There is no higher authority on the art of devising great titles than the man behind the zombie-themed song “Re: Your Brains” and the album Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms. That man, of course, is musician Jonathan Coulton.
Given the 38-year-old Internet sensation’s prowess at coming up with such inventive nuggets, we figured he’d be the perfect companion on our admittedly ridiculous pop-culture quest: to preview this fall’s crop of new television shows solely by their titles. And we figured right. “Luckily,” said Coulton upon agreeing to the task, “I don’t know anything about television.” Perfect, indeed.
Here’s how our preview works: 1) We give Coulton the title of a series.* 2) He offers up what he imagines the premise of that show might be.** 3) We tell him the program’s true premise. 4) He sums up the show’s chance for survival. 5) TV executives everywhere collectively shiver.
Only time will tell how Coulton—whose latest opus, Best. Concert. Ever., culls from his shockingly frequent live shows—fares as a one-day television critic. But we’re never going to bet against a guy who allegedly killed one of John Hodgman’s cats.
[* NCIS: Los Angeles and the re-imaginings of V and Melrose Place aren't covered because Coulton is familiar with them. Some might say too familiar.]
[** Anyone who steals one of Coulton's ideas is a hoser who will rot in eternal syndication on SOAPnet.]
The show: Accidentally on Purpose (CBS, Mondays at 8:30pm beginning September 21)
JoCo’s premise: “It’s obviously a comedy. It’s probably heart-warming in some way, and it has to do with love. I’m going to say it’s about a quirky couple that meets under unusual circumstances. It’s Mad About You for the 2000s.”
Actual premise: After a bad breakup, a movie critic (Jenna Elfman) has a fling with a younger man and gets knocked up. She decides to keep the baby and soon finds herself living platonically with the father and his immature friends.
JoCo’s take: “It’s not Mad About You for the 2000s. It’s Will and Grace for the 2000s, except not gay.”
The show: The Beautiful Life (the CW, Wednesdays at 9pm beginning September 16)
JoCo’s premise: “This is an hour-long drama about the life of a model. It’s very glamorous. But there’s a seedy undercurrent, and it’s trouble. These girls are always getting involved with drugs and they’re always trying to stay thin and they’re very unhealthy and very unhappy. So it’s sort of an ironic title.”
Actual premise: Model wannabes (including Mischa Barton) navigate the cutthroat world of high fashion.
JoCo’s take: “You’re kidding me? Why am I not writing for television? This is easy. Obviously, just give me the title and I will spit out a show.”
The show: Bored to Death (HBO, Sundays at 9:30pm beginning September 20)
JoCo’s premise: “It’s a comedy and it’s about a bunch of ghosts. Not, like, spooky ghosts. They look like normal people but they happen to be ghosts. And they’re all living in the same apartment that they died in over many, many decades. So, some of them are from the 1920s, some of them are from pre-1900s, and there’s one guy who we sort of identify with because he just died. And they can’t leave the apartment and they’re very bored.”
Actual premise: A writer (Jason Schwartzman) moonlights as a private investigator, much to the chagrin of the malcontents who know him best (Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson).
JoCo’s take: “Now that you mention it, I know that show. I just failed to recognize its title.”
The show: Brothers (Fox, Fridays at 8pm, beginning September 25)
JoCo’s premise: “This is about two brothers and they live in some major metropolitan city and they’re about the same age. There’s some ethnicity—maybe they’re Irish, maybe they’re Italian. I’m not sure. But one of them is involved in crime, and the other one is involved in crime prevention.”
Actual premise: A retired football player (Michael Strahan) moves home to Houston and reacquaints himself with his estranged, wheelchair-bound brother (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell) and their kooky parents (Carl Weathers and CCH Pounder).
JoCo’s take: “Is one of them involved in crime? I think that might improve the show. Maybe that’s a twist for season two.”
The show: The Cleveland Show (Fox, Sundays at 8:30pm, beginning September 27)
Actual premise: The Family Guy’s Cleveland Brown moves his family from Rhode Island to Virginia, and high jinks ensue.
JoCo’s take: “Okay, it’s a spinoff—I was just spinning off from a different source. So in a way I was right. And still no word from Drew Carey. The mysterious silence of Drew Carey…”
The show: Community (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30pm, beginning September 17)
JoCo’s premise: “This is a really boring show. This is an hour-long drama and it’s just about some people who live in a small town in the northeastern part of the United States and there are a lot of heartwarming stories about kids coming of age and adults learning a thing or two about relationships with other people. It’s really just about the community, which is why it’s a little dull. There’s not really any twist. It’s sort of a Waltons for the 2000s.”
