Superpowers, nerds and rich people: A few of fall's TV trends

Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

A few thoughts on trends and trendlets for fall TV.

Network TV: The poor relation of cable?

If I had to describe the overall feeling of many critics who'd viewed the new crop of fall TV shows, the word that springs to mind is "blah." Sure, lots of tube scribblers are excited about ABC's Pushing Daisies, the CW's Reaper and a few other shows, but at the Television Critics Association press tour in July, only a handful of shows enjoyed any kind of critical buzz.

And while many critics were plowing through a relatively lackluster bunch of network pilots over the summer, cable TV was rolling out compelling new shows such as Damages, Mad Men, Saving Grace, Burn Notice and Flight of the Conchords.

So what gives? Perhaps it was just a lackluster development season for the networks. It happens. But let's hope it doesn't happen all that often in the future, or cable's going to start leaving the networks in the dust when it comes time for critics to compile their annual Top 10 lists.

It's nerdtastic!

For years, if geeks were depicted on TV at all, they were usually briefly glimpsed just before they were rudely shoved into high-school lockers (Freaks and Geeks, the series that was produced eight years ago by the film world's hottest writer/director, Judd Apatow, was a rare exception to the trend).

But now nerdy, slackerish, stammering dudes are hot commodities -- at this summer's Comic-Con convention, you could barely swing a light saber without hitting the star of a fall show. More than a few fall characters owe a debt to Seth Cohen, the gangly O.C. high schooler who made liking obscure bands and graphic novels cool.

The CW's Reaper features a socially inept guy who gets an unwelcome gig with the Devil, and that network's new comedy, Aliens in America, features a nerd duo -- a Wisconsin teen and a lovably square Muslim exchange student.

CBS' Big Bang Theory has two supersmart meganerds living in an apartment next door to a hot woman (think Three's Company but with particle physics), and NBC's Chuck tells the story of a videogame-addicted nerd who works at a big-box electronics store and becomes an unwilling government agent.

The rich are different -- they have more TV shows devoted to them.

CBS' Cane and ABC's Dirty Sexy Money are glamorous soaps about ultra-wealthy families, while the CW's Gossip Girl chronicles the lives of rich private-school kids in Manhattan. And ABC, which seems to have a special fondness for millionaires, chronicles the lives of top executives in Big Shots.

You have to wonder, in this wealth-obsessed TV environment, would a working-class comedy such as Roseanne have made it past the pilot stage?

The networks embrace risky ideas -- sort of.

Trying to shake up its rather stuffy image, CBS commissioned Viva Laughlin, an American remake of the singing-and-dancing British series Viva Blackpool.

In recent years, ABC took chances on shows such as Ugly Betty and Lost and was rewarded handsomely; this year its offbeat offering is the fanciful Pushing Daisies. ABC also went in a risky direction by making a half-hour comedy about the thick-browed Cavemen from the Geico ads; so far the jury remains out on whether the Cro-Magnons are funny for longer than 30 seconds.

And that's the catch: Networks are to be lauded for taking chances, but viewers are unforgiving when the execution of an edgy idea lacks focus and courage. Some (or all) of these risky TV shows could end up crashing and burning.

Supernatural doings and characters with superpowers are all the rage.

Call it the Heroes syndrome -- like the leads of that hit show, lots of characters this fall have spooky powers, strange histories or superabilities.

On NBC's Journeyman, a journalist travels back and forth through time; the lead character on Pushing Daisies can bring dead people back to life; the Bionic Woman on NBC is, well, bionic; Reaper features frequent visits from the Devil; on Chuck, massive quantities of spy information are downloaded into the title character's brain; and the brooding investigator on CBS' Moonlight is a vampire.

Reality TV is on the wane -- on the networks, anyway.

For years now, scores of TV writers have loudly hoped for the demise of reality TV. They may be getting their wish. Reality TV, which made its first big network splash with CBS' Survivor seven years ago, increasingly appears to be the province of cable TV. Sure, there are some returning reality franchises on the fall network schedules, and a few new unscripted shows on the horizon. By and large, though, the reality takeover of TV that was feared a few years ago most certainly isn't happening.

And there may be even less of envelope-pushing reality TV on the networks in the future, given the controversy that has erupted over the highest-profile new reality offering for fall, CBS' Kid Nation, a show with the tagline "40 children, 40 days, no adults."

Serials get crunched.

After the crash and burn of many serialized dramas and thrillers last fall (Kidnapped, Day Break, The Nine), the networks are avoiding them like the plague this year. Lighter tones are the norm. But that's strange -- both Heroes and Jericho, two heavily serialized dramas, were hits with viewers (so much so in Jericho's case that it was revived after a cancellation by an energetic fan campaign). Perhaps it wasn't necessarily serialization or dark themes that were the problem. Hmm.

Foreigners are taking U.S. acting jobs. Even worse: They're talented.

Here's just a partial list of shows with English, Scottish or Australian actors in leading roles: Viva Laughlin, Journeyman, Life, Bionic Woman, Moonlight and Pushing Daisies.

English actor Hugh Laurie, who plays an American doctor on House, gave his opinion on the trend at a press event in July: "I can only assume that we're cheap."

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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