When a network decides to get into scripted content, the first show they put on tells you a lot about what their brand is. You see if they're chasing prestige or making crowd pleasers; if they're leaning more comedic or dramatic in terms of tone; and if they take into account the type of unscripted shows their audience goes for. Any network pushing into a new territory is going to experience some growing pains, so a poor first scripted show (or a scripted show that both alienates the network's long time audience and fails to bring in enough to replace them) isn't necessarily a death blow to having a scripted presence. It's just that first impressions are hard to overcome, particularly in this age of overflowing viewing options, so every series pickup has a major amount of pressure for any network looking to capture a scripted audience.
Hoping to avoid retreating after just getting into the scripted game is TLC, a network previously known for its voyeuristic (and oftentimes icky) glimpses into the world of child beauty pageants, gypsy weddings, and polygamist families. Unfortunately they bring the same freak show mentality to Too Close To Home, a series from the ubiquitous Tyler Perry that was picked up in March and premiered this past August. Perry's first all-white series out of seven total projects (four of which remain on air, including this show), Too Close To Home tells the story of Alabama girl Annie, who managed to escape her dead end life in a small town and end up working in the White House. It should be a dream come true, having a position with this kind of importance and being able to leave behind a life she didn't want, but things quickly turn sour when Annie's affair with President Christian gets exposed thanks to a health crisis and a shady local reporter. With her luxurious apartment taken away by the First Lady and no job to speak of, Annie hitches a ride back to Alabama in hopes of hiding out from the paparazzi and figuring out her next move. But going back to Alabama means facing the mess she left behind and those who aren't exactly thrilled to have her back in their lives.
A little bit Scandal, a little bit How to Get Away with Murder, and a little bit Days of Our Lives, Too Close To Home is disappointing in just about every aspect. Not only is the show seemingly unable to engage with the issues of sex, media, and class that are embedded into the premise, it has no interest in playing to the rafters with soapiness or twists. Instead, Too Close To Home chooses to be a cardboard approximation of a nighttime soap, all flat sets, dull lighting, and stock music that make the show look and feel incredibly shoddy. Nighttime soaps are supposed to be these opulent, sweeping productions and though this show takes place mostly in a poorer rural community, its urban scenes end up looking much worse thanks to some spectacularly inept direction that fails to capture any sense of place in either Washington D.C. or Alabama. The only way to counteract how low energy the show is would've been to double down on plot and keep the viewer from becoming bored enough to start looking at its seams, but Too Close To Home makes the fatal mistake of saying what little it has to say very slowly, a fatal sign for a nighttime soap. If the show wasn't going to try to Say Something, which is totally fine since every piece of media doesn't have to take a stance on sociological issues, it could at least up the ante in terms of salaciousness and/pr camp, yet this is a show whose clumsiness only brings out humor unintentionally and whose comfort with being the most chaste show whose plot engine is driven by sex is a marvel to behold.
That overwhelming comfort extends to the pacing and how bloated the show is. Even with an eight episode order, it feels like there's only about 5-ish episodes of plot that had to be extended, as every episode is filled with scenes that are repetitious to the point of hilarity and the show doesn't really kick off until the fifth episode. While I'm very okay with shows that are more deliberate in terms of plotting, as going too fast can often lead a show into narrative brick walls that are hard to go around, Too Close To Home feels like a lot of stalling without the character moments to make the delay worthwhile. If the characters were getting deeper or if we were getting good moments between characters, the show's slower pace wouldn't be the absolute death that it is. Instead, pretty much every character is still an archetype (e.g. the angry black woman, the abusive mother, the hunky do-gooder), which expectedly limits the type of stories that can be told; once you get an understanding of these characters (or "characters"), what plot beats we do get become extremely predictable because no one's been developed enough to be capable of surprising the audience. Soaps thrive on the ability to surprise viewers and taking that away hobbles Too Close To Home in terms of watchability, especially when looking at the performances. Almost uniformly stiff and unrehearsed, the cast has no latitude in which to play, no layers to work into their performance, and a whole lot of perfunctory and impressively choppy dialogue to tackle, so it's difficult to completely pin the blame on them and not Perry. Lead Danielle Savre does an okay job at making Annie a conflicted, ambitious, and ultimately sympathetic figure, someone who inadvertently falls into a situation she had no ability to get out of on her own. The only other performance worth a look is Kelly Sullivan as Annie's older sister Bonnie, a hard-working mother attempting to hold her family together in a trying time. Sullivan's warmth and sheer likability go a long way, but it's not enough to make up for the negatives the show has trapped her with.
As expected from a show this poorly put together, Too Close To Home also has no idea how to articulate its own history. Once it gets into some backstory of Annie and those who knew her before she went to Washington, dates get very fuzzy and your understanding of where Annie was when she got her chance to leave town becomes much weaker. Though that could have been interesting in a Rashomon way, which could've tied into the show's theme of perception, the way this furls out is due to poor script supervising and not some inventive storytelling technique. Couple that with an almost offensive manner of portraying small town life (e.g. lots of focus on drugs, everybody's dirty and bigoted, there's a bar but no ambulance within three hours) and glaring errors when it comes to politics (e.g. someone in Washington not knowing gay marriage is legal), dementia (e.g. the town doctor comes and goes as plot dictates), and geography (e.g. I don't think Tyler Perry knows what Alabama looks like) and you have a show that would be bad if it was by someone just starting in television. Tyler Perry has been working in television for years and seems to not only not know how to create a television show, it's unclear if he's heard people speak before by judging from the quality of his dialogue.
Too Close To Home could have been a silly, soapy guilty pleasure, a loopy melodrama built to air during the summer months. However, the show is almost shocking in the poorness of its execution. It's filled with one-dimensional sketches that are passed off as characters, all of whom exist either to brood or awkwardly deliver exposition; it's a show constantly in conflict with itself, a soap that doesn't want to get its hands dirty and a family drama whose flimsy characters and vague history offer nothing to latch onto. There's simply no there there with Too Close To Home and until it makes firmer choices about its identity and cleans up the sloppiness of its direction, writing, acting, set design, music, and probably craft services, it's not going to be the show to make TLC a preeminent destination for scripted entertainment.