While networks like FX and HBO were prepping press releases celebrating their Emmy wins last night, the broadcast networks were preparing for the return of their moneymakers and hoping to find a few new hits in the process. As the divide between cable and network grows wider, companies like CBS and ABC certainly aren’t about to give the fight. And every network has found a hit or two in recent years, even if nothing seems to approach the “Must-See TV” categorization of my youth. While most of us recognize that the best programming now appears on cable, there are certainly recent network phenomena worth discussing like FOX’s “Empire,” ABC’s “Black-ish,” The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and more. And even modest critical and commercial hits like ABC’s “Quantico” and NBC’s “Chicago” line-up keep people watching. With most network shows premiering this week, what will still be on the air a year from now? What will people be talking about this fall other than cable offerings like “Westworld” or Netflix’s “Marvel’s Luke Cage”? Let's look at them network by network …
The network with the most total viewers has never been content to rest on its success, scheduling three new comedies and three new dramas in the next two months. The comedies all have essentially the same set-up, built around the personalities of their male stars: Kevin James, Matt LeBlanc and Joel McHale. James goes first with the mediocre “Kevin Can Wait” (9/19), a riff on his “King of Queens” everyman personality that feels like it might have been more at home on Friday nights with ABC’s “Last Man Standing” than on Mondays with “The Big Bang Theory.” James has decent comic timing, but the pilot is relatively laughless.
The same can’t be said for “Man with a Plan” (10/24) and “The Great Indoors,” but you’ll have to wait till late October on both of those more-promising sitcoms. The former stars LeBlanc and Jenna Fischer; the latter McHale and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. In LeBlanc’s show, he’s a blue-collar guy forced to work his way through suburbia and fatherhood when his wife goes back to work. Modern parenthood is an overdone sitcom trope but LeBlanc’s comic timing remains spectacular, and this one could end up being pretty fun. Finally on the comedy beat there’s the return of “Community” star Joel McHale to TV in a show that feels cut from a similar cloth as Dan Harmon’s hit. Again, McHale plays the outsider in a social group, as his adventure reporter is forced into an office setting on “The Great Indoors” (10/27). McHale’s comic timing is excellent and the pilot has some notable laughs, especially in scenes with the great Stephen Fry as his boss.
In terms of drama, CBS hasn’t exactly been pioneers of Peak TV (with the arguable exception of “The Good Wife”), falling back on formula most of the time. This is certainly the case for ’16-17, as the network delivers a medical drama, a courtroom drama and an ‘80s reboot. One can’t say they don’t know their demographic. The best of the three, believe it or not, is “MacGyver” (9/23), with a pilot directed by James Wan (“The Conjuring”). The director brings more of what he brought to “Furious 7” in this update of the beloved ‘80s action show that’s reasonably fun but not in a way that’s likely to make it appointment television for anyone. It’s a well-made distraction. As for legal drama “Bull” (9/20), which focuses on jury analysis and stars “NCIS”’s Michael Weatherly, and the late October medical drama “Pure Genius” (10/27), they don’t appear to offer much of anything we haven’t seen before.
Best New Show on CBS: “The Great Indoors”
After a few years of intense struggle, NBC has stabilized a bit, falling back on hit “The Voice” to launch new hits like “Blindspot” and “The Blacklist.” Even some of their lower-profile shows like “Superstore” are starting to gain followings. They certainly hope the same thing happens tonight with the launch of “The Good Place” (9/19), a quirky offering starring the great Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. This riff on Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” (Bell’s character dies and goes to “the good place” and not “the bad place” but she may not belong there) definitely offers something unique in the network TV landscape, even if it sometimes seems a bit self-aware of its own oddity. There’s an “isn’t this quirky?!?!?” element to the premiere that verges on desperation, but Bell and Danson keep it humming in a way that allows it to pass the only test a pilot needs to in the affirmative: I’ll watch another episode.
I may even turn out for another hour of family drama “This is Us” (9/20), with a pilot written by Dan Fogelman and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the same writer/director team behind “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) A clear effort to be America’s new “Parenthood,” this ensemble drama should tick a lot of boxes for viewers who don’t want everything to be so high concept that they can’t see any of themselves in the characters they watch. I’ve written for years about how the degree of difficulty of a good family drama is much higher than critics often give it credit for being and this cast is likable enough to click with audiences, even if the writing in the pilot is a bit shamefully manipulative. Finally, the great Abigail Spencer of “Rectify” jumps to NBC with the very high-concept, time travel show “Timeless” (10/3), appearing in October.
