TV’s Bait and Switch

Think you’re ordering carp and end up with crappie?

by Susan Tolleson

You ever look forward to digging into your favorite dish from a restaurant you haven’t been to in years, only to discover it’s really not so great anymore? Yeah, me, too. I can’t help but shake the feeling that some of this season’s TV schedule is like that, and smart consumers aren’t putting up with it. The shiny new shows that looked creative, original, somewhat wholesome (and even delicious!)  have turned a little rancid the longer you stuck with them.

Two shows I’ve been keeping an eye on — one new this year and one that premiered a year ago — seem to have done a little bait and switch, and I’m wondering if this is a trend. CW’s “No Tomorrow” showed promise as a sweet and quirky “dramedy” that essentially focused on relationships and how we humans mess them up, but then work to restore them, against the backdrop of the world ending in just six months. Yes, the love interests went to bed together on the first episode (which was disappointing, but not surprising for the CW), but about three episodes later (“No Holds Barred”), the show could no longer hold back and lowered the bar with an entire episode focused on open sexual relationships and ménage à trois (and whatever the four- and five-partner activities would be called). It also included as many shots of shirtless chests (males and females, though the females were still partially covered) in this celebration of “ethical non-monogamy” (Xavier’s words).

Now to be fair, the episode revealed that the multiple-partner “activities” actually never happened and the non-exclusive relationships Xavier thought he wanted were no longer enticing once he realized how much he cared for Evie. Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but I have to admit I wasn’t ready for this amount of casual talk regarding open relationships and multiple partners at this point in the series. It would have made for some really uncomfortable TV watching if my young teen daughter (CW’s target audience) had joined me.

Along those lines, let me add a “parental” note. Although all of these topics were used to set up a laugh, the level of casualness with which the 20-something characters discussed this was no different than how they covered the lunch menu or what they were going to wear that day. In other words, having sex with multiple partners — at different times or at the same time — was treated as a normal activity within relationships. This is a concerning trend in entertainment, in general, but specifically among programming targeted to young people.

Some would argue this story line was necessary to demonstrate how strongly Xavier felt about Evie, but really, was anyone in the audience questioning that? Or that it helped show Evie in a whole new light, ready to stretch her boundaries, but I could think of a million other ways that could have still been accomplished within the framework of this creative show. It’s as if the writers took the week off and gave the job to the interns, who took 15 minutes to write something completely unoriginal and expected so they could go back to swiping right or playing Pokemon Go (is that still a thing?).

I guess viewers have decided the show isn’t what they expected, either — whether it be for this reason or many others. CW has decided not to pick up a full season of episodes beyond the original eight. By the way, this is the first time in the network’s 11-year history that no new fall series has received a full-season order. That means November 29 will be the end of this short-lived series. Although the show received generally favorable reviews from critics, I’d be curious to find out what viewers didn’t like about it or why they didn’t connect. Perhaps there’s a few more fuddy-duddies out there like me thinking, “Why’d ya have to go and mess up a perfectly cute show with all this crazy sex talk?”

The other show I’ve been watching since last spring is “Mom” on CBS. The sitcom, starring Allison Janney (Bonnie) and Anna Faris (Christy), focuses on mother and daughter recovering alcoholics who live together and their female Al-Anon group of friends. The writing is smart, the chemistry between Janney and Faris outstanding, and even though they’ve dealt with some serious topics, the witty jabs keep it enjoyable and not too heavy. (Although the cast is largely female, this sitcom is so well done that my husband even likes it!) The show has struck a good balance between addressing head-on the consequences of addiction — Faris’ character is divorced and has lost custody of her son — while somehow keeping it light and funny. Until now.

On the show’s third episode this season (“Sparkling Water and Ba-Dinkers”), Bonnie fears she’s no longer desirable to her new boyfriend, Adam (William Fichtner), because he’s smoking pot before they have sex. For one thing, this is the first time sex has played such an obvious role on this show. Previously, the sex was relegated to innuendos and one-liners. This smart show didn’t need to explain to its adult viewers what was going on; it would have been much funnier and more sophisticated to hint at what might be happening. Secondly, for a show focused on showing the path of destruction left behind by addiction, it seems contradictory to put this level of emphasis on drugs purely for the sake of getting a laugh, and without showing their negative impact. The episode also shows Bonnie’s boyfriend drinking heavily and Bonnie somewhat encouraging, or at least enabling, it.

Perhaps this is all leading up to a big disaster between Bonnie and Adam, and we just need to wait and see what happens. The show usually strives to have a clear message that relationships are more important than addictions, addictions mess things up, and we all need each other to help us move forward past our “stuff.” I find it hard to believe that in its fourth season, the show’s writers and directors suddenly decided it would be okay to make light of taking drugs and heavy drinking. Especially when they’ve so successfully put together a positive show where characters poke fun at their past selves enslaved to their addictions, but now focused on healing and improvement.

“Mom” is one of those shows I’ve recommended to other people for its wit and its warmth. It’s different — and better — than much of what’s on TV, and packs a lot of emotional punch into its 30 minutes, perhaps more than any sitcom out there right now. So I just hope this most recent episode, which felt a little out of place and just a little too pedestrian, is going somewhere. I’d hate to think a show with such heart and humor has lost its way, leaving a bad taste in our mouths.

What about you? Is there a show you’ve been watching that seemed like the perfect dish, but threw an unexpected ingredient into the mix, and now it’s soured you on it? We’d love to talk to you about it – share it with us! 

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