Let’s call this a micro-mini-trend, a course-adjustment in the TV world:
This fall, a few shows — including “The Rookie: Feds,” shown here — are trying to do it all. They want to be funny, be serious and solve a case each week.
And yes, that used to be commonplace. Writer-producer Scott Prendergast says his show (“So Help Me Todd”) is “a bit of a throwback. My main inspiration is ‘Moonlighting’ and shows like ‘Hart to Hart’ and ‘Remington Steele’ and ‘Simon & Simon.’”
Such shows used to fill TV. Now it’s a pleasant surprise to find three new ones:
— “Family Law,” at 8 p.m. Sundays on CW, with a lawyer trying to patch her shattered career by reluctantly working for her father. “That’s life, right?” said writer-producer Susin Nielsen, “You laugh, you cry …. I love watching shows that can both punch me in the gut emotionally and make me laugh.”
— “The Rookie: Feds,” at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC, with Niecy Nash as a former high school counselor, now stirring things up as a new FBI agent. “Niecy finds comedy very, very easy,” said Nathan Fillion, who worked with her on two “Rookie” episodes and occasionally (as shown here) appears in the spin-off. “All you have to do is stand next to her and watch the whirling dervish.”
— “So Help Me Todd,” at 9 p.m. Thursdays on CBS, with a young man – out of work and out of luck – reluctantly becoming an investigator for his mom, a top-scale lawyer. In some ways, Prendergast said, “this is a classic CBS procedural. We’re going to have a case ever week …. There will be a big resolution at the end of every episode. But we want to have fun along the way,”
For him, this amounts to a major detour. “I’ve worked in comedy my whole life,” he said.
In the distant past, many people made such shifts.
Marc Cherry wrote for five comedies, co-creating two short-lived ones – “The Crew” and “The 5 Mrs.
Buchanans.” Then he switched to a drama with laughs (“Desperate Housewives”) and scored.
Allan Burns and James Brooks had worked on more than a dozen comedies. Then they took a character from their best one (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and created the “Lou Grant” drama.
Other shows found that balance and thrived. They’ve ranged from “L.A. Law,” “Trapper John,” the original “Magnum, PI” and Fillion’s “Castle” to “Batman,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and … well, “Dukes of Hazzard.”
But the rise of cable and streaming has been propelled by dead-serious shows and serialized stories that last several weeks. There are brilliant exceptions – Syfy’s “Resident Alien” and Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs” both have strong drama and big laughs – but they’re rare.
In the past, some shows started light and morphed into straight dramas; there’s also the fear of going the other way. “It’s really hard to … know what the right balance is,” Nielsen said.
One could argue that her “Family Law” cases are too iffy … and that by their second episodes, both “Todd” and “Feds” had become too silly. Still, all three are trying. Jordy Randall, a “Family Law” producer, calls the show “a comedic procedural with heart.”
Others might follow. In January, Lifetime has “The Hammer,” a drama-comedy movie with Reba McEntire as a judge in rural Nevada; it could easily become a series or (at least) a series of movies.
It always help when a show hires people who have already shown comedy skills – from Ed Asner in “Lou Grant” to McEntire or Fillion or Nash.
“They say that people who can make you laugh can make you cry, but the reverse is not always true,” Nash said. “So I feel very blessed that I can do both.”