REVIEW: Can American Network television still compete in the ‘streaming era’?

by | Dec 10, 2021 | All, Reviews

A new term has emerged in the US. The term ‘cord cutter’ refers to someone who has let their cable provider go and only watches streaming services. There are so many streaming options in the US it’s understandable that consumers may feel that traditional broadcast television doesn’t offer them anything exciting or discussion-worthy for them to continue to stay loyal to networks like CBS, NBC and FOX most of which have launched their own paid-for streamers like NBC’s Peacock and CBS’s Paramount+.

With that in mind, I liked US native Mo Walker to look at the new shows the traditional broadcasters have on offer to see if network television is still relevant in a television landscape where streaming services reign supreme.

American network broadcaster CBS is currently having a spooktacular Fall 2021 television season thanks in part to Ghosts (2021).  This is of course the American adaptation of the BBC1 comedy Ghosts (2019). The aptly nicknamed “Eye Network” (because of its logo) is primarily known for churning out long running procedural franchises like CSI, NCIS, and FBI – which rely upon colons in their titles to denote spin-offs.  CBS has also been home to broad skewing comedies including The Big Bang Theory and its prequel series Young Sheldon.  This is not CBS’ first acquisition from across the pond. Back in 2007, the network adapted the musical drama Blackpool as Viva Laughlin which only aired two episodes on CBS before being cancelled. Thankfully, Ghosts is far superior to Viva Laughlin.  But like most American remakes, the series underwent a slight facelift so it could air on an ad-supported network.

For the purposes of this discussion (and to avoid confusion), the CBS adaptation will be referred to as Ghosts: US, and the original version as Ghosts: UK. Ghosts: US is executive produced by Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, who have experience with dramedies that involve fantastical elements.  The duo contributed to NBC’s critical darling Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.  Both Joes were also executive producers on Robin Williams’ final network series, The Crazy Ones (which coincidentally aired on CBS).

CBS wisely aired the first two episodes together allowing viewers unfamiliar with the property to become acquainted in roughly 44 minutes.  These initial episodes remain faithful to the BBC version.  A young woman inherits a large manor house, moves in with her husband, and after a near-death experience, she gains the ability to see and communicate with the dead.  Franchise fanatics will quickly notice the tonal differences since each version is designed to appeal to a specific audience.  Ghosts: US is lighter in its approach to death, less reliant on gallows humour, and injects culture references into episodes to appear relevant. 

Though each version has the same starting point, the material is interpreted differently thanks to their respective leading ladies – Rose McIver (Samantha, Ghosts: US) and Charlotte Ritchie (Alison Cooper, Ghosts: UK). Clearly, McIver and Ritchie’s distinct acting pedigrees have influenced the direction their characters take in both iterations of Ghosts.  Samantha’s temperament is more easy-going and appears to take a more sympathetic tone with her ethereal housemates; she seems to be way more tolerant of her husband Jay’s (Utkarsh Ambudkar) antics.  By contrast, Alison is generally a bit harsher with her ghosts and partner Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe).  Perhaps Samantha would have a constant scowl too if she was coveted by a dead would-be lothario who is also a failed poet. 

Ghosts: US begins to (slightly) branch off plot-wise from the BBC version in the third episode.  Prior to the third outing, viewers of both versions may notice some cosmetic changes to account for name changes and differences in episodes lengths.  Instead of focusing on Pete (Richie Moriarty), the ghostly Boy Scout leader’s backstory (Pat in the BBC version), the audience is treated to Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long) the Viking’s backstory.  Unfortunately for Thorfinn, he did not die in a blaze of glory drinking a mug of mead.  Otherwise, he probably would have ended up in Valhalla instead of milling about the Woodstone Estate for centuries.  Thorfinn is the American equivalent of Caveman Robin (Laurence Rickard) from Ghosts: UK, only with a larger vocabulary. 

Though the plots may be similar (at least initially), the creative team behind Ghosts: US clearly understand their apparitions can not be carbon copies.  We get the welcome inclusion of an indigenous American, Sasappis (Roman Zaragoza), but  I hope the character is given the proper space and time to develop.  Sasappis has very little to do during episodes 1 – 5 outside of delivering a few punchlines.  If fans of the property believe that Alberta Haynes (Danielle Pinnock) and Kitty (Lolly Adefope) are interchangeable, they are in for a rude awakening.  The only characteristic these two appear to share is they are both women of African descent.  Alberta radiates an air of worldliness and confidence that Kitty lacks.  Given the current social and political climate in America, if Alberta were to display a fraction of the neediness Kitty regularly exhibits Twitter would be in an uproar!

