Both CBS’ Bull and ABC’s Notorious deal with trial-by-media; but neither is compelling or appropriate for families.
In today’s charged political atmosphere, in which the media is both horse and rider simultaneously, it’s almost surprising that narrative television has taken so long to belly flop into the media manipulation game. This season that changes, with shows like Bull and Notorious hoping to make the kind of splash Scandal achieved by seeking to capture the confusion of perspectives – and the puppet masters who try to spin them – ubiquitous on the 24 hour news cycle and elsewhere. The source for drama is palpable because of that ubiquity, but as the wannabe Aaron Sorkin dialogue and lurid twists unfold in the same predictable fashion, it ends up begging the question, “Did they take long enough?” The bottom line for parents – nope.
Both CBS’ Bull (Tuesdays, 9:00 p.m. ET) and ABC’s Notorious (Thursdays, 9:00 p.m. ET) depend on two current realities in the culture for their premise and tension: the general distrust by the average citizen concerning the legal and political systems, and the power players preying on that distrust to further their agendas. Both shows tackle these issues from different angles but with the same overall thrust. Dr. Bull (guess which show he’s in) is a jury consultant, or a guy who gets hired to rig juries in favor of his client. Julia George and Jake Gregorian of Notorious are a news producer and lawyer, respectively, who have formed a symbiotic relationship in which one feeds stories to the other, in order for Julia to get exclusive scoops and Jake to control the narrative.
Like ABC’s Scandal, both shows feature main characters that are incisively smart, amoral, and high-functioning, despite past trauma or insecurity. There’s a lot of pseudo-technical talk, power walking through hallways where no one gets to finish a sentence, and self-righteous speeches – usually from the main character. There’s also a lot of sexual innuendo, illicitly-taken photographs of titillating bedroom acts (if bondage is your thing), and betrayal. All this without really making a salient comment about the theme in question, the engine meant to be powering the narrative. In short, these shows are predictable in that they’re treading the same water their modern predecessor Scandal already did, and that water has gotten stale.
It’s sad, really, because the theme is so ripe for a Good Wife-level treatment, something that actually trusts an audience enough to ask pertinent questions and not lazily offer up the same lurid, low-hanging fruit that is TV’s go-to when the going gets tough. Both programs’ content should put these shows on notice to conscientious parents. While the pilots of these shows weren’t the absolute bottom of the barrel, the first episode of Bull did feature teen drug use, bondage sex, and murder, and the premiere of Notorious was similar. There’s a strong likelihood that such content could grow even worse over time, since the premise of both shows requires a constant influx of new sordidness to keep the story moving. Parents should take note, especially considering that the storytelling isn’t compelling enough to make up for the tawdry content.
Both Notorious and Bull try to capture the current zeitgeist surrounding the ongoing media tangle – and both fail. The methods these programs employ to seduce the viewer are boring and racy enough to motivate parents to look elsewhere should the theme be interesting to them.