While watching the new fall television pilots and revisiting some old shows that are back this fall, I was struck by a worrisome conclusion. There are a lot of shows that have picked the wrong person to place at the center of their storytelling at the expense of much better characters, or that are treating people other than their true main characters as if they’re the main attraction for purpose of advertising. A bad offender on the latter score this fall is Last Resort, which is running print ads that make it appear as if Scott Speedman is the show’s star, rather than Andre Braugher, who dominates the pilot, for reasons you can probably do the math about. But while it’s one thing to start a show with the assumption that one character is the hook and to have others emerge, it’s a shame to watch a show spend seasons focused on the wrong people.
1. Boardwalk Empire: Now in its third season, Boardwalk Empire remains convinced that the best thing it has going for it is Nucky Thompson, who isn’t much more than a chance for Steve Buschemi to show off and wear great suits. But its strongest assets lie elsewhere. How fantastic would a version of Boardwalk Empire that focused on Chalky White and the rise of an East Coast black middle class and aristocracy be? What about Kelly Macdonald’s fantastic Margaret Schroeder, a woman who transformed her lot in life and now is determined to pay it forward through philanthropy, even if it means challenging a powerful head doctor at a hospital over the cause of maternal health? And then there’s Richard Harrow, mutilated in war, grieving the loss of Angela Darmody, one of the few people who ever understood him, and now raising her child with Gillian Darmody as a monstrous replacement mommy. But any chance the show had to be about soldiers returning from World War I appears to have died with Jimmy Darmody last season, replaced by the increasing presence of showy mobsters, and Boardwalk Empire is poorer for all its lost possibility.
2. How I Met Your Mother: I get it. This show is the story of how Ted met the mother of his children. But it’s also an illustration of the weaknesses of selling sitcoms, which are designed to go on forever, on premises that really only feel viable for a short time. Marshall and Lily’s split, reunion, and road to parenthood, experiment with suburbanization, and return to the city is the true big arc story of How I Met Your Mother. And I’m as sick of waiting for Ted to grow up as Ted is as waiting for the love of his life to show up.
3. Revolution: NBC’s new post-apocalyptic drama wants to capture the cachet of The Hunger Games so badly that it turned its main character, Charlie, into a person I refuse to call anything but Fake Katniss. She’s got a leather jacket, a bow, a penchant for woodsiness, but entirely lacks a personality. And Revolution has the same problem that The Hunger Games does: the world it’s set in and the events it explores means that what the knowing adults are up to is vastly more interesting as story material than watching kids run around. At least The Hunger Games‘ kids were relatively well-developed. Revolution doesn’t even have that going for it, and it’s particularly painful to see it focus on its CW-quality leads when Zack Orth’s former Google executive character’s been relegated to the wings, and assigned the task of providing Hurley-style quips.
4. New Girl: Watching the premiere episode of the second season of New Girl, I was struck by two things. First, Jess isn’t even close to the new girl in the apartment she shares with her male roommates anymore. And second, the show found its legs last year when it turned into an exploration of masculinity, rather than a celebration of Jess’s Manic Pixie grade school teacher. Jess isn’t a terrible character, and the show’s pokes fun at some of the whimsy-cures-everything attitude that was so gratingly front and center early in the show’s first season. But still, if it weren’t for all the branding that went into making New Girl a Zooey Deschanel vehicle that’s probably impossible to undo at this point, it would be nice to see the show recenter on the ensemble that makes it so strong.
5. Modern Family: ABC’s smash hit made waves in the offseason when production was delayed on new episodes because of a nasty contract dispute between the producers and the show’s adult stars. It’s too bad, because increasingly, they’re the least interesting part of the show. Mitch and Cam are a TV-sterilized sexless gay couple. Gloria’s a bombshell stereotype. Claire gets stuck with periods-make-ladies-crazy storylines. But the kids remain the most winning part of Modern Family. If the families involved had some more children, you could build an entire show about the dynamics of the siblings and cousins. And in a television environment where kids get to be props more than actual people, a program from the perspective of young people would be fascinating.