It's that time. Los Angeles again, in January. And why? Because just as purple is the new black in the fashion racket, January is the new September in the TV racket.
After the unfolding of what was, by consensus, a mediocre new fall season for 2012/13, everybody is looking at the mid-season shows on network and cable, for salvation. Hot shows return. HBO's Girls returns Jan. 13 and the first thing I saw leaving the airport here was Lena Dunham's face, about two storeys high, on a billboard.
New shows arrive and the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour is under way in Pasadena – two weeks of broadcast and cable channels presenting their wares, all day every day, to about 200 journalists. Canadian TV execs and publicists are here too. This ain't no junket, by the way. The TCA elects a board of directors every two years to negotiate the winter and summer presentations with the broadcasters. We pay our own way. The broadcasters turn up and sell their shows.
These events have, famously, been called "a death march with cocktails." One show after another, with regular stops for drinks offered by the broadcasters. Usually the cocktails start when the sun goes down. But as with so much in the TV racket here, the ambiance varies from the merely strange to the surreal.
The first presentation on Friday, at 8:45 a.m., was for Cougar Town, the comedy that was on ABC but is now on the TBS cable channel. Flush with the success of shifting a show ABC disliked to a welcoming TBS, the show's creators and cast offered mimosas to the critics at breakfast time. Sparkling wine and grapefruit juice. Trays of mimosas were carried through the hotel ballroom during the press conference. Not many takers, mind you.
Onstage, the show's creator, Bill Lawrence, says, "When you have a TV show, the goal is to stay alive." He suggests we shouldn't be shocked by the mimosas, because there's a lot of drinking on the show. Star Courteney Cox declares, "It feels like a brand-new show that hasn't changed."
Non sequiturs and cocktails at 9 a.m. Me, I'm a bit bewildered, especially after a late arrival the night before and five hours sleep. Cougar Town does have a Canadian broadcaster. It's on City TV and returns on Wednesday. But for all the giddiness here, and the cocktails, it's not a show that is generating excitement.
Banshee (starts Friday, HBO Canada, 11 p.m.) is certainly generating something – puzzlement, excitement and a tincture of controversy. A slightly demented new drama about an ex-con who passes himself off as the new sheriff of a very corrupt small town, it's pulpy, violent and sexy. It's also very dark, if taken literally. The controversy pertains to the gun violence. There is a sense here that a new sensitivity to violence on TV is growing, in the wake of the recent school shootings and in the context of a national debate about guns.
Greg Yaitanes, the veteran director, who acts as executive producer (along with Alan Ball of True Blood and Six Feet Under) meets a few of us critics to talk up the show and, immediately, addresses the violence issue. He says Banshee has "a more European feel" than most U.S. TV. "It's set in a heightened-reality world, a place where characters behave strangely but the strangeness is integral to the drama."
He acknowledges that there might be a new sensitivity to violence, but points out that his show airs on cable, is unlikely to be seen by children and can't be mistaken for a mainstream drama. He concludes, "in this world of Banshee, violence exists. It would be false to engineer the violence away from its integrity in the drama because of a temporary thing in the [U.S.] culture. We're not a shoot 'em up show. If people want to be sensitive to it, that's their choice."
Actor Antony Starr, who plays ex-con Lucas Hood, points out that the show is fiction and can hardly be described as realistic. Sitting for a one-on-one interview, he says, "the key plot point is just implausible. An ex-con becomes sheriff without anybody realizing who he really is. This world is obviously not realistic. There's no way this show can be mistaken for gritty realism. There is sex, there is violence, but it plays out like a graphic novel."
In another room – actually a bedroom – Ivana Milicevic, who plays the sheriff's love interest, is also ready to talk. Playful and charming (she starts the interview by posing on the bed, laughing), she says the show is about "heartbreak," not violence. "My character, Carrie, was in love with this man Lucas when they were both criminals. Now she's married to another man, a great husband, and Lucas turns up again. I think that's heartbreaking."
About the violence, she says, "I'm a girl, and I'd rather watch sex scenes than violence, but I don't have a problem with the violence on Banshee. It's not the real world, is it? And I'm not sure that the problem of violence in society can be put at the feet of the entertainment industry."
Maybe she's right. But it's all very confusing – the vast number of new shows, the violence in them, the frantic selling of them and the cocktails for breakfast. That was just the first morning here, where January is, confusingly, the new September.