This was supposed to be the autumn of NBC's talk-show success, with low-cost episodes of The Jay Leno Show energizing the network's failing primetime fortunes while Conan O'Brien refreshed The Tonight Show and pumped a growing young audience into Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Instead, NBC is flailing while David Letterman is unexpectedly kicking everyone's ass.
The media spotlight has been focused squarely on old Dave for weeks, at first because of an extraordinary roster of big-name guests and now because of the ongoing story of his past sexploits with female staffers. On a personal level, the fallout from this not-quite-a-scandal is the business of Mr. and Mrs. Letterman only. But nagging questions persist about the professional aspects of Letterman's in-house behavior, and all of them are very much the business of CBS and other Late Show with David Letterman employees.
For example, assuming that CBS will not take action against its mighty late night king, especially while he is back at the top of his game, would the company be equally forgiving of men (or women) on its payroll who control the fates and fortunes of other employees if they engaged in sexual relations with one or more of their subordinates? Were any of the women with which Letterman had sex promoted over equally qualified women (or men) with whom he did not enjoy physical relations? Were any of the people who unsuccessfully applied for work at Late Show over the years passed over in favor of less or equally qualified women that Letterman found desirable? There are many compelling reasons why companies have strict rules in place to protect themselves from such scenarios. Do they apply to a celebrity of Letterman's heft? If not, why not?
I do admire Letterman for putting all of his laundry out on the line to dry in full view of the media rather than trying to hide it. Regardless of how it all plays out, his is once again the best show in the late night arena and his renewed popularity is exciting to see. I wouldn't think of removing Late Show from my DVR cache.
Moving into primetime, it has been reassuring to observe so much initial interest in most of the networks' new shows, even if some of that early enthusiasm has begun to fall away. At present, there isn't a producer working in broadcast television who can complain about the publicity, promotion and marketing departments at CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox or The CW. Apparently all those tweets, blog entries, columns, interviews and reviews that came pouring out of the summer Television Critics Association tour proved quite valuable. The big broadcast audience has been the show-runners' to lose.
Interestingly, I think the breakout star of the season won't come from any of the networks' freshmen series. Rather, the newcomer with obvious staying power is Brian J. Smith of Syfy's promising new outer-space adventure Stargate Universe. A Texas native, the talented Smith has worked in theater for years, as detailed in a recent story on Theater Jones, the highly informative Web site created by Dallas Observer theater critic Elaine Liner. (It's worth noting that one need not be familiar with the dense mythology of past Stargate series to enjoy SGU.)
My early choice for breakout star would have been Carolyn Hennesy as man-hungry lioness Barbara in ABC's fresh and funny Cougar Town if she were given more screen time. Hennesy has been brightening up the often dismal General Hospital for years as supremely confident mob lawyer and designer shoe fanatic Diane Miller. She's poised to become the new Megan Mullaly if Cougar executive producer Bill Lawrence makes more room for her. He should do so, pronto.
Also on ABC, the most-improved broadcast series of the new season is Grey's Anatomy. Executive producers Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers are wisely balancing potentially tiresome stories about the characters' often-exasperating love lives with very realistic tales that address the far-ranging impact of the current recession. The inexplicable costs of medical procedures and the problems they create for hospital administrators, doctors and patients alike have been front and center, along with the profit-driven merger of competing hospitals Seattle Grace and Mercy West and the layoffs and job insecurities that typically follow such moves. The economics of medical care are the stuff of madness and are currently top of mind in this country. Rhimes and Beers have been smart to address them in so passionate and organic a manner. I assume they will continue to do so.
Meanwhile, the most improved basic cable series of the season is FX's gritty Sons of Anarchy, now one of the most riveting dramas on television. The tension between the outlaw motorcycle club of the title and a new white separatist group in the tiny town of Charming, California, has been growing by the week, and the eventual payoff promises to be spectacular (and spectacularly violent). This show reminds me of those bad-ass biker B-movies of the '60s, but with a hard-core contemporary edge. Katey Sagal deserves an Emmy nomination for her increasingly raw portrayal of club matriarch Gemma Morrow, who was savagely raped and beaten at the start of the season and is struggling to navigate the complex emotional aftermath of her assault without letting her husband know what has happened.
The most improved pay cable show is Showtime's serial killer drama Dexter, which was already in tip-top shape at the end of its previous season, but has plumbed new depths of horror with the addition of John Lithgow as the newest murderer to terrorize Miami. I was fascinated by all of Dexter's deadly foes during the first three seasons of this fine series, but I can't say any of them actually frightened me. Lithgow's seemingly unremarkable Walter Simmons has changed all that. He's pure, twisted evil, and every time he's on camera this guy makes my skin crawl. Dexter's kill switch is flipping, but he is perpetually distracted from the grim matters at hand by his brand new baby -- and suffering from sleep deprivation, too. More brilliance worth noting: At least three of the first four episodes this season end with cliffhangers that dwarf the season finales of most other series. With new hits United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie, the still addictive Weeds and now a better than ever Dexter this is turning out to be quite a year for Showtime.
On the reality front, the coolest new unscripted series of the fall is National Geographic Channel's Rescue Ink Unleashed. It follows eight tattooed tough guys in the New York City area who save all kinds of abused critters - from dogs and cats to chickens and piranhas. They're utterly intimidating but totally non-violent and they help thousands of animals every year. That makes them heroes in my book. (You can learn more about them here.) What a refreshing change from the reality television trash of Jon and Kate Gosselin!
And now for the bad news: As exciting as the new season is turning out to be, I'm still somewhat underwhelmed by the two freshmen series that were supposed to be its standouts, ABC's FlashForward and Fox's Glee.
I think FlashForward has bitten off too much to chew, in that there is no real sense of the worldwide devastation that occurred when every human on the planet (except for at least one that we know of) passed out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds and saw glimpses of his or her future six months hence. For example, the Los Angeles hospital in which one of the main characters works as a surgeon was strangely quiet on the night of the catastrophe, and the good doctor herself even went home at the end of the day. Wouldn't all medical personnel be working around the clock during this enormous crisis? What about the thousands of city residents who desperately needed medical attention? The main characters seem more concerned about what they saw in their flash forwards than in helping others, and everyone is far too calm. Not for a minute is there a sense of true global urgency and paranoia, the likes of which were on recent thrilling display in BBC America's outstanding Torchwood: Children of Earth.
As for Glee, the musical sequences are lots of fun, if somewhat overplayed at times (especially those featuring the sublime Kristin Chenoweth in last week's episode), but the characters in this show haven't grabbed me. Many of them are not at all likable; to date, the only one who made a lasting impression on me was Burt Hummel, the gruff dad of gay teen Kurt. (Guest star Mike O'Malley was exceptional in the role.) At five weeks in I'm still watching, but I really don't care what happens to any of the kids or their teachers. That has to change.
Finally, now that a couple of weeks have passed, consider these significant Emmy afterthoughts: Why didn't the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences pay farewell tributes to ER and The Shield, two shows that forever changed television? Also, should television producers and executives worry that, one week after the Awards telecast, the only Emmy moment anyone was still talking about was the surprise appearance by Internet sensations Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer?