When our collective attention turns to the flood of new shows headed to network television each fall, the same question arises:
Does the fall TV season even matter anymore?
It's true that in the age of #PeakTV new shows drop all the time, so focusing on the fall seems a little old fashioned. But I think this time of year still matters, for a few reasons.
The third week of September is still the beginning of the new TV season for broadcast networks, which still draw the most viewers of any TV platform and generates $9 billion in advance advertising sales. Many of the most successful shows draw the least attention from critics like me — predictable stuff like NCIS, Big Bang Theory and Blue Bloods, for example. But those shows pull in anywhere from 13 to 21 million viewers weekly and earn the biggest regular TV audience around.
To score that $9 billion payday, the networks put forth their best efforts as the season starts, so fall remains a good time to judge the state of the industry. And reporters who cover television do just that. At a time when there's a lot of competition for people's attention, the fall is a time when every media outlet will be doing a story about what's coming to television in the fall. For the viewer, it's a great time to gauge what network executives are trying to hype into the industry's Next Big Thing.
This year, every broadcast network has stepped up with at least one new pilot that feels fresh, complex and compelling — which is a great change from last year, when too many new shows seemed all about retreads. But a good pilot is no indication of a great series — anybody remember FlashForward? — and we're at a moment in TV where "challenging" and "creative" doesn't always equal big ratings.
Still, for those who say creativity is dead on the big broadcasters, I've got four arguments why that's not always true — along with a couple of shows that are dodgy enough to avoid this fall.
In the world of diminishing returns that is the network television business, that's not a bad average at all.
Four shows to watch:
The Good Place, debuts Sept. 19 on NBC: It's already been called Defending Your Life: The TV Series. But this oddball comedy from Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Michael Schur stands on its own as an inventive, amusing look at the afterlife. Kristen Bell is a woman who is told she's died and now lives in a paradise reserved for only the most selfless souls who have ever lived. The problem: she's not the person who is supposed to be there, but she's afraid the tell the guy who designed the place — played by TV treasure Ted Danson — for fear of getting sent to a much less comfortable spot known as The Bad Place. Bell's character begins learning how to rein in her worst tendencies, because every spasm of anger or selfishness seems to cause tremendous natural disasters in The Good Place. It's a great set up that allows us to meet some of the other, flawed inhabitants in a comedy that explores — with lots of snappy punchlines — just what it ultimately means to be a good person.
This Is Us, debuts Sept. 20 on NBC: This the toughest new show to describe without dropping a spoiler or two. But screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Cars, Crazy, Stupid, Love) has crafted a touching, surprising family drama about four people who share the same birthday and are bound together in ways I can't reveal. Sterling K. Brown, last seen as a tortured Chris Darden in FX's O.J. Simpson anthology series, is spot-on as a buttoned down thirtysomething business executive confronting the ex-addict father who abandoned him at birth. Justin Hartley will make you forget his time as Green Arrow on Smallville with a turn as the frustrated, too-smart star of an empty-headed TV sitcom. And Chrissy Metz plays the morbidly obese sister of Hartley's character with a poignancy that will tug at your heart. There is a twist at the end which adds new dimension to the pilot episode, but replicating that kind of turn every week will likely feel like a gimmick. So it's tough to know what kind of series will result from this emotive, quirky gem of a drama, but this excellent first take is an encouraging start.
Speechless, debuts Sept 21 on ABC: This network has a formula for single-camera family comedies, often centered on middle-class clans with a lot of eccentric dysfunction (think The Middle, Fresh Off the Boat or The Goldbergs). But Speechless takes that framework in an exciting new direction. Minnie Driver is Maya DiMeo, a free-spirited matriarch and aggressive advocate for her son J.J., who has cerebral palsy, can't speak and uses a wheelchair. The family moves to the worst house in an upscale neighborhood because Driver's driven mother thinks the school will be better for her son. But she has a husband and two other kids who often feel left behind by her efforts, and the pilot sorts out how the family can come to terms with its new circumstance. J.J. is played by Micah Fowler, an actor who has cerebral palsy, something Hollywood rarely does when casting people to play disabled characters. The pilot is mostly breezy fun, lampooning our tendency to both pay too much and not enough attention to those with disabilities in our midst.
Pitch, debuts Sept. 22 on Fox: The best kind of drama hands you a forward-looking concept in a contemporary setting. Fox's Pitch achieves that and more by showing us the story of the first woman hired as starting pitcher on a Major League Baseball team. She prepares for her day in a hotel room flanked by bodyguards, garnished with flowers from Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton. But while half the fans see her as a female Jackie Robinson, the other half thinks she's a joke. There's a touch of the Williams sisters in the story of Kylie Bunbury's fictional Ginny Baker, a black, female pitching phenom trained by her dad to excel in a sport where guys get most of the attention. It's also the first scripted TV series to have MLB as an official partner, so Baker gets to play for the San Diego Padres and the show's thrilling game sequences are shot in an actual baseball stadium with equipment and announcers from Fox's sports division. Michael Beach excels as Baker's gruff, unsparing father and Mark-Paul Gosselaar is surprisingly entertaining as the team's skeptical but experienced catcher and captain. Best of all, even though the pilot ends as you might expect, there are a few twists getting there. As a bonus, this is the second high-quality pilot crafted by Dan Fogelman, who is increasingly starting to look like network TV's fall season MVP.
The bad place on TV: Two shows to avoid
Lethal Weapon on Fox: You'd think the failed reboots/revivals of Minority Report, Uncle Buck, Rush Hour and Limitless would have been enough. But Fox has created a remake of the emptyheaded Mel Gibson/Danny Glover movie franchise that, in the pilot episode, simply retells the story of the first movie. It's tough to understand why Fox thinks anybody wants to see two people who are not Gibson or Glover re-enact the first Lethal Weapon movie, especially when it requires a dynamic talent like Damon Wayans to play the fuddy duddy Glover part. But whatever their reason for making it, I suggest you fire up the original on Netflix and give this one a pass.
The Great Indoors, Man With a Plan and Kevin Can Wait on CBS: This is cheating a bit. I'm actually panning three sitcoms at once in a massive dose of hate for CBS's decision to only debut shows this fall starring white males. Man With a Plan and Kevin Can Wait brings back two TV stars — Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc, respectively — in sitcoms right out of the old schlubby-guy-with-long-suffering-wife playbook. But The Great Indoors may be the most insufferable, with Joel McHale stranded in a sitcom about how awful it is to work with Millennials, playing a celebrated outdoors journalist forced to work in an office. They all feel like different shades of the same primal scream from middle-aged male TV producers, writers and stars afraid their death grip on the industry might be loosening at last.