TIME Television

Review: Playing House; or, The Repeat Offenses of Backstrom

Sergei Bachlakov/FOX

Fox's latest Brilliant Jerk procedural gives us a cop acting like a doctor who acted like a cop.

If someone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. If someone says it’s not about sex, it’s about sex. And if a network says a new show is not a clone of something, it’s–well, starting Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox, it’s Backstrom, with Rainn Wilson as a cranky, insult-spewing cop imitating the House formula with diminishing results.

Backstrom is directly based on the work of Swedish novelist Leif G.W. Persson, but he’s also in the tradition of TV’s Brilliant Jerks–the caustic, abrasive antiheroes we grow to love, or at least love to watch, because their antisocial tics directly relate to their success on the job. In the case of House M.D., what made that work was not just Hugh Laurie’s brilliant performance but the show’s theme and idea: that its doctor approached diagnosis using not just medical but forensic principles, beginning with the dictum that “all patients lie.” House took a cop formula and applied it to medicine, and for a long time it made that formula feel fresh again.

As rendered by Fox, Wilson and showrunner Hart Hanson (Bones), Backstrom simply takes that formula and applies it right back to a cop show, where it’s therefore not nearly as interesting. In order to distinguish itself, the series amps up its protagonist’s obnoxiousness to distracting levels. In particular, Portland investigator Everett Backstrom is “politically incorrect,” which is to say pretty much straight-up racist: to a doctor of South Asian ancestry (Rizwan Manji), he describes some Native American murder victims as “Not tandoori Indians like you, but you know, the–woo-woo-woo-woo!” A “black African American” suspect in a crowd of white people, he says, “stands out like a raisin in a bowl of buttered popcorn.”

Now, the show doesn’t endorse Backstrom’s attitudes, despite its “Oh, no, he went there” presentation. He has plenty of colleagues to roll their eyes at him, including Dennis Haysbert as a level-headed veteran. And the series rationalizes this character choice by gradually making it clear that Backstrom, as they say, “hates everyone,” not least himself–he’s happily eating and drinking himself into an early grave–and has a troubled history. Still, given the police-news events of recent months, you have to wonder if it’s the most opportune time to premiere a show about a hilariously bigoted cop.

But if it’s not fair to blame Backstrom for its timing, Wilson’s performance would seem showy and affected any year. Wilson’s a strong dramatic actor; he was quirkily poignant as uptight Arthur on Six Feet Under, and he could give Dwight Schrute real pathos on The Office when called on. But his Backstrom is more a prod than a person, built to provoke reactions from his co-stars and the audience. He seems most like a character when he’s inhabiting the mind of other characters–something he does repeatedly in the show’s gimmick, which has him role-play suspects in the first person: “I’m a senator burying my son the dope dealer…”

Whether this show means to remind you of House or not, here’s where it fails: it was interesting, and revelatory of character, to build a show around a doctor who is able to help people by assuming the worst of them. To do the same in Backstrom, no matter how hard everyone works to pour quirk into its title character, is nothing more than returning to the scene of the crime drama.

TIME Television

Knope and Change: The Politics of Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Colleen Hayes/NBC

How the sitcom has cheerfully made the case for a "liberal" idea that didn't used to be considered so liberal.

Reviewing “Leslie and Ron” earlier this week, I wrote that part of the appeal of Parks and Recreation, specifically Leslie and Ron’s friendship, is that it’s a model–or fantasy–of how people of opposite politics can still work together and care about each other. It’s a sitcom about politics that works, in part, because of how its characters put friendship over politics–or at least aside from politics.

But what about the show’s politics itself? I wrote about that in my farewell column to Parks in the print TIME this week (subscription required). Even though Parks has never been assertively political (it’s foremost a workplace sitcom, set in a world as richly developed as The Simpsons‘ Springfield), and it’s generally avoided real-world, hot-button issues, the show does have politics in its way.

