Fall 2013 Network TV Preview: CBS pilots a mixed, mostly underwhelming bunch

CBS has had a comfortable lead in the network ratings for several years now, but with many of their most popular comedies continuing to age (The Big Bang Theory is starting season 7, HIMYM is wrapping up its run this year with season 9, and Two and a Half Men is going into season 11), it’s no surprise that the network is looking for a new batch of sitcoms to eventually replace these increasingly expensive series. They’re also getting into the short-run series game, with two new limited run (13 episode) shows that will share a timeslot over the year. Here’s a look at what to expect this fall from CBS.

Mom, promo pic, pilot

Mom, “Pilot”
Written and created by Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker
Directed by Pamela Fryman
Airs Mondays at 9:30pm EST on CBS

Premiering on Monday, Sept. 23rd, Mom is a sitcom starring Anna Faris as a struggling single mother of two children who has a complicated relationship with her own neglectful single mother, played by Allison Janney. The series attempts to wring humor out of their terrible parenting skills, but while both actresses are talented and incredibly likeable (and it’s about time either one of them got a sitcom deal), the characters they play oscillate from painfully broad and over the top to bizarrely subdued. Faris’ Christy is a waitress combating self-esteem issues and working hard to stay sober and Janney’s Bonnie has a history of drug abuse as well, making them potentially interesting and challenging centers for a CBS comedy. However, the series’ treatment of their struggles is inconsistent to say the very least- it’s happy to minimize them for a laugh one moment only to ask the audience to invest deeply for the sake of a dramatic beat a few minutes later and this tonal whiplash is distracting, ultimately sinking a potentially promising show.

Lorre and company want the relationships in Mom to be broadly relatable, but if that’s the goal, centering a series on the damaged (read: nearly non-existent) relationship of mother and daughter addicts is a very strange choice. There is an interesting show to be had here, but it will require a tonal overhaul and a focus on specificity that, based on this pilot, the show seems unlikely to prioritize. There are other problems besides the writing for Faris and Janney, most of them falling into the Only on a Sitcom category, but the other main problem is the substantial gap between what we see the characters do and how the PtB want us to react to them. Based on visual and aural cues, we’re supposed to like Christy, but she does very little to show herself to be an interesting individual or even a caring parent. The same is true of most of the main cast. The dichotomy between how the show wants us to view these characters and what evidence they give to support that is striking, and shows just how reliant the pilot is on the inherent likability of not just Faris and Janney, but their supporting players as well (Nate Corddry, Matt Jones, French Stewart). Moms may certainly find an audience at CBS and it may come together over the course of the season and become an entertaining show, but with this pilot as its starting point, it has its work cut out for it.

We Are Men, promo pic, pilot

We Are Men, “Pilot”
Written by Rob Greenberg and Tony Dodds
Created and Directed by Rob Greenberg
Airs Mondays at 8:30pm EST on CBS

This is by all accounts a weak year for pilots, with each network managing only one potentially promising comedy pilot, and on CBS, that promising pilot is not We Are Men. Premiering on Sept. 30th, a week after Mom, this is one of the most forgettable, boring pilots of the fall season. It’s filled with cliché and tired bro humor and is likely to disappear off the schedule quickly. It has a likeable cast, with Tony Shaloub, Kal Penn, and Jerry O’Connell as a group of single men living in a short-term housing apartment building, but the dialogue they’re given to say manages to all but negate their charisma. They have Lady Problems (TM Big Red Podcast), and so does this show. There’s nothing here viewers haven’t seen before and one can only hope the more interesting cast members will find better projects soon.

