By Erik Grove
Another week has come and gone and that means it’s time for another installment of Erik’s Weekly Watch! This week I’m going to award the worst television show of the year and I’m going to tell you why you might want to watch it anyway. Let’s get started!
They can’t all be winners. As I pointed out in my fall TV best bets column, not all fall premieres are destined for greatness, or even a timeslot come sweeps week. In fact, the odds are usually stacked up against them, but this year, more new shows than I would have guessed have found traction and there have only been one or two big flops. Still, even if people are watching (for now), it doesn’t mean that there aren’t some real trainwrecks competing for your eyeballs. Normally, I eschew negative reviews but I’m watching these shows for you, dear reader, and I feel an obligation to warn you and also to write clever, kinda mean things that might amuse you more than the shows themselves.
There’s one show in particular that stands confidently above the others as a shining beacon of awful, but before I get to it and its transfixing rubberneck disaster, I want to start with the runner-ups for worst TV show of Fall 2014.
First, I would be remiss not to point out Fox’s calamitous new reality TV show, Utopia. This show has been hemorrhaging viewers and brain cells for weeks now and seems a shoe-in for the biggest financial and critical mess of the season. I could only tolerate short clips of this show that apparently has something to do with people building a perfect society made entirely out of idiocy and Big Brother outtakes. The “stars” of this show were foolish enough to say, “Yes, I want to be on a Fox reality TV show about creating a perfect society” – that alone should tell you that they are literally the last people that should ever be invited into a perfect society let alone be given some kind of say in how that society will be structure. The best thing anyone is ever going to say about Utopia is that it’s done, it’s not coming back and we can all not care enough to remember it ever again.
The second runner-up for the worst TV show of fall 2014 is also on Fox and is also very much struggling in the ratings, so much that it seems a good bet for first scripted cancellation of the year. That show is The Red Band Society, a show so earnestly earnest that the earnestness of its plot (sick children in a hospital, Octavia Spencer getting paid) is only out-earnested by its earnest soundtrack. This show pulls at your heart strings like it’s confused your heart for a gas powered lawn mower with a tricky starter. It’s certainly trying very, very hard to make you cry and to have deep thoughts about life and sadness and crying and earnest music and stuff. What authenticity and subtlety that there might be in the Red Band Society is taken out behind the studio and beaten with twin baseball bats made of clichés and ham-fisted emotional catharsis. The worst part about this show is that there is something not terrible at the center of it. The young actors have charm and seriously, Octavia Spencer, but its tenderness is telegraphed and saccharine. If it was given time to settle in and go deeper it might have something interesting to say but I haven’t really seen much of that in the first two episodes.
The third and final runner-up slot is a tie between ABC’s Selfie, a super-topical-in-2011 critique of social networking addiction starring Karen Gillan and John Cho and its neighboring show Manhattan Love Story, a mostly charm-less meet-cute story about two sorta likeable (if you squint) people who don’t have a lot of chemistry and their vain internal monologues played by Analeigh Tipton and Jake McDorman. I watched both of these shows knowing that I probably wasn’t the target audience for them but I mustered up all of the impartiality I could manage and here’s the thing; they’re just not good. These are 6s out of 10s on a generous day. Selfie has two actors I think are capable of being really funny and compelling in Gillan and Cho but the already-dated topicality of it and the overly broad character arcs just force them to the side. I wanted the show to be meaner or cut deeper. I wanted it to really show some guts and some satire but ultimately it’s a just a retread of an old romance story formula trying to seem original by using the kind of “youth” buzzwords that you can only find in bad Hollywood scripts.
Manhattan Love Story, meanwhile, is just bland and lazy. When the show uses its gimmick (the two leads’ internal monologues) they are thinking nothing insightful or funny or unpredictable at all. This is most clearly shown in the cold open when the leads are walking through a very clean, gentrified Manhattan. McDorman is thinking about having sex with every woman he sees and Tipton is thinking about handbags because obviously. This is a show about men and women by people that seem to understand the differences between them from reading the dust jacket of Men Are From Mars Women are From Venus one time in an airport bookstore. It’s not funny. It’s not witty or quirky or interesting. Manhattan Love Story really seems like the kind of show that you might like to watch when you’re jetlagged on an airplane with food poisoning or when you’re tired and need something to get you to sleep. Again, there’s a chance that either of these shows could grow and improve and there is an audience for this kind of comfort food programming but it’s not me.