Parks‘ politics, like Leslie’s, are liberal. But “liberal” only in the sense that the definition of liberal has been shifted rightward, along with the general conversation about government and what it’s for, over the past few decades:

There’s a big idea in Parks’ small-scale vision. In the frame of today’s politics, it might be a liberal notion, but it’s one that for much of the 20th century was centrist, and even championed by Republicans like park lover Teddy Roosevelt: that we need government to do things the private sector can’t or won’t, like preserving public spaces.

Shockingly, Parks has dared to suggest that while some civil servants might be bumbling–sorry, Jerry!–they can also be well-intentioned and competent. (This too wasn’t considered a liberal notion before the era when Ronald Reagan joked that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”)

One reason, I think, that Parks‘ politics don’t play especially “political” is that they grow out of a worldview that goes way beyond politics: about the importance of community, the idea that people need each other, that when you help someone, you’re also helping to make yourself better. That community goes well beyond government–it’s friends, neighbors, businesses–but Parks doesn’t hesitate to say that government, however imperfect and ludicrous, is another aspect of community, not an outside force imposed on legitimate community. (At the same time, though, it’s been respectful of the opposition view, if only by putting it in the mouth of Ron Swanson, the most awesome man on the planet.)

I’ve written this before, but this is one of the biggest things Parks has in common with American stories from It’s a Wonderful Life to Friday Night Lights, a touchstone that Parks has referenced repeatedly. People in FNL were liberal or conservative or neither; community meant everything from teams to churches to school systems. But the constant was that nobody does anything alone.

So it is on Parks: it’s only by pulling together that you turn a pit into the Pawnee Commons. In its own little way, that central story has made the case for what didn’t used to be such a divisive idea: that there is such a thing as the public common, and that it’s a good thing. Congratulations, Leslie and Parks: You built that.

 

TIME Television

Parks and Recreation Watch: We Didn’t Start the Fire

Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Ben Cohen/NBC

The sweet, pitch-perfect "Leslie and Ron" was the perfect antidote to State of the Union night.

Tuesday night, you could have watched the State of the Union address. You could have sat through the statements and zingers and counterstatements and counterzingers, all wrapped up with hours of punditry analyzing each party’s positioning and long game before concluding that, in the end, not a whole lot was likely to happen.

Or you could have watched two episodes of Parks and Recreation, on which two ideological opposites got locked in a room until they admitted that they cared about each other.

“Leslie and Ron,” sweet as a Pawnee waffle without being syrupy, showcased an advantage of the accelerated final season; we got the conclusion to this two-parter immediately after the more slight “William Henry Harrison.” (An episode whose chief appeal was working in the story of America’s briefest presidency, a true story that actually sounds like someone would have made it up for Parks and Recreation.) In the process, just as the season sped forward to 2017 (when Game of Thrones‘ Khaleesi –spoiler alert!–is marrying Jack Sparrow), it sped the resolution to, and explanation of, Leslie and Ron’s falling out.

In the process, it was a stellar example of how a final-season episode of a show like Parks does double duty: it took us backward on a nostalgia trip of callbacks to the early days of the series (including the pit, which is now officially Pawnee Common) and its characters’ relationships, while also advancing those relationships forward. As productive as the political differences between Leslie and Ron have been for comedy, so have their personality differences: Leslie’s effusiveness and paramilitary-level gift-giving rubs up against taciturn Ron, who winces through gestures of affection as if he were getting a root canal covered by Obamacare. That they’re able to connect despite all that’s gone between them, and despite their differences in style, is at least as important as their looking past their differences in politics.

Speaking of which, it’s significant here that “Leslie and Ron” didn’t choose to wrap up the two friends’ conflict over the Newport land at the same time as they cleared the air over Morningstar and April. Parks is a genial enough sitcom that I suspect it will split the difference on that eventually. But first it re-made its biggest point: that deeply held beliefs don’t have to get in the way of decency. And damn, did Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler sell that argument, wringing all the heart-tugging comedy out of the episode’s tightly written bottle-episode format. It was one of politics’ oldest conflicts (private vs. public) meets one of sitcoms’ oldest premises (the locked-in-a-room episode).

