Thursday, November 12, 2015

Limitless and Madam Secretary: Welcome Home, CBS

Last January, in my year-in-review post, I made note of my "big break-up" with CBS, and my decision to start devoting more time to other networks. It's not like I'd been an exclusive CBS follower, heaven knows, but truly, since the early 1970's (and it probably began with The Mary Tyler Moore Show), I'd say 90% of the shows I watched were on CBS. I started to feel a certain "brand loyalty" to the Tiffany Network, with its "welcome home" slogan, and I'd invariably sample their new shows first, and stay with their shows longer. And as I look back on over four decades of TV viewing, I find that most of the shows that stick with me -- and often that I've chosen to write about here -- aired on CBS: from the aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore Show to WKRP to Knots Landing, from Newhart to Picket Fences to Everybody Loves Raymond, from Survivor to Cold Case to Mike & Molly. But as a viewer, it was hard to justify that brand loyalty after a while: not just because there was so much great television on other networks, but because the CBS luster was fading.

Oh sure, it was still "America's most-watched network," but for years, their new output had been spotty -- I mean, they'd been greenlighting things like Made in Jersey and The Ex List and How to Be a Gentleman and Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. Year after year, I'd sit gob-smacked watching their pilots and think, "Wow, that must have been one bad development season." And admittedly, the astonishing success of CSI and 60 years of sitcoms dating back to I Love Lucy clobbered the network, because it trapped them with an aging audience devoted to procedurals and multi-cam comedies, who didn't care to sample or stick with much else -- but how much longer could a loyal viewer watch Nina Tassler pull the plug on every great show that tried to break the mold (and often she seemed as sad to see them go as I was), from Jericho to Moonlight to Swingtown -- or even the promising ones like A Gifted Man and The Crazy Ones? And shows that were desperately in need of network interference -- like 2 Broke Girls (from the start) and The Good Wife (as it aged) -- simply weren't getting it. Every network goes through its ups and downs, but CBS seemed flummoxed, for the first time since the mid-'90s. (I'm thinking of around the time they went searching for new identity by greenlighting the Raquel Welch-led CPW in 1995, just before Les Moonves arrived to rebuild.) And as for me, by May of last year, I think I was watching less CBS than I had since the late '60s. What shows did I really care about? Well, Elementary and Mike & Molly and Mom -- and that's about it. For the most part, I was more interested in Ray Donovan on Showtime, The Leftovers and Silicon Valley on HBO, Arrow and iZombie on the CW, Longmire on Netflix, Grantchester on ITV, Doctor Who on BBC -- and lots of others.

So imagine my shock, here in November of 2015, when I find two of the shows I most look forward to each week -- no, let's be more specific: the only two shows I insist on seeing "live" each week, as they air -- are on CBS: Limitless, in its first season, and Madam Secretary, in its second.

Well, friggin' welcome home, CBS.

These are two shows on the air right now basically Doing Everything Right, and I'm not going to linger on either for more than a paragraph or three, because nothing I could say could do justice to the experience of watching.

Limitless

But let's start with Limitless, which for CBS is sort of a miracle: the kind of younger-skewing, still older-adult-friendly show CBS has been searching for for half a decade, as well as the sort of popular, serialized drama it's been struggling to find since Desperate Housewives and Lost revitalized the form back in 2004 (and before Shonda Rhimes went on to create a dynasty). And in truth, before it aired, we were all ready to tag it as another CBS procedural. The plot: Brian Finch is a regular bloke, down on his luck, the self-admitted family-screw-up type (but so winningly played by Jake McDorman, and carefully conceived by creator and EP Craig Sweeny, that you're on his side from moment one). Luck finally goes his way; he gets his hands on a pill called NZT that magnifies his brain function, allowing him to remember every piece of information he's ever processed. And then fate intervenes twice: first, when Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper's character from the movie of the same name) steps in with an antidote to the deadly side-effects of the drug (which allows Brian to continue taking it, but makes him bound to Morra for life); and second, when the FBI steps forward with a job offer: come aboard while we study you.