The Crazy Ones promo pic, pilot

The Crazy Ones, “Pilot”
Written and Created by David E. Kelley
Directed by Jason Winer
Airs Thursdays at 9pm EST on CBS

As CBS’s one promising comedy pilot, The Crazy Ones (premiering on Sept. 26th) manages to do several things right. It has a strong cast, led by Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar, with James Wolk, Amanda Setton, and Hamish Linklater in supporting roles, a relatable premise, and the pilot actually has a few solid laughs. The series centers on the father-daughter relationship of Williams and Gellar, who run Williams’ ad firm together, but the business is struggling and in the pilot, they’re in danger of losing their biggest client. Economic or business struggles are something a lot of Americans can relate to, and the desperation from both leads feels authentic. There are quiet moments that allow Williams and Gellar to relate on a more personal level that work nicely, but unfortunately, these are few and far between, with Williams playing up his schtick and Gellar relegated to the humorless wet blanket role. Hopefully, moving forward, creator David E. Kelley will tone down the Williams bits (there’s nothing new there- we’ve heard these voices before) and allow Gellar more room to show of the comedy chops she honed on Buffy (“That’ll put marzipan in your pie plate, bingo!”).

Elsewhere in the pilot, James Wolk hams it up with Williams, complimenting his style and more than keeping up, and establishes a great rapport with guest star Kelly Clarkson playing herself, who acquits herself well and, if Kelley and co. can make it happen, will most likely pop up again in the future. Setton and Linklater get very little to do in the pilot, but both have done strong comedic work elsewhere and should complement the whole nicely once they’re given more to work with. As long as Kelley and the writers and directors can keep Williams from overtaking the series, The Crazy Ones has potential to grow into an interesting, funny series and is certainly the best bet this fall for CBS comedies.

The Millers, promo pic, pilot

The Millers, “Pilot”
Written and Created by Greg Garcia
Directed by James Burrows
Airs Thursdays at 8:30pm EST on CBS

Airing directly before The Crazy Ones, but premiering a week afterwards (on Oct. 3rd) is The Millers. Starring Will Arnett and Jayma Mays as the ever-suffering children of Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale, The Millers is another of the fall 2013 series dealing with adult children and their parents cohabitating, with varying levels of strife. When Martindale and Bridges find out Arnett’s divorced, they throw their hands up and decide to stop pretending they’re happy- one moves in with the son, the other with the daughter, and hijinks ensue. Unfortunately, these hijinks involve flooding the basement and sleep walking/farting during a party. One would think Arnett would care about his mother, who had been very emotional earlier, sleep-walking through his apartment and potentially injuring herself, but he’s too busy trying to get laid to pay attention. Comedy. This is a hugely talented cast (both Martindale and Bridges are also on the best new show of the fall, Showtime’s Masters of Sex), but this show is uninterested in anything approaching likeable, interesting characters, let alone characters who may actually like each other, regardless of our thoughts on the issue. It’s also one of the mostly sitcom-y looking of the new bunch, with harshly bright lights and very stagey sets. Greg Garcia has given us interesting, funny projects in the past (and still is, with Raising Hope), but unfortunately, The Millers is more Yes, Dear than My Name is Earl. The best that can be hoped for is that the show is cancelled quickly so everyone involved can go back to working on their other, better series (and the hilarious J.B. Smoove can finally get a job worthy of his talents).

Hostages promo pic, pilot

Hostages, “Pilot”
Created by Alon Aranya, Omri Givon, and Rotem Shamir
Written, Directed, and Developed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Airs Mondays at 10pm EST on CBS

Based on an Israeli series, this American adaptation, premiering Sept. 23rd, stars Toni Collette as a surgeon whose family is kidnapped after she’s tasked with performing surgery on the President of the United States. Dylan McDermott, the leader of the hostage takers, will only release her family if she allows the president to die on the table, pitting Collette’s professional ethics against McDermott’s resolve and Collette’s love for her family. Each of the family members (except Collette, it would seem) have secrets, from her husband, played by Tate Donovan, to her two children, Quinn Shephard and Mateus Ward. While this pilot has some strong action and suspense beats, it falls apart due to the heavy handedness of the plot. There’s also a wide-ranging conspiracy behind this attack on the president, but it’s not particularly engaging. The biggest problem overall, though, is that this does not feel like a story that can sustain a full (shortened) season of television. Either she does or does not kill the president, and when she does that either her family are or are not killed. If the wrong permutations of this occur, the suspense immediately falls apart, leaving us with nothing but uninteresting and familiar family secrets. Collette is a strong enough screen presence that viewers may likely overlook these concerns for a while, but in the long run, the best cast in the world can’t save bad writing or, in this case, plotting.

Kate Kulzick

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