As Hulu continues to celebrate its first Emmy win for Best Drama—a party that Netflix and Amazon have yet to throw, by the way—and HBO prepares for the return of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the big five broadcast networks begin the annual parade of TV debutantes for you to Season Pass or bet on in your TV Deadpool. While stories about the death of network television continue in the wake of increased support for streaming and cable, networks like CBS and NBC aren’t exactly packing up their bags and going home. In fact, NBC has a lot to be happy about with the major Emmy win for “This is Us” and continued support for the recently-returned “The Good Place,” while the CW found a new hit last year in “Riverdale.” Every network has a show or two they can point to as evidence that there is still creative life to be found outside of cable, although this year’s pilots prove digging through the chaff to find the wheat isn’t as easy as it used to be.
I’ve been doing this TV game for almost 20 years and can point to major TV pilots I remember seeing and being instantly awed by. I watched the series premiere of “LOST” twice back-to-back—it finished and I started it again. “Arrested Development” is another that was unforgettable. Even shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” had something about them that screamed instant hit and that was a fun part of this process. This year’s crop was, well, not fun. Despite some familiar faces and a few shows with a modicum of potential, nothing instantly grabbed me as something I had to DVR. There’s a striking sense that the writers have gone to cable and streaming services, stranding talented people at the networks, desperate to find something that connects as completely as “This is Us” did in 2016-17. I’d be surprised if any of these shows did.
To be honest, the show most likely to find a following is actually a program just looking to rekindle one in NBC’s “Will & Grace” (9/28). The nostalgia Lazy Susan that is entertainment in 2017 turns again and brings the entire crew, including the show’s creators, back for a show that was canceled 11 years ago. It may not feel fresh in 2017, but there’s something to seeing four comedic actors this talented just do what they do best, and it’s no understatement to say they have lost none of their timing or ability. In fact, Eric McCormack seems even sharper in 2017 than he did last decade, and Megan Mullally remains an absolute force of nature. The return of the show sees them instantly tackle hot button issues of the day—Caitlyn Jenner, Trump, and Grindr are name-dropped within seconds—and the plot of the premiere actually includes a trip to the White House. “Will & Grace” is at its best when it allows its quartet to show their skills with physical comedy and an old-fashioned pun—the premiere includes more than one spit-take. Is it breakthrough television? No, but I laughed a few times and enjoyed myself, two thresholds most fall shows failed to meet. In the “familiar” department it certainly beats the flat “Young Sheldon” (9/25) on CBS—a boring prequel to “The Big Bang Theory”—and the trying-too-hard “Dynasty” (10/11) reboot on The CW, a show that just doesn’t deliver the sleazy charm of the original.
As for drama, the most interesting would have to be ABC’s “Ten Days in the Valley” (10/1), and it’s telling that this show promises a ten-episode mystery, moving to the enclosed narratives of limited series of the variety we’re seeing more and more on cable. Kyra Sedgwick stars as a Hollywood screenwriter whose daughter goes missing one night. She first presumes it’s her husband’s fault—they are in the middle of a vicious divorce—but there’s more to this mystery. The premiere fails a few Believable Human Behavior tests, but it’s well-made enough that I could see anyone who got into stuff like “Secrets & Lies” engaging with it. And Sedgwick is always solid.
Familiar faces pop up all over the new network schedule this year and it usually feels like they should be doing something better. Edie Falco adds gravity to “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” (9/26) but this dull true crime drama feels like an attempt to do what Ryan Murphy did for O.J. without any of the creative spark. Freddie Highmore pops up on ABC’s “The Good Doctor” (9/25) as an autistic savant who becomes a head surgeon. It’s kind of like “Doogie Rainman,” but it’s really just a riff on the “House” model of complex diagnoses from someone who knows more than anyone else on his team. It’s a show that could develop into something interesting—and has enough beautiful people in scrubs to keep viewers engaged—but feels familiar in the premiere. Jason Ritter (the inconsistent “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World”), John Larroquette (the mediocre “Me, Myself, and I”), Elliott Gould (the horrendous “9JKL”), Jeremy Piven (the insulting “Wisdom of the Crowd”), Adam Scott (the disappointing “Ghosted”)—there’s something dispiriting about seeing such talented people in shows that aren’t nearly as good as why they became household names. It creates a faded carbon copy aesthetic in which you just wish you were watching “Parenthood,” “Parks and Recreation,” or even “Night Court” instead.
There is a thinkpiece-able trend this year in the fact that several shows seem to be riffing on blatant patriotism. Whether or not it’s a delayed reaction to the success of “American Sniper” or a desire to tap into some of that vein that wanted to Make America Great Again, it’s undeniable that heroism is the #1 theme of the network’s fall TV slate. The CW has the dull “Valor” (10/9), a show thin in acting and thinner in production values, and NBC has “The Brave” (9/25), a program that director Brad Anderson does his best to elevate above something you’ve seen before and kinda gets there. The truth is that CBS does this kind of old-fashioned drama better than anyone, turning “NCIS” into a brand, and their “Seal Team” (9/27) and “S.W.A.T.” (11/2) seem most likely to become hits. They’re both perfectly serviceable forms of escapism that should hit that “NCIS” sweet spot for people who like shows anchored by tough guys who are just vulnerable enough partnered with vulnerable guys who are just tough enough.
And, of course, the international move of all entertainment to become branded superhero content continues on network TV as well with FOX’s “The Gifted” and ABC’s “Marvel’s Inhumans.” While I have to admit that perhaps my superhero entertainment threshold is simply past the breaking point, I have a tough time seeing either show working for even diehard comic-TV purists. The FOX one is slightly better because Amy Acker can make almost anything work, but they’re both dull slogs overall, the kind of programs that feel like contractual obligations instead of creative ventures. And that’s a question that can be asked about way too much of this year’s network Fall TV—where’s the creativity? I mean, other than on Hulu.
If you’re curious about alternatives after the networks unveil their new shows, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO) returns on 10/1, David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” premieres on Netflix on 10/13, “Stranger Things” comes back on 10/27, Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” is adapted for Netflix on 11/3, and “The Girlfriend Experience” comes back on 11/5. Come back for reviews of all of them.