On the surface, Ghosts: US should not have a lot in common with the adjoining comedies on its Thursday night scheduling block.  Though to be fair, the show leading-out of Ghosts is B Positive (which as of Series 2) now revolves around its female protagonist owning a retirement community.  CBS is traditionally known for having an older viewership, so a situational comedy block comprised of shows featuring characters in the late stages of life and the afterlife is somewhat meta.

Ghosts: US is airing during a critical time for the network.  CBS is two seasons removed from the ending of its ratings juggernaut The Big Bang TheoryYoung Sheldon is on Series 5 but has not become a “CBS water cooler show”.  The network’s parent company, ViacomCBS, is in the process of making its streaming service Paramount+ more readily available to consumers outside North America.  CBS need shows that generate buzz and can be used to market the service.  Episodes of Ghosts: US are available to stream on Paramount+ the day after they transmit.  CBS has been building on the positive response by promoting the series through its various apps and website.

CBS’ forays into otherworldly shows are traditionally short-lived.  The supernatural drama Evil was exorcised from CBS after Series 1 one but has been resurrected on Paramount+.  CBS’ quasi-spiritual dramedy God Friended Me was unfriended by the network in 2020 after its second series.  Even super-heroes cannot appease the Eye Network’s (typical) older demographic; CBS banished Supergirl to an affiliated network (The CW) after Series 1 in 2015.  If current ratings (and a full-season pick-up) are to be believed, Ghosts: US has escaped similar fates by embracing the characteristics of a traditional CBS comedy – situational humour with semi-relatable yet slightly quirky characters. 

Ghosts: US may have the chassis of the BBC1 series but runs on a CBS-powered engine.  It is a charming bit of moving wallpaper that is easy to consume especially if you plan on binging episodes.  Unfortunately, a lot of character development is left by the wayside.  The additional minutes allow the UK original to provide a bit more insight into the characters, particularly the apparitions.  Plus, Button House feels like a lived-in space instead of a sitcom set.  Ghosts: US is not essential television for fans of the original.  However, I believe it is a fascinating piece of telly that warrants regular attention.  If it manages to continue over the long haul, it will be interesting to see how the show evolves especially once the source material runs out.  With the right amount of patience on the part of CBS, perhaps Ghosts: US could become the network’s equivalent of The Office.     

The Wonder Years (2021), a reboot of the late 1980s sitcom, continues the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)’s winning strategy heartfelt family sitcoms driven by nostalgia.  The 2021 iteration features a middle-class African American family living in Montgomery, Alabama during the late 1960s – instead of a white middle-class suburban family.  Shepherding this reboot is veteran television producer and writer Saladin Patterson (Fraiser, Psych, and The Big Bang Theory), in addition to film director Lee Daniels (Precious and The United States vs. Billie Holiday).  Like so many reboots and, The Wonder Years relies on individuals from a previous incarnation.  In this instance it is Fred Savage, who starred on the original series as Kevin Arnold, serving as an executive producer. He also directs the first three episodes.

Casting is always a key ingredient in the production any television series, this is especially true with coming-of-age shows.  Fortunately, The Wonder Years landed a likeable and engaging young lead Elisha “EJ” Williams, who portrays Dean Williams.  EJ Williams may have a limited number of IMDB credits, but he expertly avoids the trap of annoying child protagonist.  Young Dean’s mistakes and subsequent reactions feel natural. Don Cheadle narrates the series as the adult version of Dean.  

The Wonder Years wisely takes time to establish Dean’s relationship with each member of his family.  Dean’s relationship with his father Bill (Dulé Hill) is highlighted in the first episodes. In the pilot, Dean (and the audience) come to fully understand Bill’s views on race through the lens of little league baseball.  Bill is naturally suspicious of whites; he advocates for increasing black wealth by strengthening its middle class.  He strongly discourages Dean from playing against a white team.  However, as an academic Bill understands that a certain amount of interaction is required for his children to thrive in America.  Bill or Dean are unable to completely win over each other, but a détente is reached – as it relates to baseball.  Unfortunately, Bill and Dean’s understanding is turned on its head once the town learns about Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr.’s assassination. 

While Dean is grappling with the twin daggers of heartbreak and betrayal.  Dean understands that Dr. King’s death is a tragic loss for African Americans. This episode could have easily become a “very special episode”, but the writers opted to have Dean and Bill processing recent events before having them come together for an intimate father-son moment.  Life offers very few quick solutions and parents may not have the answers.  In fact, they may be struggling with issues that dwarf a young adult’s perspectives. I appreciated how The Wonder Years’ creative team understood that most problems cannot be solved over the course of a 30-minutes but conversations may occur that may lead to a future resolution.

