One month into the fall television season, just one scripted program has been canceled.
The lack of cancellations is likely due less to the new shows’ ratings than it is to the looming writers’ strike that probably has network executives taking a “something is better than nothing” approach. It’s better to be safe than sorry when faced with the possibility of losing writers to a strike and having nothing left to air. (Yes, “Cavemen.” That means you can stay, too. “Viva Laughlin” is another story).
The fact is that, as in past years, most of the new shows this season aren’t grabbing viewers’ attention. There has yet to be a breakout hit. As expected, the “Grey's Anatomy” spin-off, “Private Practice,” is leading the pack among the newcomers by taking advantage of its familiar association with fans of one of TV’s most-watched dramas. But even its ratings aren’t particularly impressive as “Practice” barely sneaks into the top 20, according to Nielsen Media Research.
With network executives being particularly quick to axe struggling shows in recent years, viewers can’t be blamed for being a little apprehensive about committing to a new batch of programs for fear that they’ll be gone by next week. But the good news for TV fans is that the networks’ resistance to cancel shows provides a “do-over,” a chance for viewers to catch up with some terrific new shows before it’s too late.
A handful, in particular, are struggling to find an audience even though they provide genuinely unique experiences with a combination of superb writing and tremendous acting. They’re well worth the effort to track down online, On Demand or wherever else you can find them, as they could be in trouble once the dust settles and ratings start to matter again.
Dance with the devil instead
Now and then, the devil makes his way into a TV show or movie. But not since George Burns played him has he been more fun to watch than when Ray Wise flashes that sinister smile on “Reaper” (9 p.m. Tuesdays, CW).
Wise plays the proverbial Prince of Darkness who employs Sam, a just-turned-21 hardware store worker, as his bounty hunter who is responsible for bringing escaped souls back to hell. There aren't enough superlatives to capture Wise's performance, which manages to take advantage of his coolest and most menacing looks (which actually aren't all that different). Bret Harrison (“The Loop”) brings a dynamically innocent and conflicted quality to Sam. The goofy sidekick, “Sock,” is played by Tyler Labine, who brings a Jack-Black-meets-the-goofy-guy-from-“Invasion” (who he also played) flavor that helps keep things just light enough when you're dealing with the worst of Satan’s bunch.
Part of “Reaper's” problem, simply put, is that it's on The CW. That’s no affront to the network; it has just struggled to be taken seriously with anything outside of reality programming. But even with The CW’s relative level of success and failure, “Reaper” deserves more attention than it has received. Going head-to-head with the “Dancing With the Stars” results show each week likely doesn't help, but TV fans would be better served by saving themselves from a bloated “Dancing” results show, finding out who got voted off later, and watching “Reaper” instead.
‘Chuck’ is no loser
Easily the best new show on TV, “Chuck” (8 p.m. Mondays, NBC) is finally starting to attract some buzz. The hour-long action comedy is the perfect companion to “Heroes,” which follows it on NBC’s Monday night schedule.
“Chuck” has likely struggled to catch on with viewers because it’s a difficult show to categorize as an action-adventure-comedy. But the writing hits just the right marks all around. No dramatic twist is too sappy, no action sequence is too over the top (save for that one bit when Chuck flew a helicopter, but still), and the funny dialogue combined with occasional slapstick is consistently hilarious. Star Zachary Levi is instantly likeable, and his supporting cast of Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin and Joshua Gomez offer up the perfect mix that makes “Chuck” a nice treat to start the week.
Old is new again
In case anyone is worried that TV sitcoms such as “The Office” and “30 Rock” have gotten too wild with their single-camera hysterics, “Back to You” (9 p.m. Wednesdays, FOX) is a reminder that going retro can still work.
After two decades of watching him play Frasier Crane, it's difficult to see Grammer as anyone but the neurotic psychologist. There are some elements of Frasier in Grammer's Chuck Darling, a pompous local news anchor whose on-air tirade in Los Angeles forced him to crawl back to Pittsburgh to find work after a decade away. He's reunited on the anchor desk with Heaton's Kelly Carr, who isn't entirely pleased that Chuck is back in town. They also share a child, the result of a one-night fling shortly before Chuck left town.
Some critics say the multi-camera genre doesn't need saving because TV's most watched comedy, “Two and a Half Men,” is a traditional multi-camera show. The difference is that “Back to You” is funny, and in a TV world with any true justice it would be the one getting 13 million viewers compared to 6.5 million each week — and not the other way around.
The same holds true for all three of these shows, which deserve a chance to be hits — instead of together pulling in about as many viewers as one top-10 show.
Victor Balta is a writer in Philadelphia.