Eventually, before the season is over, Leslie will win or Ron will win or they’ll figure out some sort of win-win. But not before this half-hour, one of the series’ finest, made the corny but well-earned argument that those differences shouldn’t get in the way of important things, like human connection, or waffles and bacon. Why don’t more folks realize that? On a night of partisan theater, Parks and Recreation echoed a quote from its second season in answer: “People are idiots.”

TIME Television

Larry Wilmore’s First Nightly Show: The Underdog As Top Dog

COMEDY CENTRAL

Comedy Central's new show has a mission to offer a different perspective, starting with the map.

When Larry Wilmore’s new Comedy Central show had to change its title from The Minority Report to The Nightly Show, the comedian told me it was a good thing. He wanted his news-comedy show to focus on the underdog, and he didn’t want people making assumptions just because he’d been The Daily Show‘s “senior black correspondent”: “At least they won’t have that expectation,” he said. “Why’s he not talking about black today? What’s going on?”

Nobody gave the news cycle that memo. Even though Wilmore joked that he’d started a year late–“All the good bad-race-stuff happened already!”–he came on the air with plenty of material, from the Oscars’ snubbing of Selma to the Eric Garner non-indictment, that showed how, yeah, it’s actually useful to have a late night host of color around to comment on it. There was enough in the zeitgeist already that the timing of the debut wasn’t more than an aside: “A brother finally gets a show on late night TV! But of course he’s got to work on Martin Luther King Day.” (There wasn’t even time to work in Bill Cosby! That’s for night two.)

The first Nightly Show opened with a Wilmore monologue, somewhere between The Daily Show‘s headlines approach and John Oliver’s lengthy video essays: an extended standup arc that weaved in news items and built as it moved along.

Not surprisingly, from a performer who’s honed his acerbic commentary over years alongside Jon Stewart, this was the most solid, assured part of the first episode. Wilmore and his writers sketched the routine as one piece, starting from the Selma uproar, detouring to the state of black protest and Al Sharpton (“You don’t have to respond to every black emergency! You’re not black Batman!”), and working up to a chilling news item–police using mug shots of black men for target practice–that led to a searing final joke about police shootings that landed like an uppercut: “I’m not surprised when Kobe hits a jumper. That dude practices.”

The rest of the show, as advertised, was a Politically Incorrect-style panel: Sen. Cory Booker, comedian Bill Burr, rapper Talib Kweli and corrrespondent Shenaz Treasury following up on the opening monologue’s themes led by Wilmore. With the necessary caveat that it’s fruitless to “review” a late-night show after one night–they’re houses that we move into while the wiring is still exposed–this is the segment that will need the most work. It’s one thing to get your monologue tight, another to get a group of guests to be both funny and seriously engaged, all while maintaining the show’s energy and comic rhythm. Wilmore was ready with good questions–“Do you feel you’re just a hoodie away from being face-down in the pavement?” he asked Booker–but felt more tentative in the back-and-forth.

But the panel also may be the part of The Nightly Show with the most upside, the way for Wilmore’s show to really distinguish itself from Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s. (And for that matter, from Bill Maher’s and every other panel-format talk show.) No doubt the show will try a lot of bits, keep some, ditch some: night one, it was “Keep It 100,” where Wilmore challenged each guest to answer a question 100% honestly or be charged with a “weak tea” answer.

The bit was shaky–partly because it depended on the audience’s verdict, and talk-show audiences clap regardless, because that’s what they do–but Wilmore salvaged the end by playfully pelleting Booker with weak-tea bags for his canned answer on whether he wanted to be President. (Afterward, his staff gave him a pop question–“What’s the last racist thought you had?”–to which he said he’d wondered if a white woman thought he was going to steal her purse. Which, eh, Earl Grey maybe?)

Maybe the most important first impression from a talk show’s first night is simply point-of-view: does the show know what it is, and why it is? Here The Nightly Show really has something going for it. It opens like we’ve come to expect a fake-news show to, with the host at a desk in front of a map, but then you notice something different: the world map is oriented with the south on top. The impulse is to say the map is “upside down,” but of course it’s not–there is no up and down in space, only the orientation you assign as the standard if your culture happens to originate in the northern half of the planet.