But those shows are only prologue to the main event, a show so confident, almost cocky even, in its I-don’t-care-how-real-things-actually-work premise that you have to admire it even while you know that you’re watching some of the worst TV in recent memory. I’m talking of course about CBS’s new bastard child of Big Bang Theory and NCIS, the incomparably, delightfully, terrible, Scorpion. To the creators of Scorpion the way that computer software, wi fi routers, law enforcement, geniuses and human beings actually function is not allowed to get in the way of a ridiculous premise and big budget absurdity. There’s a bit in the pilot episode where this team of super geniuses, played by actors I don’t care about enough to check their names on IMDB except that there’s another guy that was in American Pie (there was another in Red Band Society playing acoustic guitar to sick kids because earnest), try to find someone on the airplane that’s going to crash because of a bad software update (seriously) and they build this profile of a man over 50 who still has an old flip phone. That guy is exactly who should watch Scorpion.
In fact, if you know a 50+ year old guy that thinks technology is all jibbity gibble gabble and can’t be bothered to upgrade a 5+ year old cell phone and probably also ignores or thinks it’s nonsense when they tell you to turn off your phone on an airplane, you need to stop him and tell him to watch Scorpion immediately. Basically every single thing in this show is absolute bullshit and it just doesn’t care. The cast is forgettable. The characterization is blocky. Every part of the script is poorly constructed and fiddled with factual errors but Scorpion isn’t going to let that get in its way and charges full speed ahead with absolutely baffling confidence.
So, I’m going to spoil the plot of the pilot episode because how can I keep this inside? Once upon a time in generic Los Angeles, a random genius man who leads a team of geniuses goes to a diner to fix the wi fi and break up with his girlfriend because, you see, he understands genius things like a wi fi router but he doesn’t understand people. While he’s at this diner he instantly picks up the genius of a little boy with his genius radar and he has some kind of this-is-going-to-be-the-female-lead-for-some-reason conversation with the genius boy’s mother. Then he goes back to the genius cave where we meet the rest of the geniuses that are good at genius things (there’s a chalkboard with equations on it, you guys) but they don’t understand people and they also have no money.
Presumably they’re broke because it costs more in gas money to drive to a rando diner to fix a wi fi router than you could ever bill to “fix” the wi fi router but there’s also something about a zany hypochondriac genius losing money because he’s zany and a hat-wearing genius from American Pie having a gambling problem. Anyway, this is where Robert Patrick shows up to make us feel bad about giving him a hard time for following David Duchovny on X-Files and tells the geniuses that there was a bad software update installed in the air traffic control station and now no one can talk to all of the airplanes and they’re all going to crash unless the geniuses can figure out how to undo the bad patch. Apparently radar, radio, basic piloting skills, semaphore, other airports, the FAA and common sense have also been affected by this bad software patch but don’t fret, 50 year old flip phone man, the geniuses are on the case! After going back to the diner that has an awesome wi fi router, genius boy and the female lead (she doesn’t understand genius things but she does understand people) the geniuses engage in some completely nonsense technobabble.
Then, this crack team of what my grandma must think computer geniuses are like, figures out that there’s only one backup of the original software (because who keeps backup media or server backups or anything like that) in a data center that’s going to wipe it all out in however-long-they-need-to-build-tension minutes. This data center, unlike every other data center ever, can only be accessed if you drive to it (where absolutely no one works because grandma is pretty sure there are robots, I guess?) and pull out the hard drive BUT one of our geniuses (he’s the American Pie one) doesn’t realize that the magnet in a car speaker can wipe out the entire hard drive instantly. Oh no! I mean, that’s not at all plausible but what are our geniuses going to do?
If you answered that they were going to figure out there’s a full backup on a jet plane that’s about to crash and that the only way to get that back up is drive a convertible super-fast underneath the plane as it cruises over the runway and pass an Ethernet cord down from the landing gear you’d be right, presumably a writer for Scorpion and never allowed to touch my computer ever. Obviously after this feat of intellectual gigantism, the geniuses are offered full-time genius team jobs working for Robert Patrick but the lead genius knows he can’t do it without the female lead/ coffee shop waitress because she understands people. And that’s the show. Really.
Here’s the thing about Scorpion; I laughed harder and more often while watching it than I did Selfie or Manhattan Bland Story. I had a great time watching it strut back and forth, all pleased with itself and it’s “based on a true story” credentials (the lead genius’s name is apparently based on a genius that did genius work for a government genius squad or something) because it’s so, so, so bad that it curves back around and makes me want to turn it into a drinking game that’s going to give all the hipsters in Portland alcohol poisoning. I love-hated Scorpion so much that I tuned in for the second episode. I didn’t need to do that for Bleeding Cool. I could have just made fun of the pilot. I did it because watching Scorpion is like listening to a drunk half-naked guy in a Walmart parking lot explaining the theory of relativity to someone on a flip phone. You just can’t walk away from that until you see where he’s going with it.
That’s it for this week. I’ll be back again with more thoughts on TV!
Erik Grove is a writer and hipster drinking game developer living in Portland, Oregon. You can read his work and see news about the upcoming Scorpion: the Alcohol Poisoning game at www.erikgrove.com or on Twitter @erikgrove