AS “ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT” creator Mitchell Hurwitz collected his latest Emmy statuette, the producer felt compelled to remind the TV audience that he keeps receiving trophies for a show “that you people won’t watch.”
Hurwitz articulated a very real frustration among those who work in and chronicle the doings of Hollywood, motivated by the suspicion that too many end users of their product are knuckle-dragging morons. After all, Nielsen charts and box office tallies reveal a history of high-minded productions relegated to the trash heap. No wonder Bravo aired a tribute to squandered quality titled “Brilliant, but Cancelled,” while it would take significantly longer to illustrate “Crappy, but Commercial.”
So for all the naysayers and audience-haters prone to despair, a little over a week into the new TV season, let’s try to accentuate the positive.
SCRIPTED DRAMA is back in a big way, and not just serialized procedurals that neatly convict a perp every 43 minutes. The intricately woven “Lost” began its season by recording series-high ratings, as did the third-season debut of “Nip/Tuck.” The kind of huge crowd that networks seldom assemble anymore also showed up for ABC’s one-two tandem of “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Even comedies have demonstrated renewed life in the promising openings for two well-reviewed half-hours, “Everybody Hates Chris” (whose second episode is equally funny) and “My Name is Earl.” And not only does a sizable-by-cable-standards audience loyally tune in “The Daily Show,” most of them are discerning enough to tune out the dreck adjacent to it.
Nor are viewers forking over their precious time quite so blithely for reality TV knockoffs and shameless pleas to emotion. Last week, the public confounded expectations by turning its collective nose up at a second edition of “The Apprentice” so similar to the original it’s a wonder Martha Stewart, of all people, would be seen in public wearing it.
Of course, the idea of a discriminating audience with enough mass to elevate challenging series into full-fledged hits tears a bandage away for struggling programs that amass more awards than viewers. There’s a certain elitism built into fans and producers’ lamentation for shows like “Arrested Development” and “The Wire” — the reassuring assumption that beyond a New York Times-reading niche, rubes weaned on junk food don’t have much appetite for fine cuisine.
The aforementioned successes, by contrast, indicate the perfect trifecta of industry acclaim, complex narratives and widespread popularity is still possible, letting some air out of the “My show is just too good for the masses” refrain that has consoled many a washed-out award winner.
Before anyone in the print media behaves too smugly about Hollywood’s penchant for self-congratulation, by the way, it’s worth noting that the publishing world exhibits the same attitude toward its customers. Let’s have a moment of silence, in fact, for all those newspapers that persist in measuring achievement by counting Pulitzer Prizes even as their circulation dwindles and staffing levels decline.
In this regard, newspapers would do well to take a lesson from TV: Awards and a kindly word from critics are swell, but unless they translate into eyeballs, all they ultimately provide are nice decorations for your funeral.
FROM THE MAILBAG: Being a critic means never (OK, rarely) having to say you’re sorry, even if the wronged party is Geraldo Rivera. Yet if recent correspondence is any gauge, those dodging the darts are more sensitive than usual.
After a negative appraisal of NBC’s new sci-fi drama “Surface,” for example, I received an email from its co-creator dredging up the old canard that all critics must be frustrated screenwriters, thus accounting for their venom. Actually, critics are testy because we were beaten up in school and nobody would date us. Let’s keep that straight.
That was eclipsed by a package from Gretchen Bonaduce, producer and co-star (with loose-cannon hubby Danny) of VH1’s train-wreck reality show “Breaking Bonaduce.” Responding to a review observing that “it’s hard to imagine a shower long enough to wash away the experience,” she enclosed a polite note accompanied by a bar of soap “to make you clean again.”
The gift came as a welcome reminder about the prevalence of product placement these days. Next time I’ll be more judicious, say, “There isn’t enough Jack Daniels in the world to get me through another episode,” and hope for the best.