That may be the guiding principle for The Nightly Show: to approach issues by questioning why we’re used to seeing them from a certain angle. It’s a philosophy that fits Wilmore, whose comic identity is as a free thinker, dryly funny, not ideologically predictable, a guy with the questions rather than the answers. He seems suspicious of overconfident blowhards, which may be why he seemed reluctant to take too heavy a hand running the panel, and it’ll take time to work out that balance.

But he shouldn’t worry about making himself too big a presence on The Nightly Show. If his show’s a success, after all, it won’t matter what title it ended up with. We’ll just call it “Larry Wilmore.”

TIME Television

Review: The Best and Worst of the New Amazon Pilot Season

The_Man_in_the_High_Castle_Pilot_5903.NEF
Amazon Prime Video's The Man in the High Castle David Berg / Amazon

No Transparent here, but could I interest you in a Nazi-occupied 1962 America?

Following up its Golden Globes coup with Transparent–and whatever exactly it’s going to be doing with Woody Allen–on Thursday Amazon Video released its latest crop of pilots for viewers to watch and rate: 13 adult and kids’ shows in all.

This doesn’t entirely kill the old system of network (or in this case e-commerce) executives ordering a bunch of pilots and choosing which will live or die. The viewer vote isn’t binding–and good thing it isn’t, since voters last year gave Transparent the lowest rating of any show in its group. But it does mean that you now have a voice in the process just like idiot critics like me.

That said, you may not to want to spend several hours of your day helping pick new product for Jeff Bezos, so I watched the pilots for you. (Or rather, everything except the kids’ shows–I do this for a living and even I don’t have that much time on my hands.) In alphabetical order:

* Cocked. This family drama, about brothers reuniting to save a troubled family gun business, plays very, very broad. (One sibling is played by Jason Lee, with only a little more subtlety than he gave his character in My Name Is Earl.) But I’m intrigued by the exploration of the gun subculture and the dynamic of the liberal black sheep (Sam Trammell) being drawn back into a family and life he rejected. Done right, it could be a kind of .44-caliber Big Love.

* Down Dog. My love for Paget Brewster is vocal and enduring, but she’s only a supporting player in this comedy about a handsome dimwit yoga instructor (Josh Casaubon), who, after breaking up with his partner/girlfriend (Brewster), must learn to run the business himself. It feels a little like HBO’s Hung with pigeon poses instead of prostitution, and the pilot didn’t do much to make me care what happens to the protagonist.

* Mad Dogs. Based on a successful British series and produced by The Shield‘s Shawn Ryan–with a cast including Ben Chaplin, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, and Billy Zane–this dark-comic hour about a group of middle-aged friends running into underworld trouble in Belize looked great. But its midlife-crisis themes are tired, uninvolving and depressing. It’s tense and well-executed, though; the pilot did everything right except make me watch more.

* The Man in the High Castle. This alternate-history drama from The X-Files‘ Frank Spotnitz (based on a Philip K. Dick novel) imagines a year 1962 in which the Axis won WWII, and the U.S. is partitioned between Germany and Japan. The dialogue and war-movie-villain types run to cliché, and the production looks less like premium cable than a Syfy show. But the idea is gripping, there’s already the sense that the creators have thoroughly imagined a dystopian world, and scenes in the pilot are genuinely chilling. With improved execution, this could become a must-watch.

* The New Yorker Presents. This mostly-nonfiction series anthologizes short films based on the work of the storied magazine, and, it’s well, anthological. A Shouts-and-Murmurs-y short written by Simon Rich works better than most of the fantasies in Rich’s Man Seeking Woman. An interview with artist Marina Abramovic by Ariel Levy is thoought provoking (but could use a little more Abramovic and a little less Levy). There’s a smart, playful Jonathan Demme documentary on biologist Tyrone Hayes. And there are cartoons, which are–they’re cartoons, and don’t gain much from translation to a new medium. A poem is read. Cool jazz plays over the credits. A little precious but nicely made, and it will probably make you feel smarter.

