Joshua Alston: How 'Fit' Is the Spring Television Slate?

by Joshua Alston

If you're like me, you have fond memories of being 15. Life was fun and carefree, and there was a seemingly endless road ahead of you that promised adventure, romance and success. But TV shows ain't like people. They age really quickly, which is why it was hard to imagine such a promising future for "ER," which finally turned off its defibrillator paddles this year, after 15 seasons. I thought about this the other day as I was playing Wii Fit, toddling on the balance board, trying in vain to hold a perfect Warrior pose. I later took the always-mortifying Wii Fitness test and found that while my real age is 30, my Wii Fit age is … well, suffice it to say, it's the age at which people feel like the wait staff at Denny's are the only ones who get it. Five shows premiered last week, and while I could call them new, I'd sooner call them recent. Because just like in Wii Fit, most TV shows start out feeling older than they actually are. Here, then, is a take on those shows, along with an estimate of what we'll call their "TV Fit" ages.

"Surviving Suburbia," ABC, Mondays at 9:30 p.m.

What it is: A good ol' fashioned multi-camera sitcom starring the unsinkable Bob Saget as Steve Patterson, a husband and father of two, trying to navigate the wasteland that is suburbia.
What makes it fresh: Cynthia Stevenson plays Steve's wife, Anne, and there's something about her I've always liked. She's chipper even when she doesn't mean to be, and she has a sour grape of a face that is the perfect canvas for comedy. Plus, I loved her in Todd Solondz's "Happiness," in which she made her character totally loathsome, even though she never really does anything to anyone.
What makes it stale: Hoo boy, where to begin? "Suburbia" is tonally pitched right between "Full House" and "Married With Children," but it manages to forfeit both the warmth of the former and the belly laughs of the latter. The jokes are just ineptly written. (Anne: "Do I smell beer on your breath?" Steve: "It's gum … beer-flavored gum.") And Jere Burns is in the cast, so … there's that.
Real age: 9 days
TV Fit age: 20 years

"The Unusuals," ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

What it is: A cop drama with comic elements, "The Unusuals" follows Detective Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn), a vice cop transferred to an oddball NYPD precinct after the murder of a fellow officer.
What makes it fresh: Just about everything. The show, which was created by "Bones" creator Noah Hawley, is definitely guilty of being quirky for the sake of quirkiness. But there's a credible emotional underpinning to each character that makes it all work. Not since the best episodes of "Desperate Housewives" or the earliest installments of "Ugly Betty" have I seen a show combine broad, absurd humor and drama so smoothly.
What makes it stale: There's a risk of quirk overload. The pilot runs up to the line and stops just in time, but it's a tough balance to maintain episode after episode. Plus, a scene in which cops pretend that a piece of office equipment is a lie detector feels too much like a scene from "The Wire," except that it made sense in "The Wire" and was completely illogical here.
Real age: 7 days
TV Fit age: 1 month

"Southland," NBC, Thursdays at 10 p.m.

What it is: A gritty cop drama set in Los Angeles. John Wells, the long-time "ER" executive producer, serves the same role here.
What makes it fresh: Like "ER" before it, it's more character-driven than it is case-driven. It's short on procedural elements and focuses more on the psychological toll of day-to-day police work. Ben McKenzie, of "The O.C." fame, plays a rookie cop with quiet confidence.
What makes it stale: The tone, which is a complete downer. "Southland" feels like the type of dour drama HBO or its cable competitors might have gone for, were it not about such a pedestrian subject as police work. There's foul language and gallows humor galore, but it makes the show seem more contrived than "real."
Real age: 6 days
TV Fit age: 6 years

"Harper's Island," CBS, Sundays at 10 p.m.

What it is: A scripted drama that resembles a reality competition. A group of family and friends gather on an island to celebrate a wedding, but the guests start being murdered one by one, and as each is dispatched, the audience gets closer to the identity of the killer.
What makes it fresh: It's a show that has an expiration date and knows it, which is refreshing, given that so many shows overstay their welcomes. It's a limited event, so viewers can climb aboard confident that they'll get a complete resolution by the time the series concludes. Plus, it's just an original concept. I can't recall a network television series that took its cues from '80s slasher movies.
What makes it stale: It takes its cues from '80s slasher movies. While horror movie conventions are not typically seen in weekly network dramas, that doesn't mean we haven't seen them a million times before. The most egregious offense is the inclusion of a creepy kid, this time a moppet named Madison who burns insects under a microscope and mumbles disturbing stuff.
Real age: 6 days
TV Fit age: 1 year

"Parks and Recreation," NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.

What is it: A new mockumentary from Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, the brains behind "The Office." Amy Poehler stars as Leslie Knope, a midlevel government employee in Pawnee, Ind., with delusions of grandeur.
What makes it fresh: Knope's character is an eternal optimist who is constantly confronted by the delays and false starts that make life so frustrating. And the fact that she's a local politician makes her the perfect metaphor for what we're all feeling at this juncture: hope that our bumbling elected officials can get something done.
What makes it stale: The obvious resemblance to "The Office." Granted, "The Office" didn't invent, nor does it have a monopoly on, the mockumentary style, but it's hard not to draw comparisons between the two shows. Both have a main character with a self-awareness deficiency, and both have featured the marvelous Rashida Jones.
Real age: 6 days
TV Fit age: 6 months