Prior to The Wonder Years, I wasn’t familiar with actress Saycon Sengbloh who portrays the family’s matriarch Lillian Williams.  Lillian exudes the quiet inner strength and ferocity associated with television sitcom mothers – especially individuals of colour.  Sengbloh’s body language and colloquialisms often caused me to experience flashbacks from childhood.  Phrases like “stay out of grown folks’ business” still carries power even as an adult.   Lillian has also been utilized to explore the intersection of race and gender in Alabama during the late 1960s.  During the onset of Dean’s sexual awakening in episode three (complete with erotic literature), the audience discovered Lillian’s sexual predilections and how they conflict with the time period’s societal mores.  Race and gender in a 1960s workplace are examined in episode four when Dean observes his mother at work for a day.  Dean walks away from the experience with a more enlightened view of the emotional and identity struggles Lillian faces at work daily.       

Sibling rivalries are a hallmark of most sitcoms, and The Wonder Years is no exception.  Here, Dean’s familial foil is his sister Kim (Laura Kariuki) who constantly belittles her younger brother.  She is always eager to educate Dean about his immaturity and ignorance about life.  Perhaps this is Kim’s method of compensating for the gender bias, she perceives is happening within the Williams household – especially as it relates to sex.  Sprinkled throughout episodes two and three are one-off comments from Kim’s father (Bill) worrying about her becoming pregnant.  Kim’s views (like most teenagers) are in direct contrast to her parents.  She is a political activist who is involved in the local Black Panther Party.  Dean was able to experience this aspect of his sister’s life up close when they secretly attended a Black Panther event in the second episode. 

ABC’s decision to reboot The Wonder Years is a smart and safe choice, especially from a marketing perspective.  Retooling an older property may help a network or streaming service cut through the clutter of so many new shows making it potentially an easier sell in other markets – or in this case to ABC’s international corporate sibling Star (Disney+).

The 2021 iteration not only revitalized an award-winning property for ABC while enabling the network to add an additional comedy series starring an African American family to its schedule.  With ABC stalwart Black-ish, heading into its final series the network needs a new understudy waiting to take the baton.  The series also hits another key ABC demographic – a period comedy series featuring a voiceover by an adult version of the show’s young protagonist.  ABC’s current reigning champ of period sitcoms The Goldbergs is on Series 9, and Mixed-ish (a Black-ish spin-off set in the 1980s) was cancelled after Series 2.

If you are yearning for a 22-minutes of warm entertainment, consider adding The Wonder Years to your watchlist when it arrives in the UK later this month on Disney+  Though the show features an African American family during a fraught time period in America (truthfully when are things not turbulent) the creators are wise enough to emphasis it’s universal appeal.  The familial chemistry between the actors makes this an accessible show that is easy to watch.  It’s a show that beautifully balances the fear and uncertainty that comes from life with the everyday joys that unexpectedly can occur.  If the current worldwide uncertainty has taught us anything, why not set aside a little bit of time for comfort and nostalgia. 

Finally, we have a drama from NBC.  Ordinary Joe is the network’s latest attempt at launching a high concept drama.  The show stars James Wolk as Joe Kimbreau, a man existing simultaneously in three parallel realities: as a musician, nurse, and police officer.  The premise may be extraordinary, but sadly,  Ordinary Joe quickly becomes a mediocre attempt at combining NBC tearjerker This Is Us with Marvel Cinematic Universe animated series What If…?.           

After graduating from university, Joe Kimbreau is faced with three choices that shaped his life for the next ten years.  I appreciated how quickly the show delved into the three parallel lives. Given the marketing for the series is upfront about the multiple timelines.  Unfortunately, the premise is introduced in a ridiculous manner that may mislead the audience into thinking Ordinary Joe is a dramedy instead of a traditional drama.  Intentional or not, the scene in which Joe is talking to his childhood friend Eric (Charlie Barnett) that cuts away to three literal paths representing different timelines feels clunky.  

James Wolk is given a lot to do here and it’s hard not to appreciate the lengths he goes through to differentiate each ‘Joe’.  There is no mistaking the stoic Officer Joe from emotionally drained workaholic Nurse Joe, but the glasses are a nice touch.  Nurse Joe is emotionally walled off from most people in his life, including best friend turned spouse Jenny (Elizabeth Lail). Nurse Joe is clearly saving his warmth and affections for their son Chris (John Gluck) who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy.  Musician Joe has a  scruffy but soulful musician look. In between fans awkwardly trying to chat to him in restaurants, Musician Joe and his wife Amy Kindelan (Natalie Martinez) are struggling with infertility issues.