Best New Show on NBC: “The Good Place”
Why does everyone talk so quickly on ABC dramas? It’s part of the Shonda Rhimes effect on the network that every conversation goes 100 mph and usually while the characters are walking. Such is the case with the sexy “Notorious” (9/22) and the legal drama “Conviction”, two so-so pilots enlivened by their casts to such a degree that they could hook audiences. Daniel Sunjata of “Rescue Me” joins Piper Perabo on the former, a thriller about a relationship between a Headline News-esque crime show and an attorney who gives them the inside scoop whenever they need it, helping form the public narrative for his clients. The potential for a “Scandal”-esque hit is here, but the premiere is a bit too hyperactive and cluttered for its own good. “Conviction” (10/3), which stars Hayley Atwell, is also trying to do too much in its premiere, about a young attorney who also happens to the daughter of the former President and now has to head the Conviction Integrity Unit. Atwell is charming, but too much of this seems familiar or flat.
The best new show on ABC illustrates how much star power can still carry a program. ABC’s “Designated Survivor” (9/21) might not work with anyone else in the lead role but “24” star Kiefer Sutherland sells the story of a man who unexpectedly becomes President after the leader of the Free World and most of the entire U.S. government is killed. It also helps to have Natascha McElhone as his wife, Maggie Q as the FBI agent investigating the terror attack, and Kal Penn as his speech writer—a stroke of casting genius given Penn actually worked in the White House in the Office of Public Engagement in 2009 and 2010.
ABC’s most impressive output in recent years has been in the comedy department, building on the success of “Modern Family” to draw in the talented writers behind “Black-ish,” “The Goldbergs” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” They add one new entry to that line-up this year with the so-so “Speechless” (9/21), featuring Minnie Driver as a Maya DiMeo, the outspoken head of a modern family that includes a son named JJ with Cerebral Palsy. How a family balances emotional and physical needs when one has Cerebral Palsy is certainly an interesting concept, and Driver is great, but the premiere feels a bit heavy-handed and superficial. Like so many pilots, I’m curious what it will be like in a month or two. It’s hard to tell if it’s any good after only one.
Best New Show on ABC: “Designated Survivor”
At least FOX keeps taking chances, and some of them connect with audiences like the great “The Last Man on Earth.” Sadly, “Son of Zorn,” which has already premiered and features Jason Sudeikis as the voice of a He-Man type character in this animated/live-action hybrid is a high concept that doesn’t quite deliver. And their dramas this year are similarly disappointing. To be fair, technical issues have kept me from “Pitch” (9/22) but we’ll have a review of that later this week. I’ll also try to find time to write more in depth on the film-to-TV adaptations of “Lethal Weapon” (9/21) and “The Exorcist” (9/23), but my initial responses are mixed to negative. The first episodes of each primarily serve to just make me want to watch the originals again. “Lethal Weapon” has engaging enough leads to possibly hook viewers, but I can’t figure out who’s going to watch exorcisms week in and week out. Again, more later.
Best New Show on FOX: I hope it’s “Pitch”
While they get nowhere near the high profile or critical buzz as the big four networks and fall behind to most of the cable ones as well, The CW has quietly been putting up shows with loyal cult followings like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin.” And don’t you dare say something bad about “The Flash” or the moving-from-CBS “Supergirl.” Their two new offerings this year are both solid enough to keep me interested in where they’re going. Gregory Hoblit’s underrated 2000 film “Frequency” (10/5) gets a TV reboot that largely just reworks the plot of the movie in its premiere, ending with a twist that should hook viewers enough for another episode. Peyton List stars as Raimy Sullivan, an NYPD detective who starts talking to her father Frank (Riley Smith) on an old ham radio. Frank died 20 years ago. Can she save her father’s life? While I was first thrown off at the idea of reworking a concept that in film form was very much about the father-and-son dynamic, List is an engaging lead and “Supernatural” writing veteran Jeremy Carver keeps his premiere moving.
“No Tomorrow” (10/4) works similarly off the strength of its female lead and an equally unique concept. The charming Tori Anderson plays Evie, a woman who falls for a free spirit named Xander (the charismatic Joshua Sasse). There’s only one problem—Xander is convinced that the world is going to end in just under nine months. And so has a bucket list of things he wants to do before he runs out of time, and now he wants Evie to join him. The pilot is clever and crisp, relying on its characters instead of its silly concept. Maybe network TV isn’t dead after all.
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