Critic's Notebook: The Best Bets (and Biggest Disappointments) for Fall TV
At the network Upfront presentations, where new fall lineups are announced and a flurry of coming-attraction clips are screened, a TV critic sees the future flash before his or her eyes: sometimes a fleeting future (remember last fall's Manhattan Love Story? I thought not), sometimes a lasting one (my most vivid Upfront memory is getting a first pulse-pounding glimpse of 24 aboard the Intrepid way back in 2001).
Now that this week of network Upfronts are over, here's a walk through the TV week as it's shaping up for fall, based on first impressions that could change, for better or worse, once the full pilots are made available in the weeks to come:
Number of new shows: Five (counting two in one shared time period).
Back where they belong: Dancing With the Stars, Castle, Scorpion, NCIS: Los Angeles, Gotham, The Voice, and Jane the Virgin.
Most promising: A face-off at 8/7c between two intriguing young women: CBS's winsome superhero Supergirl (premiering in November) and The CW's wacky Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. CBS dips its toe into the DC Comics world with an upbeat, female-empowered adventure series built around Superman's cousin Kara (latter-year Glee breakout Melissa Benoist, charming and relatable), who embraces the gifts she's still trying to master. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which The CW inherited from Showtime, has an Ally McBeal-like quirkiness that should pair nicely with the adorable Jane the Virgin (which also had to overcome a potentially off-putting title). Fresh and hilarious newcomer Rachel Bloom is the title character, a dementedly obsessive romantic who fancies herself the star of her own musical romantic-comedy—if only in her head. This is The CW's only new show for the fall, but its midseason entries—including the grim outbreak thriller Contained, and the soaring Arrow-Flash spin-off, D.C.'s Legends of Tomorrow (with a team led by fan-fave Doctor Who veteran Arthur Darvill)—are more distinctive than most of what the "big four" networks are putting out.
These unorthodox leading ladies will face off against Gotham (which as DC properties go is dark and twisted where Supergirl is bright and sunny) and the reality grudge match of Dancing With the Stars vs The Voice. In the first months of the season, while football takes over CBS's Thursday lineup, The Big Bang Theory will once again lead off CBS's Monday night, paired with the classy new Life in Pieces, a multi-generational comedy modeled perhaps too closely after Modern Family. The cast, though, is stellar, led by Dianne Wiest and a relaxed, affable James Brolin. (Both will relocate to Thursday once Thursday Night Football wraps.)
Most disappointing: Fox's muddled-looking revisiting of Steven Spielberg's futuristic Minority Report crime thriller. Looks like any number of convoluted genre shows that are more work than fun, not built to last.
Most intriguing: NBC's Blindspot, the network's best new hope for a Voice-fueled Blacklist-level hit. Mystery naked Jane Doe covered in tattoo clues paired with hot FBI agent (Sullivan Stapleton, one of two Strike Back stars who've found new gigs on NBC this season). Curious to see where this goes—hopefully not down a rabbit hole of impenetrable mythology.
Number of new shows: Eight.
Back where they belong: Fresh Off the Boat, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., NCIS, NCIS: New Orleans, The Voice, The Flash, iZombie
Most promising: ABC's Quantico (10/9c), an ensemble drama led by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra as one of a class of young FBI recruits, whose chronicle of training is framed by a disturbing flash-forward in which we're told one of the agents-to-be is responsible for a devastating terrorist attack in New York City. Eye candy and mystery: I'm sold.
Most diverting: Fox's double-decker duo of new sitcoms starring aging yet somehow ageless pretty boys, a marked gender reversal from the previousy comedy combo of New Girl (on the bench till midseason) and The Mindy Project (off to Hulu). John Stamos is awww-fully charming in Grandfathered (8/7c) as a playboy restaurateur suddenly confronted with a grown son and cutie-pie baby granddaughter. Nothing groundbreaking here, but funny and sweet. Much slighter is Rob Lowe as the unfortunately titled The Grinder (8:30/7:30c), a delusional actor who once played a fictional TV lawyer and now fancies himself a real one when he moves back with his family (including an agreeable Fred Savage and William Devane). Fox is taking a bit of a risk by launching an all-new Tuesday lineup, capped by Ryan Murphy's campy Scream Queens comedy/slasher thriller anthology, which obviously won't be for all tastes. Or possible for anyone with taste.
Most innovative: NBC's Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris (10/9c), a live comedy-music-variety show featuring the versatile Tony-winning Harris as the ringleader, overseeing elaborate stunts and pranks in a modernized twist on a format long absent from prime time. (This will occupy the Chicago Fire time period until November. Good news for Fire fans: The long wait means fewer repeats.)
Most retro: ABC's The Muppets (8/7c), reviving the beloved Muppet Show characters—Miss Piggy, as usual, the ultimate scene stealer—in a self-consciously self-mocking mockumentary format that could grow stale faster than the Muppets ever will. Still, staying hopeful about this one.
