Next week the new broadcast network shows arrive. Try to restrain your excitement.
To avoid sounding like the broken-est of broken records, I won’t belabor the same gripes I tend to have every fall: The broadcast network pilots, which I’ll briefly rate below, are generally bland, safe and unremarkable, and in an era of Too Much TV, playing it extra-safe seems like the course of action least likely to result in survival. But based on the last few seasons, the networks appear set on this blandification process, with rare exceptions, of course. And to be clear, I want the broadcast networks to survive, but not if they’re going to become repositories for stunt-ridden junk, formulaic safety and shows that generally reek of “No one knows what this is or truly believes in what it could be.”
Yet again, there are few outright stinkers in the mix, but there’s also nothing that really rises above the level of “OK, I guess.” Other seasons have at least featured shows that were different or exciting -- last fall, we got both “Empire” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” which didn’t come out of the gate perfect but were fresh, relevant and provided plenty of conversation topics. This summer, when talking to other critics about the new offerings from the biggest networks, our Gchat conversations reverberated with variations on the phrase, “Well, I guess I didn’t hate [insert name of show].” So. Much. Enthusiasm.
The broadcast networks clearly see themselves as being in the business of supplying broadly accessible escapist fare, money-spinning brand extensions and sturdy procedurals. Those are eminently reasonable goals -- and given the right execution, I like those things! Give me a really good hospital drama, a smart soap, a brisk cop show, a well-crafted sitcom, a lavish spinoff or a conspiracy drama with zingy banter and I’m a happy viewer. Trouble is, these days there’s much better televisual entertainment almost every place my eyeballs land. I can lose myself in the travails of a cartoon horse or Mulder and Scully or disturbing French zombies or return to Pawnee, Indiana, indefinitely. Sorry the competitive landscape makes the broadcast networks look like a few Night’s Watch dudes at Hardhome, but it is what it is.
Of the shows listed below, I only plan to stick with a few -- and for how long, I don’t know. Spoiler alert: They’re “Quantico,” “Blindspot” (which just barely made my overly generous cut) and “Supergirl.” If you’d like to know why, read on.
A few caveats:
- I’m not going to do a roundup on the new fall broadcast network comedies, because doing so would make me too sad. Of the new crop, “Grandfathered” (Sept. 29, Fox) has reasonable potential, and I’ll write separately on “The Muppets” (Sept. 22, ABC). As for “Angel from Hell” (Nov. 5, CBS), “The Grinder” (Sept. 29, Fox), “Life in Pieces” (Sept. 21, CBS) and “Dr. Ken” (Oct. 2, ABC), their pilots are more painful than pleasurable and the only reason I’d check back in is if they make very large strides forward in quality. I hope that’s the case with “The Grinder” because the Rob Lowe vehicle has building blocks that may allow it to right the ship, and Lowe is fine in the lead role.
- The CW’s hourlong “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Oct. 22) could slot into either the comedy or drama realms, but either way, I haven’t seen the final version of the pilot, so I’m holding off on writing about it until later this fall. I haven’t seen NBC’s “Chicago Med” (Nov. 17) nor ABC’s “Wicked City” (Oct. 27), so there are no capsule reviews of those shows either.
- This list just covers new broadcast network programs. New cable and streaming shows will be written about separately, as warranted.
- I have seen Fox’s “Scream Queens” (Sept. 22) but hope to write about it after it premieres, given that there are things that occur in the pilot that I’d like to explore without giving anything away before it airs. My very short take on this show: It’s everything you’d expect from a Ryan Murphy joint, for good and ill.
On to the pilots.
“Blindspot,” NBC, Sept. 21: Sullivan Stapleton, one of the two “Strike Back” actors to get an NBC show this fall, is typically effective in this drama, which has drawn attention for its ubiquitous posters of a heavily tattooed Jaimie Alexander. Lots of shows in the last few years feature an obsessive person’s yarn-and-corkboard fantasia; this show actually puts one on a woman’s body, which is … something, I guess. Anyway, the ink is the key to some elaborate conspiracy that allows Alexander and Stapleton, both appealing enough in their own right, to execute some basic action-adventure moves, though their characters have no discernible chemistry as yet. The “Blindspot” pilot is more or less efficient enough, even though few aspects of the premise make any real sense, but it might work for fans of “The Blacklist,” another purplish, semi-threadbare conspiracy thriller. I’ll stick with it for a bit due to my affection for “Strike Back" and my affinity for silly, entertaining junk, but the show will have to prove itself fast to make me stick around past another couple of episodes.
“Blood & Oil,” ABC, Sept. 27: Dan Fienberg calls this drama “Oil Tree Hill” and I can find no reason to dispute that description. This show is clearly an attempt to create a new-school oil-patch soap with “Revenge”-y luxury frills (I almost love that “Blood & Oil” took an illegal, outdoor squatter’s camp in an oil-boom town and made it look like the site of an Anthropologie catalog shoot). The characters here, however, never rise beyond the level of cardboard cutouts, aside from Don Johnson’s canny oil baron, and as we found with the “Dallas” revival, one savvy old dude can’t always carry an entire show on his back, especially when the rest of it is so mechanical.
“Code Black,” CBS, Sept. 30: This medical drama is trying so hard to be a Quality Drama that it may actually burst a blood vessel. Trouble is, all of its moves are quite familiar, having turned up on “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House” and a million other shows. As rendered here, none of its medical crises or characters are terribly compelling, and as much as I want to like a drama that gives big roles to the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden and Luis Guzmán, this just didn’t quicken my pulse.
