Jon Hein knows TV. In the late 1990s, he coined the phrase "Jump the Shark" when he founded the site of the same name. Since then, he's written about television everywhere from The New York Times to TV Guide. In his column for Primetimer, he shares his thoughts on what's new and good on TV and the shows on his radar for the coming week.
My favorite word to describe network television is "predictable". Network execs are tasked with catering to a mass audience that apparently limits the amount of "niche" programming you can do. For every Twin Peaks or LOST, there are countless titles with exclamation points at the end and quick shelf lives.
A go-to move for any network is greenlighting a new show based on a popular film. The logic is simple – millions paid to see this in theaters, so if we can grab the rights and land a few recognizable actors, it's a built-in audience without an aggressive marketing campaign.
How could this fail? Let me count the ways. For every M*A*S*H, Buffy and Parenthood, there are many more like Delta House, Clueless or Ferris Bueller.
The difference between movies and TV shows isn’t just the screen size and star power. It's all about expectations. Going to see a movie is a unique storytelling experience as you're immersed in that world for the first time – even if you've read a review. The challenge of any TV program based on a film is to build upon that initial experience and maintain interest for more than two hours. Not an easy task.
Fargo is an excellent recent example of doing this the right way. It has the advantage of airing on cable which provides much needed leeway for creativity. Noah Hawley took the Coen brothers universe and created unique storylines that made sense. Having Billy Bob Thornton headline the first season didn't hurt either.
CBS, having historically come up short with gems like Fast Times and Dirty Dancing is trying a new recently successful tactic. Take an enormously popular film and create an entire series based on one of the characters!
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you may recall that I enjoy Cobra Kai, which currently airs on Netflix. The main story centers around Johnny Lawrence, the bad guy in the original film. Ralph Macchio is a big part of the current story, but this is Johnny's tale and the mix of nostalgia is just right. This isn't the karate kid's story...it's the other guy's turn.
Thomas Harris' novel The Silence of the Lambs is fertile territory. Several movies have been based on his discerning characters. NBC had a winner in Hannibal, which followed the early relationship of the terrifying doctor and FBI profiler Will Graham. This time around, the story revolves around the female FBI investigator made famous by Jodie Foster, set one year after the Silence took place.
Dr. Lecter was the breakout star of the Oscar winning film, but now it's Ms. Starling's turn on the small screen. Clarice delves back into the world of serial murderers, sexual predators and federal politics in an adjusted mental state. It has been a long time since we've seen Clarice, but CBS has plenty of shows that thrive in this creepy world involving the FBI.
Hannibal succeeded without Anthony Hopkins. Rebecca Breeds has her work cut out playing a most memorable agent within the confines of network TV. The odds are against Clarice, but she’s overcome tougher ones before. Worst case, there’s another agency with three or four letters that CBS can make a series out of.
It's a slow week for new stuff, so catch up on stuff you've missed or check out this week's picks.:
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel (NETFLIX)
Wednesday, February 10th
Netflix has become true-crime central, and now it turns to a L.A. hotel that's well known for its creepy history.
This four-part miniseries chronicles death-related events that occurred in the lodging establishment nicknamed Hotel Death. This hotel has quite the track record – home base for serial killers like Richard Rodriguez, multiple murders, many suicides, and even links to the Black Dahlia murder.
The main focus is the disappearance of Elisa Lam whose body was discovered in the hotel water tower back in 2013. Learning about the history of this place makes you wonder why anyone would ever book a reservation.
American Idol (ABC)
Sunday, February 14th 8pm
This… is American Idol?
Yes, Idol is still on the air with Ryan Seacrest at the helm. No longer the ratings juggernaut it once was on FOX, the national search for the next Carrie Underwood keeps chugging along at ABC.
Recent mom Katy Perry returns with Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan behind the judges table. Idol contestants have much to overcome, and COVID adds yet another hurdle to achieving the ultimate TV singing success. Belting one out from your home can be a blessing or a curse.
Families continue to gather around to watch fame wannabes sing their hearts out. Never thought I'd yearn for the day to hear Ryan shout "you're going to Hollywood!" once again. Watch preview.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Sunday, February 14th 10pm
How dare John Oliver take off during the past few months of political craziness! The automatic Emmy winner returns this Sunday to a world just as screwed up as it was before he left.
Last Week Tonight stands out among numerous shows modeled just like this on cable TV. Oliver is a brilliant host with great timing, and his show is always funny and informative in a way that never feels patronizing.
Hiatuses are something all TV watchers have to live with. It has been too long, John. It’ll be good to see you and that wonderful void of yours once again.
If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you.
Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Stay healthy and safe.
Jon Hein is the creator of "Jump the Shark" and author of three books. Follow him @jonhein on Twitter.