WGN America’s new comedy-drama hybrid “Carter” sets out to achieve a very constrained set of goals, and does so well enough. Series star Jerry O’Connell, playing an actor who returns to his hometown to get involved in solving crimes, is likable and competent in the role, bringing enough Hollywood vanity to the part to convince us without doing too much preening. And yet the show—the latest in a tradition of light mysteries resolved easily before the episode’s final laugh line—feels disappointing, given that network’s recent history was something much more exciting.
By way of context: For a few years, WGN America punched significantly above its weight when it came to TV drama. Though the cable network—a former “superstation” out of Chicago—didn’t have the resources of Netflix, FX, or HBO, its drama offerings were in the conversation of what was among TV’s best. The network’s series, which ambitiously took place in unfamiliar milieus and with top-flight casts, included the birth-of-the-bomb saga “Manhattan” and Appalachian family story “Outsiders.” Especially notable was “Underground,” a historical drama about the abolitionist movement and the lives of slaves which came to include a forcefully portrayed Harriet Tubman. Only on WGN could Tubman deliver an audacious hourlong monologue to the audience.
It would be hard to emulate the power or the commitment of “Underground,” which was cancelled in 2017, following a pivot in the network’s model and the conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group forging a deal to buy WGN parent company Tribune Media. (The transaction has not yet closed.) “Despite ‘Underground’ being a terrific and important series, it no longer fits with our new direction and we have reached the difficult decision not to renew it for a third season,” said Peter Kern, then the newly-appointed head of parent company Tribune Media.
That new direction was meant to be bigger and broader. It’s worth noting Sinclair also speaks to the nation through “must-run” segments on the local news stations it owns, bits of rhetoric that often espouse a conservative viewpoint. And “Carter” is conservative in the sense that it takes no risks: It’s inoffensive in the extreme. Carter, though he’s often in the midst of tense situations, never really feels in danger, and the show’s jokes about his glamorous airheadedness land like a feather. He and his partner in crimesolving (Sydney Poitier Heartsong) share a cheerfully friendly chemistry, one that’s less torrid than charmingly businesslike.
All of which adds up to a show that’s so clearly intended to be widely acceptable that it’s likely to appeal to very few. Even on broadcast, TV has moved away from the “Diagnosis Murder”-style mystery procedural with a smirk; though too much on the dial marinates in human darkness, a bit of complication has come to be welcome even on relatively broad programs. (“This Is Us,” currently the standard-bearer for broadcast drama, has genuinely complicated characters living through trauma for which they’re at times painfully culpable. While it can be simplistic at times, it doesn’t simply play it safe.)
“Carter” has little to show us we haven’t seen before; it feels most pointedly like a way station for Jerry O’Connell before his upcoming Bravo talk show has whatever impact it will have on his career. It feels, too, like a throwback, to a time when cable networks sought to compete not by standing out but by giving us more of the same. And most pointedly, it feels like a reminder of what was lost in a minor-scale corporate reshuffling.
WGN America’s innovation, short-lived though it was, was built around serious dramas that shrugged off the mantle of “prestige” in favor of a strong popcorn element. Its shows felt like they could only have aired there, and like that statement was a compliment. The same could be said of “Carter,” but only because nowhere else, not even the beleaguered networks, would make programming so light on conflict and character—so insistent on being everything to everyone that it refuses to say anything at all.