Most disappointing: A tie. CBS's Limitless (10/9c), another seemingly unnecessary remake of a feature film, looks like a thematic retread of the network's short-lived Intelligence series as it adapts the Bradley Cooper movie—and a cameo by exec producer Cooper may only make him more missed when his plot function is assumed by Jake McDorman (of the aforementioned Manhattan Love Story). Whatever limits Limitless may have, it looks like a keeper compared to NBC's overwrought Heartbreaker (9/8c) a cliché-chewing medical drama starring Melissa George as a hard-driving heart-transplant surgeon whose every action has the feel of a Grey's Anatomy parody.
Number of new shows: Two. Remarkable stability on this night.
Back where they belong: The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, black-ish, Nashville, Survivor, Criminal Minds, Empire, The Mysteries of Laura, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago P.D., Arrow, Supernatural
Most promising: Nothing much. Fox's sun-baked procedural Rosewood (8/7c) stars the appealing Morris Chestnut as a Miami pathologist-for-hire, who's awfully chipper given that his buff body appears to be harboring several ticking-bomb ailments. Comes off like a USA Network show without the edge. CBS's Code Black is just another name for ER, a derivative, generic, and (from the clips) annoyingly preachy medical trauma-rama.
Number of new shows: Three.
Back where they belong: Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Bones, Sleepy Hollow, The Blacklist, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals (moved from Mondays); After football on CBS: The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Elementary
Most promising: Jane Lynch's return to TV as CBS's Angel From Hell (9:30/8:30c), a funky and bossy celestial guardian to nebbishy Maggie Lawson in a high-concept female-buddy comedy. Hey, as long as it keeps The Odd Couple on the bench …
Most hypeable: NBC's Heroes Reborn fantasy reboot (8/7c), which offered clips intriguing enough to remind us why so many fell for the original show early on, before it all fell apart. If this helps bolster the network's struggling Thursday fortunes, it will look heroic indeed.
Most unsafe bet: NBC's The Player (10/9c), an inexplicable caper series starring Strike Back's square-jawed Philip Winchester as a Transporter-style action figure doing the bidding of Las Vegas sharks (including Wesley Snipes as his "pit boss"), who place bets on the probability of his being able to stop major crimes from happening. Just the decibel level of all the breaking glass is a crime against humanity.
Number of new shows: Two.
Back where they belong: Last Man Standing, Shark Tank, 20/20, The Amazing Race, Hawaii Five-0, Blue Bloods, Grimm, Dateline, America's Next Top Model, World's Funniest (following MasterChef Junior on Fox), Reign (dethroned from The CW's Thursday lineup)
Most promising: Relatively speaking, Community's Ken Jeong as ABC's Dr. Ken (8:30/7:30c), tailoring his brash style of humor to a family-friendly "TGIF" sitcom format, not the most comfortable fit. (But when he discovers his son's ambition to become a mime, watch out.)
Least promising: NBC's People are Talking (8:30/7:30c). It's odd enough that NBC is taking a swing at live comedy with a new season of Undateable (8/7c), then scheduling it on a night where precious few are likely to be watching live. But it deserves better than to be paired with a painfully familiar sitcom about two tiresome young-ish couples who can't stop talking and joking about sex. We rejected this when it was on CBS and called Friends With Better Lives (and try not to confuse that show's James Van Der Beek with this show's Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who've both had better luck elsewhere). Thankfully, NBC has stronger comedies waiting in the wings: Eva Longoria's saucy Hot & Bothered, about antics behind the scenes of a telenovela, and the workplace sitcom Superstore, with an appealing cast including America Ferrera, Ben Feldman (unscathed from A to Z) and former Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney.
Number of new shows: Two (both on ABC, while everyone else stays mostly put).
Back where they belong: Once Upon a Time, The Simpsons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Family Guy, The Last Man on Earth, Sunday Night Football, 60 Minutes, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife, CSI: Cyber (moved from Wednesdays)
Most promising: Oil (9/8c), because with the flameout of the recent Dallas reboot, we're always in the market for a hybrid Western/soap about money and power. With North Dakota as the new Texas, and Don Johnson as a mogul crossing swords with Gossip Girl's Chace Crawford, this could become the guilty pleasure we've been seeking on the night since Revenge ran out of gas.
Most unexpected: Of Kings and Prophets (10/9c), another power saga, this time with a Biblical vibe, as King Saul (Ray Winstone) and young whippersnapper David (Oliver Rix) engage in an Old Testament version of Game of Thrones. Given that A.D. wasn't the runaway inspirational spring hit NBC had hoped, this seems a puzzlingly earnest bookend to a night that begins with the revisionist fairy tales of Once Upon a Time.
Well, there's always midseason.