* Point of Honor. This Civil War drama, from Lost‘s Carlton Cuse and Randall Wallace, was originally developed for ABC. And you can see why it didn’t get any farther: it has ambitions of subtlety and historical sweep–a wealthy Virginia family frees its slaves, yet vows to defend the Confederacy–but the clumsy pilot mainly offers cotton-pickin’ melodrama.

* Salem Rogers. I wanted to like this one, if only because it’s the only pilot of this class that aims at being flat-out, in-your-face, ha-ha funny. (Not to mention the only one built around a female star.) But Salem–starring Leslie Bibb as a former supermodel fresh out of rehab but totally unrepentant (and unrehabbed)–chased me off. Full of insult humor and acting out, it plays a little like a Ryan Murphy comedy, except–I can’t believe I’m saying this–Ryan Murphy would have made this more sophisticated.

In part, the question here is not how much you like these shows, but what are they worth to you? The decision on a streaming series is a different one than for a broadcast or basic-cable show. There, you’re just deciding whether to flip the dial to a channel you already have and spend a few minutes of your time. As with Netflix, watching Amazon’s shows requires paying up for a subscription ($99 a year for Prime, though the pilots are free), so cold economics suggest a higher bar. (It’s also comparable to premium cable, as is the content–in particular, there are nude female bodies splayed all over these pilots. Again, not the kids’ pilots.)

Transparent was a pilot that I would have bought a subscription to watch off the bat. None of these are yet, though The Man in the High Castle, and maybe Cocked, could become one. But you can watch the current pilot season for yourself. As Amazon has proven, it’s a big market, and no two customers are alike.

TIME Television

Parks and Recreation Watch: In the Year 2017

Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Colleen Hayes/NBC

The show's much-welcome return sets up a final return to its theme: what is government good for?

Spoilers for last night’s season premiere of Parks and Recreation follow:

As the title “2017” suggested, the first half hour of Parks and Recreation‘s premiere returned us to the near-future it teased at the end of the previous season. Parks is not suddenly going to become a science-fiction show in its final run of episodes, but as we saw in “2017” and “Ron and Jammy,” it’s relying on the trusty dystopian principle that the future will be like today, except shinier and dumber.

It’s in the details, like the ubiquitous translucent Gryzzl tablets, with their sketchy AI interface (“I love your skin. GIVE ME YOUR SKIN!”). But it’s also in the people: Parks has built up a vast, Simpsons-like array of supporting players, and the hour spent some time catching us up with them (which will clearly be a tall order for the abbreviated final season). Besides re-assembling the office team, introducing a creepily homespun Werner Herzog and bringing back Councilman Jamm and Tammy (and unleashing Amy Poehler’s killer Megan Mullally imitation), it updated us on folks like Joan Calamezzo, whose résumé now includes the memoir Game of Joans.

But the most intriguing development for the final season was a bit of a return to Parks and Rec‘s earliest days and themes: Leslie and Ron are enemies.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of this; clearly there’s too much affection between them for this to keep going long, entertaining as it is to watch them force hostility toward each other. (“I’ve never known what bangs are and I don’t intend to learn!” “In my experience with butt-faces, you are one.”) And not an hour had passed before they were setting their differences aside to free Jamm from Tammy’s spell. I don’t think anyone is too worried that they won’t patch things up by series’ end.

But setting them against each other on the park project does give some heft to the show’s themes about government, which have always been as much personal as political. Ron and Leslie are great friends, but they’re also philosophical opposites: he’s a committed anti-government libertarian, and she’s a die-hard believer in government’s ability to help people. That difference was more pronounced in the show’s early episodes; later, as Ron and Leslie became besties, their differences came up mostly in the context of setting them aside.

