Just when you thought it was safe to relax, for no further new TV shows were coming to humbly request your eyeballs, The CW decided to start premiering most of its shows this week.
The tiny network — home to some of TV’s best shows, like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — traditionally waits for October to debut its series, where they can premiere slightly outside of the biggest crush of fall TV season. But with the network expanding to Sunday nights for the first time this fall, it’s got more new series to flaunt than usual, to say nothing of all of its returning shows.
Thus, this week, we offer thoughts on The CW’s new high school drama All American, as well as its reboot of the venerable witch show Charmed. Finally, we have thoughts on HBO’s new series from Girls producers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, Camping, which also marks Jennifer Garner’s return to TV.
Few of these shows are great, and as critics, we often have limited information on whether they’ll get better. (It’s rare to impossible for broadcast networks, especially, to send out many episodes for review beyond the first couple.) But there’s something in all of these shows worth checking out, especially if you’re a particular fan of their genres.
(A note: We’ve only given ratings to shows where we feel we’ve seen enough episodes to judge how successful they will be long-term.)
All American is a winning spin on a time-tested formula
Who doesn’t like a teen drama about a boy from an underprivileged background getting a hand up into the world of the rich and comfortable? It’s been the story of many, many teen soaps over the years, but perhaps most famously on The OC, where Chino-born Ryan Atwood found himself suddenly living among the spoiled and pampered denizens of Orange County.
The CW’s new series All American takes that format and mixes it with Friday Night Lights for one of the strongest new dramas of the fall. It has its rough edges, but there’s something hard to beat about a good-hearted kid discovering the excesses of money and power, while those who have the money and power discover just how much they have in common with the new kid.
At the center of All American is Spencer (winning British newcomer Daniel Ezra), a football star at South LA’s public Crenshaw High. Spencer is black, and he comes from a majority-black neighborhood. (He’s also based on the real NFL player Spencer Paysinger.) When a coach for a Beverly Hills high school — played by Taye Diggs, who I never thought would make a great Coach Taylor but makes a great Coach Taylor — turns up to offer Spencer a chance at a role on a higher-profile team, Spencer worries about betraying his community before eventually realizing going to Beverly Hills could cement his future.
You can sort of see where this is going from there, but creator April Blair shows a refreshing willingness to keep the story moving throughout the first three episodes, unveiling a healthy dollop of plot twists and soapiness, while also giving her characters a whole lot of heart. Indeed, the twist at the end of the pilot takes the show from “pretty good” to “something I’ll give at least a season to figure itself out.”
There are issues here and there (the ensemble is perhaps a little too large for a show this young, and there’s way too much music to drive every emotional point home), but All American is an intriguing stew of teen soap tastes that taste great together. —Todd VanDerWerff
All American debuted Wednesday, October 10, on The CW and is available on the network’s website. Future episodes air Wednesdays at 9 pm on The CW.
The new Charmed tries to do way too much in its pilot, but once it settles down, it should be a lot of fun
For whatever reason, The CW’s new spin on Charmed has been embroiled in controversy over its status as a reboot starring brand new actors, rather than a revival starring the show’s original cast. And, sure, the original series has die-hard fans, and in a climate where seemingly every other popular show from the ’90s is being revived just as it was back then, it’s not hard to imagine a world where that happened with Charmed too.
But if those disgruntled Charmed fans tune in to the new version, they’re likely to find a show that, despite a pilot that’s a bit of a mess, has the right elements in place to become just as fun as that earlier series (if not more fun — that original show could be a bit of a mess itself). Most importantly, Jessica O’Toole, Amy Rardin, and Jennie Snyder Urman (of Jane the Virgin fame), who developed this new Charmed, have nailed the single most important element of the show: the casting.
To make a show about three sisters who are witches — and so much more powerful when together than when apart — you really need three actors who simultaneously exude raw supernatural power and a sisterhood that feels real, not assembled right before shooting the pilot. (Even if you know that’s what happened.) And Madeleine Mantock, Melonie Diaz, and Sarah Jeffery absolutely seem like sisters, with all the attendant benefits and baggage that relationship carries.