And it absolutely could have gone the way of most CBS hour-longs: let's solve a case a week. But Sweeny notes that CBS encouraged the show to introduce more serialized elements, and he and his brilliant writing team -- some of my favorite writers in the business -- seized the challenge and went to town like Yankee Doodle. The third episode had a case-of-the-week; the fourth did, too, but it was subordinated to three other storylines. By episode five, the show had come into its own: deliriously abandoning the procedural format in favor of something much less predictable, filled with ongoing threads, mysteries and revelations. The result is more sheer fun than anything on TV right now.

Because here's the thing about Limitless: Brian is an everyday fellow. He's not Sherlock Holmes; he's not Ichabod Crane; he's not Henry Morgan, of my late, lamented Forever. He's the most ordinary of guys -- he's us -- so when he has these flights of fancy that demonstrate how fast his engine is running, it's the way our own geeky brains would work. A mind so stuffed with knowledge is also a mind in need of diversion, so Brian embellishes his narration (sometimes, it seems, for our own enjoyment as much as his) with instant rewinds, with triple-speed montages (complete with hand-chosen accompaniment), with pop-up speech bubbles and clay-figure reenactments, with himself in James Bond-like fantasies and his co-workers lecturing him in Peanuts-style "wah wah" voices. Limitless asks: "wouldn't you love to be this smart," and the answer is "yes, and I'd be just like Brian, too." Brian is scruffy-faced and irreverent -- on occasion, downright childish -- and yet he's utterly devoted to the people he cares about and (to his great surprise) morally responsible in a way he himself hadn't ever suspected. And Limitless itself is fleet-footed, brash and irresistible. It's a shot of adrenaline for the viewer, and one for the network as well. (It's CBS on NZT.) It's infused with a "top this" mentality; you start to think the writers' room must be the happiest place on earth. Limitless asks: what if utter brilliance wasn't an obligation, or a calling, or a curse: what if it was fun? And each week, it provides the answer.

And let's talk briefly about its four stars. Jake McDorman is giving the kind of star turn that's star-making: it's not just a dynamic performance, it's an astoundingly ingratiating and empathetic one. Jennifer Carpenter, as his FBI handler, matches him scrape for scrape, quip for quip, and the two share undeniable chemistry. Hill Harper is showing more authority, more spirit and more shadings than the ensemble-driven CSI: NY allowed him, and a bit this past week -- where he was tempted to turn traitor and truly kept you guessing till episode's end which side he was on -- was some of the best onscreen work I've seen him do. But you know the revelation? Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, because she is a firecracker on this show, and I wouldn't have necessarily thought of her for the role. But it's brilliant casting: the head of the FBI field office, someone strong enough to lead and warm enough to engender loyalty -- of course it's Mastrantonio. She's best at playing characters who don't relax in front of the camera, who always seem to be on their guard and on their game; it's a perfect piece of casting, and the show is enriched by her presence. When they first aired the opening credits, I counted the list of actors and went "just those four"? Now four seems like the most magical number, and Limitless the year's most magical surprise.

Madam Secretary

Limitless is reaching the younger audience that CBS has been thirsting for; Madam Secretary is reaching its more traditional base, but with strong overall viewing figures -- and it's giving them the best character-based drama they've had since the early days of The Good Wife. Madam Secretary had a solid first season, but it had some kinks to work out. Téa Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) stars as former CIA agent Elizabeth McCord, brought back to Washington to serve as Secretary of State. The show utilizes the dual home/workplace format that's been around for generations, and the first season struggled a bit figuring out how to define and humanize Elizabeth's staff, and how to keep her home-life interesting, when (obviously) the family plots (e.g., her eldest daughter dropping out of college) couldn't be nearly as gripping as what she was dealing with at work. And as befalls a lot of shows early in their run, they needed to wrap up plots quickly, so that new viewers could tune in at any time, which meant Elizabeth was scoring an awful lot of successes for a rookie Secretary of State. The plots needed broadening -- Elizabeth needed longer-term challenges -- and that's a structural change that's paid off handsomely in Season 2.