Now, they’re on opposing sides of the series’ final battle between private and public: whether a significant chunk of land from the Newport estate will become a national park or a corporate campus for Gryzzl. Parks is a sweet, funny show at heart, but in its way it is genuinely about a political question: is government good for anything? Generally Parks has settled this question on Leslie’s terms, with Ron gruffly supporting his friend against her enemies. Having someone we like–Ron, who genuinely believes in the market over the public sector–as Leslie’s rival should give this last arc a little more heft.

The season premiere already sowed the seeds for how I’m guessing this will resolve: Ron will realize that the Gryzzl guys he’s working for are techno-douchebags. Friendship, I’m guessing, will triumph and Leslie will get some kind of win. But by at least giving an airing to Ron and Leslie’s real differences, I’m hoping that Parks will be able to do justice to another one of its longrunning themes: that decent people can disagree, that not everyone opposed to your causes is necessarily “the human equivalent of gas station sushi.”

Showing that a group of sincerely disagreeing people can believe that in America may be this 2017’s most outlandish sci-fi premise of all.

TIME Television

Woody Allen to Create First TV Series for Amazon

Will Amazon's big partnership with the director bring big controversy with it?

If you were wondering what Amazon was going to do to follow up its Golden Globes success with Transparent, wonder no more: Tuesday morning, Amazon Studios announced that Woody Allen will create his first TV series ever for it.

We know very little about the series itself, except that Allen will both write and direct it, and episodes will be a half hour. There’s no title–it’s going by Untitled Woody Allen Project–no date, and Allen himself says in the release: “I don’t know how I got into this. I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin. My guess is that Roy Price [VP of Amazon Studios] will regret this.” Maybe it will be a drama, maybe it will be, to paraphrase Stardust Memories, like his earlier, funnier films.

But a few things we can say:

The stigma of “slumming” in TV is pretty much gone. Maybe it didn’t need to be said at this point, with directors from Steven Soderbergh to Lena Dunham to David Fincher making TV—and making it hands-on, not just slapping their names on a project as producers. (And some of today’s TV auteurs, like Dunham and Louis C.K., have Allen among their influences.) If Allen is eager to work in the medium too, what directors are left who wouldn’t? Has anyone signed up Terrence Malick?

Streaming TV continues to build cachet. About as noteworthy as Allen’s role in this deal is that of Amazon. It, like Netflix, has been pouring money into its programming, chasing not only money but prestige. It may be that signing a streaming deal may be the new signing a premium-cable deal–now that Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, et al. have brought the medium recognition, it’s seen as a place where you can have creative freedom and be on the cutting edge of something. (Not to mention get generous financial support.)

There will be controversy. Allen agreeing to make a TV series for anyone would have been big news in itself a few years ago. But now, after last year’s renewal of charges that the director sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow when she was a child—charges Allen has long denied—it’s going to be a lightning rod. The re-emergence of rape accusations by many women against Bill Cosby was evidently enough last year to scuttle preliminary plans for him to return with a sitcom for NBC, even though he continues to deny them. Maybe Amazon feels that Allen’s circumstances are different, or that the blowback will be worth taking. But it’s hard to imagine there won’t be blowback; as many fans as Allen may still have, we saw around last year’s Oscars that there are legions who will view this deal as rewarding a predator.

Interestingly, after the furor around the Oscars, there was less public uproar around the release of Allen’s next film, Magic in the Moonlight. Whatever it says about Allen and Amazon, it definitely says something about the cultural profile of TV today that making a series for an online-retail site may generate more controversy than if Allen had simply kept making movies.

Clarification: A section of the paragraph that mentions allegations against Bill Cosby, which was added during the editing process, has been altered to clarify the status of claims against him

TIME Television

Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and the Case Against Originality

Maybe the new host will completely blow up the late-night format. But he doesn't have to do that to be an innovator.

Monday at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, CBS announced the premiere date of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: Sept. 8. It did not announce the content or format of the show, because Colbert is still figuring that out.

Speaking to reporters, CBS president Nina Tassler said that the network is, essentially, waiting for Colbert to work all of that out. “I have nine months to make a show, just like a baby,” Colbert said in a release. “So first, I should find out how you make a baby.”