Plus, revamping this show to be about a Latina family offers a subtly powerful twist on the idea of those without traditional political power having untapped reserves of raw power. The pilot could do more with this idea (and the series hopefully will), but at least the sisters never feel like they’ve been made Latina to score empty diversity points.
The pilot gets stuck trying to do too much, establishing the sisters’ powers and setting up a longer mystery about an unsolved murder and offering up a #MeToo metaphor as its monster of the week. But with this cast (including a very game Rupert Friend as guardian angel Harry) and smart writers behind the scenes, Charmed will hopefully find itself very quickly. —TV
Charmed debuts Sunday, October 14, at 9 pm Eastern on The CW.
Camping is difficult to get the hang of, and so is Camping
Watching the four episodes of Camping that were sent out for review, I couldn’t help but think of another recent HBO series: Vice Principals. The shape of that series wasn’t immediately apparent in the first couple of episodes, and what it ended up being was vastly different from (and better than) what its beginning suggested. It rewarded the viewer for watching through to the end.
It seems as though Camping might fit a similar bill, though I would hesitate to presume that it’ll pull off the same gambit. Created by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, and adapted from the British series of the same name, Camping doesn’t really make any progress in the first half of its season.
The reasons to watch are apparent from the start: The cast is absolutely stacked, with Jennifer Garner simultaneously playing to and against type as Kathryn, who works day in and day out to make her life as flawless and meticulously ordered as her Instagram account. David Tennant is perfectly cast as her husband, Walt; he’s as easygoing as Kathryn is wound-up, as embodied by his lankiness and penchant for bucket hats.
Filling out the rest of the group of friends (just imagine quotation marks around the word) out camping in celebration of Walt’s 45th birthday, there’s Ione Skye, Chris Sullivan, Janicza Bravo, Brett Gelman, Arturo Del Puerto, Juliette Lewis — there’s not a weak performance in the bunch.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite enough. By the season’s halfway point, Camping seems to be fixated on showcasing people behaving badly — whether on their own or due to outside influence — without necessarily having a larger point to make. It’s thin ice for any series to skate on, but even more so when a series asks its audience to invest in characters written to be annoying or self-involved. These people are poison to each other — why keep watching them?
A few moments shine — again, the cast is terrific, and manages to find bits of truthfulness in the way these characters tear at each other — but without a firm sense of plot or structure to keep it all together, the show falters. —Karen Han
Camping debuts Sunday, October 14, at 10 pm Eastern on HBO.
- As mentioned, basically everything on The CW is back this week. (Some shows — notably Jane the Virgin — are being held for midseason, of course.) That includes the final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Friday at 8 pm), which kicks off with a bang, as Rebecca Bunch finds herself in prison. A happy ending to this saga might seem a stretch at this point, but we’d settle for a “mostly okay” ending, honestly.
- If you love streaming shows, this is a hectic week too. Netflix brings the terrific new cooking docuseries Salt Fat Acid Heat (Thursday), based on the book of the same name, and the superbly spooky Haunting of Hill House (Friday). Amazon, meanwhile, launches the first season of Mad Men creator Matt Weiner’s The Romanoffs (also Friday), while the new streaming service DC Universe unveils the gritty Teen Titans reboot Titans (whaddaya know, it’s debuting on Friday). We’ll have full reviews of some of these in the days to come.
- If you’re a fan of podcast hosts, HBO launches its TV version of Pod Save America (Friday at 11 pm) and ABC launches The Alec Baldwin Show (Sunday at 10 pm), should you require a TV version of something originally designed to appeal to your earballs.
- Finally, if you’re me (Todd), then the only thing you care about is Adult Swim’s Harvey Birdman: Attorney General (Monday at midnight), a brand new special reuniting the voice cast of the original Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, one of the great, silly spoofs of the 2000s. Sing it with me now! Whooooooo is the man in the suit? Whooooooo is the cat with the be-eak!