But other marvelous things have happened this season. Elizabeth's staff has settled into their roles -- and the writers show greater command of both their quirks and their strengths. The President, facing an upcoming election, has morphed from lamb into tiger, and the newfound vigor and unpredictability that Keith Carradine is bringing to the role have energized his scenes with Elizabeth and his chief of staff (Zeljko Ivanek, never smarmier and never better). And the political stories have grown more sweeping and more nuanced, and the stakes ever higher; in particular, killing off the Russian President, only to have him supplanted in power by his more ruthless, decidedly anti-American widow, was a masterstroke that ramps up the tension between the two nations and allows the plot to proceed in new directions without inviting (or avoiding) "real-life" comparisons.

The need to make Elizabeth's home life as compelling as the life-or-death situations she faces on the job has, this season, been met with greater success as well, and that should come as no surprise to anyone aware of series creator Barbara Hall's background, as no one writes family drama better. Over the past two decades, I figure we've had about three network dramas that accurately represented -- without melodrama, without the tropes of soap opera -- what the day-to-day drudgery and messy humor of family life is like: one wasn't Hall's (it was Glenn Gordon Caron's Medium), but the other two were: Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia. (It says a lot about how badly American families have been portrayed on network television when, of the three series to do it well, one featured a mother who was psychic, the other a daughter who talked to God; apparently, capturing the American family with any grain of truth requires divine intervention.) This season, the Madam Secretary writing staff boasts Joy Gregory (from Joan of Arcadia) and Moira Kirland (from Medium), and family life has rarely rung so true. The kids could easily have developed into stereotypes: the rebellious older daughter, the neglected middle child, the youngest who longs to fit in -- but they haven't. They're such a step up from the one-note blunders we've seen in similar shows (e.g., The Good Wife) that every breakfast scene around the kitchen island is like a gift: the madness and mundaneness we all go through before we go off to conquer -- or in this case, save -- the world. The Secretary of State is equally well cared for on the home front and abroad.

One thing clicked on Madam Secretary from the start, although that too has only gotten stronger: the relationship between Elizabeth and her husband Henry, as the onscreen chemistry between Téa Leoni and Tim Daly bled into real life. During Season 1, they smartly blended Henry into the ongoing political landscape by uprooting him from his university teaching job, and placing him in a new position as military ethics professor for the National War College, working secretly for the NSA. In one recent episode, Henry goes on CSPAN2 to talk about a new book and comes under fire from a call-in viewer, Jeff, who wants only to discuss a compromising picture that's surfaced of Henry's daughter in bed with the President's son: to attack Henry for holding himself up as "an expert on morality" and ask if that photo is his definition of "moral parenting." And far from backing away from the question, Henry goes on the warpath, on the air:

"I'd like to start by making a distinction that I usually make on the very first day of my Morals and Ethics class. A lot of people say that morals are how we treat the people we know, and ethics are how we treat the people we don't know. So morals are what make us a good parent, a good friend, a nice neighbor. But ethics are how we build a society. That's the true test of our higher self. But what happens, Jeff, when society is ruled by the subjective morals of, say, you and your family, and you choose to project that onto complete strangers is that we all end up with a society that's governed by self-aggrandizement. So really, by calling in, to make sure you're the first little pedant to jump off your chair and teach me a lesson with smug superiority about your own particular moral point of view, when you know precisely nothing of the situation, you've done your part to contribute to the erosion of our entire social fabric. Pat yourself on the back. Bravo."

In an age when "why is your penis on a dead girl's phone" is promoted like it's a dazzling line of dialogue, where else on network TV are we seeing moments like this: intelligent, able people being stretched until they break, but remaining principled, defiant and passionately articulate?

And I'm not going to say much more. If you haven't seen Limitless, do a Brian-Finch rewind back to the beginning of the season, catch up (we're only eight episodes in) and join the fun. If you haven't seen Madam Secretary, you can start with the pilot, but you can also easily slip in at the start of this season and get a good grasp of the characters and situations, at their best, and you will not be disappointed.

Two very different shows, two exhilarating hours.

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