Wishful thinking about the shows and actors that look like TV's future

A sampling of shows currently on air or coming to the small screen this summer that best reflect where the TV industry is headed.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

What (or who) does the future of TV most look like?

Some of that can be sensed in this season's critical standouts: "Modern Family"; "Glee"; "The Good Wife." Some of it is made certain by bad shows that are hits nevertheless: "Undercover Boss"; "The Marriage Ref." And there are always clues strewn along the slummier streets of cable, hiding within programs that barely register in ratings. Mostly it's an elusive hunt for magic beans.

But what if, out of the blue, a bunch of network executives wanted you to prepare a PowerPoint presentation to show them what sort of programming they should be making more of? It's one thing to have an opinion about what's already on; it's another thing to find those shows or situations or actors that indicate a new "it," whatever "it" is.

Now, with the regular television season ending, it's time for the enjoyably weird summer season, which has gained a reputation as an experimental recess period. The stakes are a little bit lower and the concepts are slightly looser, resulting in edgier dramas, goonier comedy and more humiliating reality shows. It's also a convenient time to discover shows you've overlooked.

Using the season finales, the arrival of summer TV and my own wishful thinking, I've started making a list of people or things that look like the future of TV:

More corporate rah-rah

CBS's "Undercover Boss" was a ratings smash this spring, which is too bad, because it was supposed to act as a catharsis to our Great Recession-era resentment of the Man. Instead, it exploited the working class it claimed to champion. Also -- this is key -- the show bestowed invaluably sunny, unquestioning PR on the companies it featured.

I'm afraid we're in for more "reality" programming that veers into infomercial territory, at length and without shame. Acting on the continued success of "The Biggest Loser," which prefers shilling for dietary snack foods over narrative every time, NBC will unroll "Losing It With Jillian" (premieres June 1) -- in which the temperamental trainer visits fatty Americans at home, barks at them a lot and offers viewers still more opportunities to buy "Biggest Loser" diet books and sponsors' yogurts and nutrition bars.

Reality shows as character studies

At some point, someone is going to hit it big with a reality show that is not built around a contrived ensemble (such as the "Real Housewives" franchise, "Jersey Shore" or families with eleventyseven kids), but instead is an old-fashioned, documentary-style character study that follows the life of an average-seeming person for several seasons.

Style network's careful, deliberate pace with "Ruby" (just finished season 3, now in repeats) would seem like the most boring show on cable: A morbidly obese, socially sheltered woman in Savannah, Ga., works to lose weight and recover some childhood memories that she apparently repressed. Rather than turning Ruby's weight loss into a race (such as "The Biggest Loser"), the show has stuck around while Ruby struggles. The result is fascinating and tender; viewership has steadily grown. It's a refreshing change of mood, reminding us that everyday life is more fascinating than quasi-celebrityhood.

Cancer as a theme, not a plot point

The incomparable Laura Linney will star in Showtime's new series "The Big C" (premieres Aug. 16) as a teacher who gets a cancer diagnosis. Oliver Platt plays her husband, and Gabourey Sidibe plays one of her students. TV feels late to the cancer movement (the walkathons, the pink ribbons, the memoirs, the blogs), preferring to use cancer as something that happens to characters instead of building a show around an entire culture of disease and responses to it.

TV has also been naive, somewhat, about cancer's emotional spectrum. It does fear and death and tears, all right, but forgets about the dark humor, the cynicism, the people who don't always respond with appropriate, positive cheer. Perhaps "The Big C" will change that.

Brilliant disorders

If the producers of "Community" (season finale airs May 20 on NBC) had built their show around actor Danny Pudi's Abed character instead of Joel McHale's Jeff, they might have had a breakaway success, instead of a fairly well-rated show that often feels rote and flatly predictable.

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