Bad shows haven’t gone away, we just stopped writing about them as much. That’s one way critics in 2018 can cope with peak-TV bombardment, by cherry-picking the conceptually provocative or socially buzzy shows and tossing aside the mediocre ones. After all, there are only so many ways to say “meh.”
Yet this approach chips away at the idea that part of a TV critic’s job is to warn readers away from the real junk, especially when desperate broadcast networks come around with their fall premieres. Let’s also never forget how much fun it can be to write (and read) a review of a real stinker.
So, “Magnum P.I.,” what am I to make of you? What is there to say about a show nobody asked for that oozed up anyhow from pop-culture’s toxic nostalgia barrel and now premieres Monday on CBS? Revived from your 30-year rest in the rerun crypt, you have achieved a new existence, Magnum — dipped in heavy gloss and buffed to a shine. Tires squeal, things explode, Dobermans bark. Still we feel nothing.
Despite the calibrated charm of your star, Jay Hernandez (who casually assumes Tom Selleck’s defining role, knowing full well that a hint of a stubbly goatee is no match for the ’stache), your pilot episode is an uninspired slop of cornball action and opening misfires. You are strewn with too many characters (that original sense of camaraderie now gives off a smarmy whiff of the bromantic) and preoccupied with checking off a long to-do list. Things are made worse by Hernandez’s ceaseless voice-over narration, which fails to explain much.
You are not good at the thing you’re trying to be, New Magnum, and instead of resurrecting a feeling, you’ve run right over it with that bright red Ferrari. Instead of declaring a creative or timely purpose (like your network friend and fellow exhumee, “Murphy Brown”), you are merely a piece of content placed between commercials. Your existence is cold and cynical, Magnum, predicated on the previous success of reboots such as “Hawaii Five-O” and “MacGyver.”
Perhaps the new “Magnum P.I.” can be seen as the last lap of swagger that defined recently ousted chief executive (and alleged creepazoid) Les Moonves’s long and lucrative reign at CBS. “Magnum P.I.” isn’t back out of respect for the TV watcher. It’s back because it’s a path to predictability, which is something we should never forget when looking at fall TV: The right sort of predictability can still be a sure bet.
Not everyone has the steady stream of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon to go with their HBO, Showtime and FX. In some parts of the country, broadband access remains woefully scarce or substandard, making it hard for some Americans to keep up with the virtual water-cooler around which we talk about prestige TV.
A robust market remains for television that keeps it simple, beamed into households where prime-time TV is still prime-time TV, a low- to no-cost diversion that escorts a viewer from dinner to dishwashing to the seven-day forecast and then to bed.
Predictability can be its own comfort. The best television often asks too much of us, thematically, with little consideration for the real pain and anxiety we carry around all day: Imagine losing your loved ones. Imagine not knowing if you’re in heaven or hell. Imagine a theocratic dictatorship takes over the country and allows the rape of women. You call that entertainment?
Unlike their boutique competitors, broadcast networks are saddled (one could also say privileged) with a mission to deliver the widest spectrum of viewers to advertisers. Although we’ve seen great strides in network quality in the past decade (highlights include CBS’s “The Good Wife,” ABC’s “American Crime” and NBC’s “This Is Us”), this fall’s network offerings reflect a discouraging backslide.
NBC’s “Manifest,” which also premieres Monday, is a textbook failure of predictability, a misconceived drama about an airliner that mysteriously reappears after it vanished five years earlier. Its passengers and crew are alive, unchanged by time and unaware that they’ve been gone.
The premise is certainly alluring, which is why it’s so disheartening to discover “Manifest’s” lack of imagination or intuition for what it might feel like, in the show’s lead example, for an extended family to be suddenly reunited: The adults will find spouses and former lovers have moved on; a young boy sees his twin sister has aged into adolescence. To that, add the dozens of other passengers going through similar shocks, while government investigators try to get a grip on this supernatural occurrence.
The deep, complicated emotions involved here should be the best way to tell this story and sustain the show — and, in the hands of more thoughtful outlets on cable and streaming services, they would be.
“Manifest,” alas, beelines thoughtlessly toward its hokiest idea, when some of the returning passengers discover they’ve acquired psychic powers. Just like that, a viewer who might have been interested in the human element is instead served a cold plate of mystery meat — not the new “Lost,” but a feeble throwback to forgettable failures such as “The Event.”
It’s also a bummer to tune into a new show that for all appearances looks like a decent (and potentially subversive) hospital drama, only to discover that it’s about a jerk doctor who is fixated on rebelling against bloated health-care bureaucracy.
“New Amsterdam” (premiering Tuesday on NBC) stars Ryan Eggold (“The Blacklist”) as Dr. Max Goodwin, the new head of medicine at a storied, Bellevue-like public hospital in New York, where, we are to understand, the red tape and other hassles of American-style health care are to blame for taking lives.
Goodwin blows in with a great and urgent animus toward the system and its stalwarts, which he’s resented for years, for personal and professional reasons. He’s ready to fire anyone who disagrees with him or seems at all resistant to his arbitrary demands for change.
Remember Josh Radnor’s dilettante drama teacher in NBC’s ill-fated “Rise” last spring, whose lack of interpersonal awareness made the show so dreary? Same problem here: NBC may think it has hatched a hero of health-care restructuring, imbuing Goodwin with the trendy, corporate superpower of disruption.
But in doing so, it forgot to add the believably compelling aspects of the plain ol’ hospital show, which “New Amsterdam” compensates for with fleeting doses of pure sap. An attempt near the end of the premiere episode to privately humanize Goodwin comes too late; “New Amsterdam” suffers extreme organ failure, starting with an infection in its heart.
Sugar, however, can be far more lethal than "New Amsterdam's" version of salt. CBS's high-fructose "God Friended Me," premiering Sept. 30, stars Brandon Micheal Hall (last seen in ABC's short-lived "The Mayor") as outspoken podcast host Miles Finer, whose resolute atheism breaks the heart of his father (Joe Morton), a Harlem preacher.
When his account on a Facebook-like social network pings with friend requests from “God,” Miles dubiously decides to accept.
Prime-time network theology has always favored the concept of a personally involved deity, a God who sends folksy angels or anoints unwitting, unlikely heroes to intervene on His behalf, rescuing this week’s poor wretch from dire consequences. Miles’s first such encounter, arranged by God, is to save a man from leaping in front of a commuter train.
What is this show telling us about atheists? Or Facebook privacy? What is it telling us about the state of network television? What can I tell viewers who draw great enjoyment from something so simple, delighting in this show’s pseudo-spiritual cheerfulness and utterly predictable premise?
The suicidal man is successfully saved, but the heathen TV critic is left down here on the tracks, considering what might happen if he touches the electrified rail that “God Friended Me” has presented.