Roush Review: In a Fall Full of Remakes, A Few New Shows Shine

Matt Roush
KIEFER SUTHERLAND, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR
Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC

As the accidental president tasked with saving the world in one of the fall’s most dynamic pilots, Kiefer Sutherland utters these prophetic words: “It’s not always up to us how history plays itself out.” That’s surely the case at a time when the broadcast networks are gearing up for a new season, trying to stay afloat amid a year-round tidal wave of expanding choices.

Survival is tough enough in a cluttered landscape of hundreds of series. What are the hopes of staying relevant with so much reliance on familiar formulas and remakes?

At least ABC’s Designated Survivor borrows from the best. With Sutherland playing the antithesis of his 24 hero, sporting nerd glasses as a meek but principled bureaucrat elevated to the nation’s top job after a terrorist attack, fall’s niftiest new drama has West Wing idealism, Homeland suspense and House of Cards political intrigue in its robust and compelling DNA. Jack Bauer would die for this guy.

More Roush Reviews: See What Matt Thinks About Other Shows

PITCH, season one

Ray Mickshaw / FOX

Hoping for a home run: Pitch’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Bunbury

This season, I find myself favoring shows where the characters feel authentic and the emotional stakes are high. Cable and streaming have already made a mark this month with distinctively personal series including FX’s Atlanta and Better Things, OWN’s Queen Sugar and Amazon’s One Mississippi and Fleabag. (Coming in October: HBO’s fabulous Insecure, starring YouTube sensation Issa Rae.) The networks’ top entry in the realm of the real is NBC’s This Is Us, a sentimental but affecting family drama with a twist—which we’re sworn not to reveal. For those who’ve been missing their weekly cry since Parenthood went away, this multigenerational and admirably diverse heartfelt tearjerker will be a must-see. That show’s creator, Dan Fogelman, is also responsible for Fox’s most promising drama: the inspirational Pitch, which imagines a determined young woman (the terrific Kylie Bunbury) breaking into baseball’s major leagues. Not sure where it’s heading, but the first inning is a wow.

This Is Us - Season one

Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Jerking tears: Milo Ventimiglia in This Is Us

I’m also cheering for Speechless, my favorite new network sitcom, the latest to join ABC’s crackling community of eccentrically endearing family sitcoms. Minnie Driver is sensational as the overbearing mom who’ll do anything to give voice to her exceptional son (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy. Opting for brash irreverence over self-pity, this is a keeper. ABC’s other new family sitcom, American Housewife, pushes the quirks too hard and overrelies on fat jokes, but the delightful Katy Mixon (Mike & Molly) does her damnedest to rise above.

After charming us with Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The CW scores again with the opposites-attract rom-com winner No Tomorrow. And high points for originality to two fantasy comedies: NBC’s fanciful if precious The Good Place, in which not-so-nice Kristen Bell finds herself mistakenly sent to Heaven (overseen by an agreeably ditzy Ted Danson), and Fox’s slapsticky live-action/animation hybrid Son of Zorn, about a belligerent cartoon warrior (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) trying to adjust to suburbia to impress his human(ish) son.

MINNIE DRIVER, MICAH FOWLER, SPEECHLESS, season one

Nicole Wilder/ABC

Driver and Fowler are Speechless

These can feel a bit hemmed in by one-joke premises, but the laziness of CBS’s father-knows-least star vehicles, Kevin Can Wait (for Kevin James) and Man With a Plan (for Matt LeBlanc), barely qualifies even as a bad joke. It’s as if CBS made talent deals first and only came up with the shows when they had to.

Still, when the role fits, like casting NCIS’s Michael Weatherly as a cocky jury consultant in Bull or pitting Community’s Joel McHale against a staff of overweening Millennials in the workplace sitcom The Great Indoors, the result can be harmless if uninspired escapism—as opposed to the utter tedium generated by CBS’s antiseptic medical drama Pure Genius.

ABC is stuck in its own rut, churning out Shonda Rhimes-style clones featuring fast-talking and oversexed characters with diminishing results. The dull legal procedural Conviction tries to add spice by making its antiheroine (Hayley Atwell) a disgraced First Daughter. Even more preposterous, Notorious glorifies a TV-news producer (Piper Perabo) and smarmy lawyer (Daniel Sunjata) who collude on a murder case, shattering all manner of ethics and dramatic credibility.

And TV history continues to repeat itself with a new torrent of remakes. The most provocative promises to be HBO’s darkly intriguing Westworld, where visitors unleash their most forbidden desires on unwitting humanoid robots. CBS’s reimagined MacGyver was unavailable for review, but the good news is that Fox’s fresh takes on Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist are a cut above such recent duds as Minority Report and Rush Hour. With a smartly cast Damon Wayans and an impressively uninhibited Clayne Crawford as the new Riggs and Murtaugh, Weapon carries the action-comedy banner with style. And the contemporary, creepy Exorcist could be just the thing for a graphic Friday night frightfest.

Lethal Weapon, season 1

Brian Bowen Smith/Fox

Crawford (left) and Wayans as the new Lethal Weapon team

Less assured is The CW’s murky reworking of the 2000 film Frequency, now about a supernatural father-daughter bond, which plays into the year’s oddest trend (continuing into midseason): time travel, also represented by NBC’s big-budget Timeless, rollicking nonsense that sends a motley team of heroes through the centuries to chase a villain who stole a time machine. But who can blame the networks for yearning to return to simpler, easier times? Like those good old days when the Big Three (or even Four) still dominated the medium.