Ordinary Joe is effective at utilizing a real-world event as the show’s emotional starting point.  Making the lead character’s father a police officer who died on September 11th will resonate with a large portion of the American audience. The second episode tackles the legacy of 9/11 head-on by depicting generational trauma from the perspective of surviving family members.  Each incarnation of Joe processes the day differently.  Nurse Joe was no match for the emotional tag-team combination of his wife (Jenny) and mother.  Each one kept nudging until Nurse Joe started unpacking the reason why he did not want to attend the 9/11 remembrance ceremony.  These scenes climaxed in a poignant father-son moment in which Nurse Joe starts to realize that sharing his grief with Chris and the wider world may be a way to start healing. Officer Joe may not have experienced the same level of interpersonal growth achieved by his stethoscope wearing doppelgänger, but he is able to spiritually connect with his father on 9/11 due to their mutual profession along with a quick promotion to detective.  

In the Ordinary Joe multiverse, the key to advancing in law enforcement appears to be saving a politician’s life – Congressman Bobby Diaz (Adam Rodriguez).  To be fair, this was a smart move by the writing team.  Tying the promotion to 9/11 and being assigned his father’s old service number (thanks to this timeline’s Amy) is an easy way to score emotional currency with the audience.  Plus, you get the bonus of strengthening the bond between these two characters more quickly.  

Unfortunately, the 9/11 commemoration ceremony had the opposite effect on Musician Joe and his wife Amy.  Musician Joe did not handle Amy’s new career opportunity well, nor her desire to delay having a child.  Instead of engaging in a meaningful dialogue with Amy, Musician Joe turned his grief inward fueling a secret desire to find this timeline’s version of Chris – whom Jenny put up for adoption.  First alternate realities and now secret offspring!       

A great deal of screentime is also spent on a narrative trick that This Is Us has perfected – childhood flashbacks linked to present-day emotional trauma.  Unfortunately, this came at the detriment of other members of the Kimbreau family. Four episodes in, and it’s clear the show lives and dies on James Wolk’s performance – which has pluses and minuses.  Officer Joe is very square-jawed and exhibits very little personality defects outside of the emotional trauma shared by all three Joes.  Musician Joe clearly suffers from narcissism, particularly as it pertains to his offspring.  Nurse Joe is the blandest of the three, but this timeline is saved thanks to the chemistry shared between Wolk and John Gluck (Chris Kimbreau)’s onscreen father-son dynamic.  

Outside of Wolk and Gluck, many of the other cast members did not leave much of an impression. The show has yet to take full advantage of a lead character who is in law enforcement. Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, American television has been reckoning with the depiction of policing onscreen.  Four episodes in, there has not been any sort of acknowledgement of the social justice movements’ impact on modern-day policing.  

Ordinary Joe, like most new shows premiering in the streaming era, has a difficult job on its hands. It has to grapple with audience retention, but there’s also the question of how the audience who do decide to stick with it will watch the series. Shows on network television also face an even steeper climb to success.  These days the buzzy (and award-winning) series typically transmit on cable and streaming services.  Sadly, Joe is not extraordinary enough to be added to this viewer’s “watch list”.  It’s difficult to understand quite how viewers are expected to get emotionally invested in the various timelines when the show is constantly jumping around?  I don’t mind admitting I didn’t realise Joe was a nurse in one reality until the third episode!  When the audience doesn’t have clarity about the lead character’s career (or in this case careers) It’s a sign that multiversal jumps are occurring too frequently.  Perhaps in another reality, there is a simpler version of Ordinary Joe that focuses on two timelines and provides the show’s supporting cast an opportunity to distinguish their characters.     

So, is traditional network still relevant? Probably not. Of the three shows here, I liked the original of Ghosts, the remake, as with most remakes, managed to lose what I liked about the original in the course of its translation. The Wonder Years gets a lot right and is probably the most reliable of the three but, it’s the shame it’s a reboot rather than an exciting new idea. Finally, Ordinary Joe often tries far too hard to make its timelines work but feels like another show made in the shadow of the success of This Is Us. The most talked-about shows are on streaming platforms and if networks want to be part of the conversation they need to take risks and not rely on remakes of British shows, reboots of beloved sitcoms and copycats of a past hit. I’m not a cord cutter… yet.

Written by Mo Walker.

Maurice Walker

Maurice Walker

10/12/2021

Raised in the wilds of the North American television media landscape, discovered British Telly via Public Broadcasting Company (PBS). Favorite American Telly show: Buffy The Vampire Slayer; favorite British Telly show: Morse - enchanted by that red Jaguar and the number of academics involved in murders throughout Oxford.

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