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Fall TV Preview Part 2: Shonda, Selfies, and Sick Kids

Fall TV Preview Part 2: Shonda, Selfies, and Sick Kids

Last week’s look at some of the fall shows created by women was far from comprehensive. As a commenter pointed out, I did not include the much-anticipated How to Get Away with Murder, from Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. Point taken! I was out of order.

The new ABC legal drama (created by Shonda Rhimes protegee Peter Nowalk) stars Viola Davis as a criminal defense attorney and law professor who’s not above “getting creative” in order to… well, what the title says.

It’s very exciting to have Davis, a two-time Oscar nominee, in a starring role in a juicy series like this, especially playing a complicated anti-heroine like Annalise Keating.

For viewers hoping the show will have more subtlety than Rhimes’ soapy Scandal, one early writeup doesn’t bode well — though pilot reviews ought to be taken with a grain of salt, as series often need a few episodes to find their footing.

Also, obviously, one should never underestimate Rhimes, who, as the Times pointed out, “is often described as the most powerful African-American female show runner in television — which is too many adjectives. She is one of the most powerful show runners in the business, full stop.”

In an era when premium cable is generating the vast majority of buzz-worthy shows, Rhimes is cranking out network mega-hits. Scandal‘s season finale boasted 10.5 million viewers and was number one among black viewers in a 2013 Nielsen report. Grey’s Anatomy was also consistently popular, despite a drop in viewership in later seasons. From 2007-2011, it was the nation’s most Tivo’d show. Clearly, the woman knows what makes people tune in.

This also marks Davis’ first small-screen role since United States of Tara, and her joining up with Rhimes seems like a pretty powerful alliance. As Davis told More Magazine, “Shonda [Rhimes] changed the scope of how we see black women on TV and proved that people will actually tune in, relate to it, and enjoy it. In the past, I feel like people thought we didn’t sell.”

The actress, a heavy-hitting talent who often gets cast in thankless and/or too-small roles (blink and you’ll miss her as James Brown’s absentee mom in Get On Up), seems like she could really sink her teeth into this one. Bring it.

Also on ABC is Selfie, from Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek. It stars Scottish actress Karen Gillan, so as a Doctor Who fan, I was instantly on high alert for it, though my hopes were somewhat diminished after watching the pilot online.

It’s a loose riff on My Fair Lady – Gillan’s character is actually named Eliza Dooley, lest you miss the connection – in which millennial techno-narcissism is skewered (clumsily, one writer has suggested) as the phone-obsessed Eliza enlists the assistance of her Luddite co-worker Henry (John Cho) to help “re-brand” her.

Despite the WaPo’s criticisms, I think it’s still a wonderfully relevant subject. Take a quick glance around any public place, and you won’t find any shortage of iPhone zombies. But man, Gillan’s character is irritating – and materialistically showy in a way that feels like a bit of a throwback to the Sex and the City era. (Also, a gender swap regarding the Henry and Eliza roles could have helped the plot feel a little fresher; the character of a vapid woman who shops a lot and can’t stop looking at her phone is hardly novel.)

Most egregiously, its dialogue seems written by someone who spent 20 minutes googling “girly pop culture.” Hence, lines like “So I waited until the coast was clear – like Katy Perry’s skin on Proactiv” and “I prayed that everyone was willing to make like Elsa, and Let It Go.”

But Kapnek had a cult hit in Suburgatory – which was praised, in part, for its varied and thoughtful portrayals of the experience of being a teenage girl — so I’m willing to give it a bit more time before passing judgment. Sometimes a show needs a few episodes to get comfortable with itself. And Gillan, who was always at her most enjoyable when allowed to be goofy on Doctor Who, is overdue for a good leading role. Maybe this series will stop trying quite so hard to pass itself off as in the know, and settle into making salient points about our culture’s massive problem with self-involvement (Cho’s character, despite his loathing for all things techno, seems no less guilty of this).

Fox’s Red Band Society, created by Margaret Nagle (Side Order of Life), takes place in the pediatric wing of a Los Angeles hospital. (The showrunner is Rina Momoun.) Adapted from a Catalan series, it’s narrated by a young boy in a coma — Nagle has said he’s inspired by a similar story from her own family — and features characters like a mean-girl cheerleader with a heart condition and a nice guy with bone cancer who’s about to lose his leg (Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars, anyone?). Most promisingly, one of its stars is the amazing Octavia Spencer, playing a take-no-shit nurse who, I’m hoping, is more than the cliché that often accompanies that description. Given Spencer’s amazing presence, I’m guessing she is.

I’m still kind of stunned by this youngs-with-serious-illnesses trend (since Fault, there’s also been If I Stay and ABC Family’s Chasing Life). Nagle’s series could offer something new if it dares to stick with the edge of its premiere episode, in which characters joke about freezing an amputated leg “like wedding cake” and how being ill doesn’t necessarily confer niceness or wisdom beyond one’s years.

Given the wealth and variety of female-created and female-led shows this fall, TV executives have to be echoing the refrain currently going around Hollywood even more than they already were. The small screen has been a friendlier place for women for a while, but there’s always plenty of room for improvement.

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