He’s said he’ll have guests and that he won’t host in character. He has not said whether or not he’ll have a monologue. Beyond that, it’s a blank. “Part of the opportunity of being in business with brilliant talent like Stephen Colbert,” Alan Sepinwall reported Tassler saying, “is really letting him do what he wants to do.”

So it sounds like Colbert has fairly free rein. He could tear up the whole blueprint if he wants. He could invent a new format much as he did with his nine-year performance piece on Comedy Central. He could bust up the desk for firewood, tear the whole thing down and rebuild from the ground up.

Maybe he shouldn’t.

Before you say it, I know: I’m a hypocrite. I have written, over and over, about how tired the monologue-desk-and-interviews late-night format is. About how the real late-night energy is in shows doing anything but that. About how the desk is, creatively, the world’s most expensive (albeit also well-paying) pair of cement shoes. I am, to an extent, playing devil’s advocate with myself here.

Colbert is creative and ambitious. I don’t doubt he’ll bring tons of ideas. But I also bet you agree to host an 11:35 late night talk show because you want to host an 11:35 late night talk show. Within that format, there’s still plenty of room to distinguish yourself.

Letterman gave the format possibly its biggest remake ever–but what he did, at NBC then CBS, was still a talk show. Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show was still a talk show, a very traditional one in many ways, yet it was still a significant, and short-lived, departure for NBC simply because of his sensibility. Conversely, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight is really more different from Jay Leno’s in format than Conan’s was–but it’s closer in terms of upbeat attitude.

And look: it’s only fair to expect someone to build a network late-night show for those people who will actually, regularly watch a late-night show. I’m not one of them. I love Colbert, and however great a show he creates, it will go into the same DVR queue of recordings that The Colbert Report did, to be watched now and then when I have spare time, if I don’t just catch the highlights in online video form. He would be forgiven for not creating a show specifically with me in mind.

Of course, I’d love it if he did! I believe Colbert may be the biggest talent in late night since the guy he’s replacing, and if he comes up with some scheme to rethink the post-evening-news hour, I will be eager to see what it is. If Colbert wants to blow up the desk, give the man as much dynamite as he needs. But I wouldn’t underestimate the difference Colbert could make just by being himself.

TIME Television

Review: From Cosby to Charlie, This Golden Globes Had Something to Say

Beyond the usual boozy fun, it was a night of outspokenness and messages. But is Hollywood really Charlie Hebdo, or does it just play it on TV?

Accepting the Golden Globe for best actor in a TV drama, Kevin Spacey shared a story about meeting Stanley Kramer late in the legendary director’s life. “I just wish my films could have been better,” Kramer said.

It was a fitting anecdote Sunday. Kramer was known for “message movies”–films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, On the Beach and Judgment at Nuremberg, which made pointed, hard-to-miss, unabashedly liberal comments on bigotry, war and other big issues. And Sunday’s broadcast was in many ways the message Golden Globes. This year, Hollywood had more to get off its chest than the fabric from its plunging necklines. (About which, Globes viewers were witness to more exposed sternums Sunday night than thoracic surgeons see in their careers.)

It started with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, hosting what they’d announced in advance was their last Globes, and they clearly meant to leave their audience talking. Their routine–the now-familiar, seemingly effortless ping-ponging between them–began with the usual skewering of the latest movies mixed with on-point pokes at the industry’s shallowness and sexism. Patricia Arquette’s role in Boyhood, Poehler said, was proof that “there are great roles for women over 40, as long as you get hired when you’re under 40.”

But at the end, the two former SNL-mates whittled their comedy down to a spearpoint, targeting–as they suggested they would–Bill Cosby, and the rape accusations that recently resurfaced against him. The fairytale movie Into the Woods, Poehler said, included Sleeping Beauty, who “just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.” Fey launched into a Cosby imitation that she’d brought out years ago on Weekend Update in connection withe the charges: “I put the pills in the people!” she said, in her best Pudding Pop expostulation.