Actual premise: After his original degree is deemed invalid, a snarky lawyer (Joel McHale) reluctantly returns to junior college, where he matriculates with a lecherous older student (Chevy Chase).
JoCo’s take: “Oh, boy. That actually sounds like a much more interesting show than the title promises. You know, I’m a big fan of Chevy Chase, and this is Chevy Chase’s triumphant return to television. Where are you, Drew Carey, in all of this?”
The show: Cougar Town (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30pm beginning September 23)
JoCo’s premise: “This is about a town in Nova Scotia where there was a horrible accident about 20 years ago and all the young men who were out working on the docks died in a terrible explosion. And so now there are just a lot of older, single women in the community. Their men aren’t around anymore, they’re running a little hot-blooded, and high jinks ensue.”
Actual premise: A 40-year-old divorcee and mother (Courteney Cox) spices up her dating life by hooking up with much younger men.
JoCo’s take: “There’s no horrible accident? How are they going to make it funny?”
The show: Eastwick (ABC, Wednesdays at 10pm beginning September 23)
JoCo’s premise: “That’s very simple. This is a half-hour comedy based on The Witches of Eastwick. They could not get Jack Nicholson. They could not get Cher. They could not get Meryl Streep. Susan Sarandon they got, though, and that’s their link. She’s the older, more cougarish witch and then they got younger actresses to play the other two. And the devil character is now this bumbling fool. He’s not as menacing as in the movie. It’s comedic. Nobody’s vomiting up cherry pits or anything.”
Actual premise: Three sexy witches (none of whom are played by Susan Sarandon) inadvertently summon the devil, who attempts to seduce each of them to carry on the family name.
JoCo’s take: “Oh, it’s an hour-long drama? And it’s a supernatural situation, sort of X-Files meets Housewives? It’s not going to be any good.”
The show: FlashForward (ABC, Thursdays at 8pm beginning September 24)
JoCo’s premise: “This is an hour-long drama. There’s a bit of sci-fi involved. The main character has been transformed in some way—probably by a horrible accident—so that he occasionally in the daily living of his life will suddenly get this flash of what’s going to happen to people around him, kind of like The Dead Zone. It messes him up because he can’t have normal relationships because he keeps seeing the future. So he hits the road. He’s like David Banner and travels around the country like a hobo, helping people.”
Actual premise: A strange phenomenon briefly and simultaneously gives everyone in the world a glimpse six months into the future. A crack team of FBI agents attempts to figure out how and why the visions happened.
JoCo’s take: “Wow. That’s actually kind of interesting. It sounds like it has the potential to explore some interesting sci-fi questions—fate, destiny, that sort of stuff. I’m going to reserve judgment until I watch a couple of episodes, but this is one I would check out.”
The show: The Forgotten (ABC, Tuesdays at 10pm beginning September 22)
JoCo’s premise: “Man, this is a hard one. I hate to say it’s another drama about ghosts, but I’m afraid it is. But why were they forgotten? And who cares if they were? I wouldn’t even know how to begin writing this show. I have ghosts and I have the idea that they’ve been forgotten, but I have no idea why. It’s going to be very boring.”
Actual premise: A former detective (Christian Slater) and a group of amateur sleuths investigate cases involving John and Jane Does.
JoCo’s take: “It’s The Lovely Bones, an episodic The Lovely Bones. I’m sure it will be very successful. I will not watch it.”
The show: The Good Wife (CBS, Tuesdays at 10pm beginning September 22)
JoCo’s premise: “This is a drama about a woman who is living a classic happy suburban existence, but let’s just say she has some predilections. She’s a bit of a wildcat. She’s gotten into some trouble in the past. She thought that was out of her system but she gets involved in some unsavory business that goes bad and gets very complicated very quickly and she has to keep this secret life separate from her cover, if you will, as a quote unquote good wife.”
Actual premise: A shamed woman (Julianna Margulies) returns to her career as a defense attorney after her politician husband (Chris Noth) is jailed following a sex-and-corruption scandal.
JoCo’s take: “I like my version better, but I think there’s some possibilities here. It’s less sexy, because she’s not going out and sleeping around, as far as I know. But certainly it’s going to be interesting to explore the life of the person who stands bravely next to the nut at the podium while he apologizes for the terrible things he’s done. I’m not going to watch it, but if I had to make television I might eventually make that show.”
The show: Hank (ABC, Wednesdays at 8pm beginning September 30)
JoCo’s premise: “Hank Azaria plays himself and it’s about the life of a very talented character actor and voice artist and his relationship with Hollywood. You know, he’s not a famous superstar, he’s had a couple opportunities to do leading man stuff but he’s never really caught on that way. So what’s it like? What’s it like for Hank Azaria on the inside?”
