We get awfully excited when television does something “new.” We like it when our shows break the rules: one of the more memorable Modern Family episodes took place entirely on the screen of Claire’s computer; Orange is the New Black features a unique situation – a women’s prison; other shows use exotic characters, such as Dexter, whose title character is a serial killer. In fact, these days, the more complicated (i.e. confusing) a show is the better. Westworld, Mr Robot, Legion: these shows seem to thrive on keeping the audience in suspense – not about how events will resolve but about what is actually happening.
Sometimes, though, what we want is just a good solid traditional television show – no bells and whistles, no out of body experiences, no smoke monsters. Two new fall shows, New Amsterdam and The Kids Are All Right, offer exactly that with entertaining results. At one and the same time these shows rely on television’s traditions but build on those traditions as well.
New Amsterdam, from NBC, centres on the fictional New York hospital of the same name, and its new director, Max Goodwin, who is on a mission to transform the hospital’s money-centred culture to one more patient-centred. That’s really all you need to know to watch. There’s nothing especially fancy going on at New Amsterdam. Episodes mostly follow a day in the life of the hospital, during which doctors interact with interesting patients and each other as they attempt to solve medical mysteries. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this setup many times before, from Trapper John, M.D. to St. Elsewhere, to E.R. Like these shows, New Amsterdam frequently pits the hospital administration who are only interested in the bottom line, against the self-less doctors who care only about patients and who feel a compulsion to break the “rules.” Episodes so far employ three neatly organized, parallel plotlines.
All of which might suggest there’s not much to see here. In fact, New Amsterdam has a great deal going for it, beginning with a stellar cast that includes Ryan Eggold (The Blacklist) as Dr Goodwin, Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who) as oncologist Helen Sharpe, as well as Janet Montgomery, Jocko Sims, and Anupam Kher. Tyler Labine particularly shines as psychologist Iggy Frome. Labine first made his mark in the criminally underrated Reaper but since then has been unable to find a role that fits his particular genius. Here he gets to play with his comedic chops, portraying a zany personality with innovative ideas about treating his patients, but this comedy is always used to the dramatic purpose.
Besides its cast, New Amsterdam offers enough season-long arcs to keep us emotionally invested. Goodwin fights to keep his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend afloat while putting in far too many hours at the hospital; Oncologist Helen Sharpe (Agyeman) tries to connect with her patients after being too long away from the hospital; Dr Kapoor (Kher) frets over his estranged son. More importantly, though, this is a story about the “good guys.” In one early episode, for example, Dr Goodwin convinces a wealthy donor to use her money not to fund the hospital but to fund a prison nursery. In another era, such gestures might feel tired or unrealistic, but during the Trump administration, this kind of selfless heroism is intoxicating.
ABC’s The Kids Are All Right, a show about a large Catholic family in the mid-70s is a throwback series as well. You’ll find lots of family comedies, from Eight is Enough to The Wonder Years in The Kids’ DNA, but its strongest resemblance is to Malcolm in the Middle. Timmy (Jack Gore) plays the “Malcolm” here, a bright artistic kid trying to find his place among his many brothers. The father, played by Michael Cudlitz (The Walking Dead) is stereotypically gruff, a hard working blue collar man who argues with his oldest son about migrant workers and hippies, but who deep down cares mightily about all his sons. Mom is more peculiar, a wild card in the mode of Malcolm’s Lois, who takes no prisoners and does exactly what she wants.
As with New Amsterdam, the talented cast makes a difference to Kids’ success, as does the fast-paced environment of the Cleary household. There is never a shortage of plotlines, including tiny delicious moments where one brother or another gets to chew scenery for fifteen seconds.
What really makes this show stand out, however, is its unique voice. We’ve seen a lot of these plotlines before: brothers fighting over a girl; a younger sibling comically ignored by everyone else in the house. But writer Tim Doyle, who based the series on his own life, twists the situations, giving them new outcomes. In episode two, for example, Timmy copies a poem his mother wrote in college and submits it to a competition. Predictably his poem is given first prize; predictably he is invited to read his poem at the awards ceremony, and predictably his mother shows up in the audience. At first, we’re sure Timmy will pay a steep penalty (a similar transgression brought about a “life lesson” in a recent episode of I Feel Bad) Instead, Timmy discovers that his mother herself copied the poem for a college assignment. At first the two play an entertaining game of chicken, deciding who will manage to guilt the other into admitting they cheated, but in the end, though they wind up collaborating, sending the poem on to more prestigious Reader’s Digest competition.
TV has come a long way since the early days of I Love Lucy and The Love Boat. These days, in fact, a show like Game of Thrones sometimes garners more critical praise than the latest Oscar contender. Still, there’s something to be said for remembering television’s history, its early simplicity. Shows that can play on that simplicity in fresh ways can be every bit as enjoyable as the complicated and confusing critical darlings.
Do you feel the need to step back for a more traditional approach to television these days? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to check out our latest reviews on the latest Halloween film and Netflix’s Castlevania Season 2.
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