A few awards later, they brought on some help to hit another recent Hollywood hot button, the North Korean attacks on the film The Interview, and the industry’s response or lack thereof. (Earlier, Fey said the awards would celebrate the best TV, “as well as all the movies that North Korea was OK with.”) Comedian Margaret Cho played a North Korean general and movie critic (for Movies Wow! magazine) who cast a glowering eye on the festivities. (Besides The Interview, she disapproved Orange Is the New Black competing in the comedy category: “It’s funny, but not ‘ha-ha’ funny!”)

The statements in the acceptances themselves were, not surprisingly, more earnest. Common, accepting the best-song award for Selma, expressed solidarity both with unarmed black kids shot by police and with the two New York City policemen who were recently assassinated. Joanne Froggatt, a winner after a season of Downton Abbey in which her character was raped, dedicated the award to real-life rape survivors. And the winsome Gina Rodriguez of The CW’s Jane the Virgin accepted a best comedy actress award, tearfully citing the show’s importance to Latino viewers, “a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

That last award was also an example of the Golden Globes’ continued streak of honoring new shows and new faces in its TV awards (in this respect, it’s almost the anti-Emmys). The Golden Globes, voted on by a relative handful of journalists, don’t mean a lot in terms of predicting other awards or turning shows into hits. But one thing the awards can do is give mass-audience publicity to off-the-radar shows.

And the Globes did that last night for 2014’s best show, Transparent on Amazon, which won best comedy and best actor for Jeffrey Tambor. (It was a big night for streaming TV and anything that wasn’t traditional broadcast: only The CW and PBS won from the latter category.) Tambor, who plays transgender parent Maura Pfefferman, continued the earnest theme by thanking the transgender community; creator Jill Soloway dedicated the show’s award in part to Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who became a social media icon after her suicide.

The Globes’ openness to the new continued to a fault in the drama category, won by Showtime’s The Affair–an ambitious, challenging, well-acted he-said-she-said drama that was also often a morose, overengineered mess in its first season.

But again: it’s the Globes! No need to get too worked up. Indeed, the very appeal of the Globes traditionally is their lack of seriousness or import–they’re generally a loose, boozy good time packed with stars. But a heavy year in the news gave us a heavier Globes, and it seemed fitting that this year’s Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award went to Hollywood’s speaker-outer-in-chief, George Clooney. Late last year, it was Clooney who chided the industry for the lack of vocal support for the victims of the Sony hacking. And Sunday night, Clooney ended his speech on a note of solidarity with the French cartoonists massacred by Islamist extremists in Paris: “Je suis Charlie.”

Vraiment? Yes, Clooney and his wife Amal wore their support for artists’ expression literally, wearing badges with the slogan on the red carpet, where other attendees were brandishing pens in solidarity. But when it came to the Globes’ own satire, reaction was decidedly mixed. Reaction shots showed much of the crowd uncomfortable at Fey and Poehler’s Cosby jokes, and there’s already been social-media reaction against those, as well as attacking Cho’s sendup as a racist caricature.

Anyone surprised? For all the horror at the shootings and support for the right to expression, Americans get nervous about satire long before it reaches the scathing, vicious tone of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons. We’ve had numerous debates over whether a rape joke can ever be good and funny (though I’d say Fey and Poehler’s, aimed at a powerful person accused of assault, are Exhibit A of how one can be). And though Cho herself is Korean, playing a foreign character–and though she already played dictator Kim Jong Il on Fey’s 30 Rock–any lampooning of a heavily accented Asian character on this stage was likely to trip the outrage meter.

As with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons themselves, it was an example of a tension in American melting-pot culture, especially in left-leaning communities like Hollywood: classical liberalism (which emphasizes expression and personal and artistic liberties) bumps up against progressivism (which emphasizes identity politics and power dynamics). And one sad week in the news isn’t likely to change that.

So, nous sommes tous Charlie? Maybe. But more in theory than in practice.

Read next: Golden Globes Recap: At This Show, Politics Only Go So Far

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