. Everybody's right.
4. Millennials Will Save the World: In a panel for Pivot, a new network targeting 18-to-34-year-olds, Meghan McCain explained her mission: "We've been given a climate right now that is really fucked up and awful. So Millennials have to change it, and I believe in that, and that's why I'm sitting on this stage." Joseph Gordon-Levitt made the case for Pivot without being such a martyr: "20th century media was very much a monologue and there was a small clique of an industry that would broadcast what it made and everyone else just had to sit and listen." Now viewers can participate in a dialogue – perhaps by submitting their work to his Pivot show, "HitRECord on TV!"
5. Wait, No: Millenials Don't Matter: The most fascinating panel of TCA didn't feature winsome starlets or dashing Brits faking American accents: It came courtesy of CBS Corporation's chief research officer, David Poltrack. The 40-year CBS veteran coolly made the case for why TV's key demo – viewers 18-49 – doesn't matter as much as it once did. The demo is shrinking, and is becoming weighted more toward young adults who are more likely to live at home. Poltrack dryly delivered an understated punchline: "This makes them of limited interest to a substantial number of advertisers."
6. Don't Believe the 'Sharknado' Hype: Poltrack also pointed out the limits of Twitter, noting that a meme doesn't equal a hit. He noted that while "Sharknado" swamped CBS's "Under the Dome" in social media mentions, "Under the Dome" destroyed it in viewership. And he dropped a statistic that may sound shocking to those of us who spend our days staring at screens: 80 percent of word-of-mouth endorsements take place face to face.
7. But Networks Are Still Harnessing Twitter: But Twitter still helps promote tune-in. And generate hype. Networks have complained for years about reporters tweeting snarky things during their panels. But with the "S.H.I.E.L.D." panel, ABC tried to turn the tweets to its advantage. Star Clark Gregg invited reporters to retweet a message from him, saying it would eventually lead to the release of a "S.H.I.E.L.D." poster. Sure, some reporters resented being treated like T.O.O.L.S. But Gregg got a lot of retweets.
8. Limited-Run Series Are the New Series: Sure, much-hyped series like CBS' "Under the Dome" and Fox's upcoming "24: Live Another Day" have ushered in a new era of big-event, limited run TV series. Except … some of those series aren't such big events. Sure, CBS's "Hostages" is kind of a big deal, given the wattage of stars Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott. But networks have also ascribed the "limited series" tag to shows like ABC's "Betrayal" and "Resurrection," which stand out only because of their episode orders are smaller than those of regular series. We get what's going on here, and it's smart: Networks hope to under-promise and over-deliver. If a limited series does well, of course a network will order more, as CBS has with "Under the Dome." If a show gets poor ratings, the network can just let it die without a big messy cancellation.
9. Everyone Loves Walter White: All that talk for the last few years about how you're really missing out if you're not watching "Breaking Bad"? That was when critics were holding back. With the show entering its final eight episodes just as TCA ends, critics showed "Breaking Bad" the love. It won Program of the Year at the TCA Awards and among the reporters I talked to, the reaction to the first of the new episodes was near euphoric.
10. Norman Lear's Still Got It: The creator of "All in the Family" brought down the house as he and Rob Reiner accepted the TCA's Heritage Award. The pair read from real White House transcripts of President Nixon complaining to his underlings about their show "glorifying homosexuality." Said Reiner-as-Nixon: "The point that I make is that goddammit, I do not think that you glorify on public television homosexuality. … You know what happened to the Greeks!"