Actual premise: A recently axed Wall Street bigwig (Kelsey Grammer) moves from Manhattan to a small Virginia town teeming with hillbillies.
JoCo’s take: “Does it really say ‘teeming with hillbillies?’ I’m not sure that should be part of the official pitch. It’s very threatening when you put it that way. But we’re talking ‘This is my brother Darryl, this is my other brother Darryl’—a lot of that? Newhart for the 2000s.”
The show: Mercy (NBC, Wednesdays at 8pm beginning September 23)
JoCo’s premise: “This is a drama about a hospital—Mercy Hospital—in some city. And that’s it. A lot of doctors fighting against bureaucracy, just trying to help their patients. Maybe there’s a bad doctor who’s washed up; he’s a drunk. There’s an arrogant surgeon everyone hates, but at the end of the day you’ve got to admit he’s really good at what he does. There’s a young up-and-coming doctor who was really hot shit at school but now she’s got to pay her dues and it’s a lot harder than she thought.”
Actual premise: Three nurses, including one fresh from duty in Iraq, watch over a bustling, big-city hospital.
JoCo’s take: “That sounds like ER but with nurses and no doctors. That’s a less effective pitch, I suppose. I’d say a lot depends on the writing and the actors they have in there because the medical drama has been done many times.”
The show: The Middle (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30pm beginning September 30)
JoCo’s premise: “This is a half-hour comedy about workers at a Renaissance fair. It’s like Taxi in that you never see them working. Mostly you see them hanging out and talking about the Middle Ages. There’s a couple of girls in bodices, for the gentlemen.”
Actual premise: Two middle-class parents rear their brood in middle America.
JoCo’s take: “Are you kidding me? I can tell which audience they’re going for, but it doesn’t seem like it would be that compelling. Obviously they’re going to introduce some complications. Otherwise I’m not sure I’m going to watch that show.”
The show: Modern Family (ABC, Wednesdays at 9pm beginning September 23)
JoCo’s premise: “This one has the potential to be very interesting. This is a sci-fi show. It’s set in the extreme future where the line between human and machine has become very blurred. There are enhanced humans. There are also intelligent, self-aware robots and computers. There’s everything along the spectrum from completely human to completely machine-based. But we’re far enough into the future that it doesn’t matter too much, and everybody has their own foibles and everybody is quite human whether or not they are made of meat. We follow the story of this one family, except it’s complicated because the father is completely human, the mother is completely machine, the kids, who knows? So, what does it mean to be a machine? What does it mean to be human?”
Actual premise: A Dutch documentary crew examines the modern family by filming the lives of a gay couple, a straight couple and a multi-ethnic couple.
JoCo’s take: “A multiracial couple, you say? Well, that’s very modern. I’m not sure anybody’s ready for that. This would have been a cutting-edge show in 1982. As it is, it might as well be called The Middle.”
The show: Three Rivers (CBS, Sundays at 9pm beginning October 4)
Actual premise: Surgeons and bureaucrats deal with organ donors and recipients at an esteemed hospital in Pittsburgh.
JoCo’s take: “I feel like I could write 40 seasons of medical dramas. I can already picture the difficult decisions that the doctors here are going to have to make, and the end of the day when the sad music plays and the doctor folds up his scrubs and throws them angrily into the locker because he couldn’t save somebody. Enough already. We get it.”
The show: Trauma (NBC, Mondays at 9pm beginning September 28)
JoCo’s premise: “This is about a specialist in head-trauma accidents. He’s pretty quirky and un-PC. All these people have head traumas and they have various kinds of learning disabilities or aphasia, and he doesn’t really care to coddle them. In fact, his specialty is tough love as he tries getting these people back on their feet and back to their old lives again, even though they stutter.”
Actual premise: A team of San Francisco paramedics brave extreme conditions whenever emergencies arise.
JoCo’s take: “Yeah, see, I don’t know. Again, I hate to keep saying ‘I’m tired of the medical drama’ but what, 25 percent of these have been medical dramas? Jeez. Where are the shows about robots? Where are the shows about Renaissance fairs? Where is Drew Carey? Still the stony silence of Drew Carey…”
The show: The Vampire Diaries (the CW, Thursdays at 8pm beginning September 10)
JoCo’s premise: “This is an hour-long drama that’s on relatively early. It’s an 8pm show because it’s actually about tweens and teenagers who are vampires. They’re just like normal teenagers, except they’re vampires. They’re having teenage interactions that are slightly complicated by the fact that they need to feast on the blood of the living.”
Actual premise: A high-school girl is romanced by two vampire brothers—one good, one evil—who seem intent on causing turmoil in a small Virginia town.
JoCo’s take: “I was going to say it’s a CW show! Wow! I am good at this!”