“Heroes Reborn,” NBC, Sept. 22: I was one of the few not enamored of the original “Heroes” when it arrived almost a decade ago, and given that it spent more time imploding than rising above its rickety beginnings, I have a whole host of trust issues when it comes to this reboot. Jack Coleman, best known as H.R.G., remains the best thing about this show, and my interest perked right up when he or Zachary Levi (“Chuck”) were on the screen. There’s also a subplot set in Japan that looked cool. That said, the rest of the new characters were dishwater dull, and the premiere was two long hours of set-up with very little in the way of enjoyable short-term payoff within the pilot itself. Like its predecessor, “Heroes Reborn” is good at supplying portentous statements (“Something big’s coming,” “You have a destiny,” “It’s happening faster than we thought”) without necessarily supplying dramatic moments that end up justifying them. Bottom line: Unless the show improves from this more or less adequate premiere and shows consistent flair and originality, I can’t in good conscience recommend “Heroes Reborn” over the sterling comic books, new and old, the property continues to imitate.
“Limitless,” CBS, Sept. 22: It’s ironic that this particular word crops up in one of the most narrow and timid fall seasons in memory. This premise is particularly tired: A man with special abilities works in law enforcement and has a female sidekick who backs him up and reins him in. But you know what, I’ll take the 94 millionth iteration of that formula if a show brings something new to the party, but “Limitless” comes off as rote, slick and bloodless. The show is based on the film of the same name and expect occasional Bradley Cooper drop-ins, but unless “Limitless” lives up to its name and starts achieving far more of its potential, I’ll pass.
“Minority Report,” Fox, Sept. 21: This show aired a couple years ago on Fox -- but back then it was called “Almost Human.” In all seriousness, this has all the hallmarks of a genetic combination born in a clinical TV lab: Throw in some “Almost Human” DNA (“regular” cop paired with a futuristic partner of exceptional abilities), combine with a dash of “Sleepy Hollow” (an African-American woman shepherds a man unfamiliar with social norms through a form of culture shock), and toss in a bit of the technical whizbangery found the Spielberg movie of the same name. The end result is … merely OK (and it's hard not recall that the not-dissimilar "Fringe" had John Noble's brilliant performance to buoy its clunky start). If “Minority Report” had a little more depth, that might have distracted from the pilot’s vaguely argued thesis, which amounts to a defense of living in a police state in which everyone is constantly monitored all the time.
“The Player,” NBC, Sept. 24: I really wanted to like a show starring Philip Winchester, one of the two excellent “Strike Back” leads, especially given that Wesley Snipes also has a large role in this action-adventure drama. Unfortunately [spoilers ahoy] the entire show pivots around the early “fridging” of a woman, i.e., killing off a generic love interest for the sole purpose of motivating the hero. Writers: If killing an unknown woman the hero allegedly loves is the only way to get the machinery of your plot going, know that 1. You’re doing something that has been done to death and is an ultra-cliche, and 2. Your story is doing a bad (and offensive) job of supplying stakes and motivation. I might have tried harder to get past the bad taste that situation left in my mouth had the rest of the show not been fairly paint-by-numbers and generic, but as escapist hours go, there's not a lot of meat on the bone here. “The Player” also leans heavily on the idea that there is a great deal of delightful entertainment to be derived from watching 99 percent of the world serve as playthings for the 1 percent. It's possible Winchester’s character will muddy up that let-them-eat-cake dynamic going forward … or not, but I doubt I'll be around to find out.
“Quantico,” ABC, Sept. 27: This drama, known by critics as either “Grey’s Academy” or “How to Get Away With Terror,” is sleek trash, but it’s sleek trash I quite enjoyed, even though I could see a few seams and shortcuts. And sure, my pleasure in this high-concept drama -- in which an unknown FBI academy student apparently helped engineer a terror attack -- could wane as early as Week 2. But this show knows what it wants to do and it churns through its story with the efficiency and gloss that comes from executing the ABC house style with energy and a bit of flair. Add to that the charisma of star Priyanka Chopra and you’ve got a pretty good soap opera about, well, terrorism, which is a subgenre that exists now.
“Rosewood,” Fox, Sept. 23: Despite Morris Chestnut’s ample charm, I could not work up any enthusiasm for this entirely predictable procedural about Miami’s most cutting-edge autopsy specialist. The press notes ask us to “Meet the Beethoven of private pathologists," but just from that description, you may feel like you’re already seen this show. There's a good chance we've all seen a dozen variations on this formula -- a rebellious yet dashing guy involved in crime-scene investigations Breaks the Rules and his lady sidekick tries to rein him in, etc. -- and “Rosewood” brings nothing distinctive or memorable to the formula, aside from the welcome diversity of its cast. “Rosewood” is a prime example of the broadcast networks’ retreat into predictability and characters and relationships that fail to supply reasons to return.
“Supergirl,” CBS, Oct. 26: A credible entry in TV’s superhero sweepstakes. There are some bumps in the road as the show lays out its premise, but “Supergirl” has a number of things going for it: Melissa Benoist is convincing and charming in the lead role; the supporting cast, which features the likes of Calista Flockhart, Chyler Leigh, Mehcad Brooks and David Harewood, is very good; and the leaders of the writing team behind it -- among them Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg -- have earned my trust via solid, generally enjoyable shows like “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “Chuck.” Though I need to see more before trusting that CBS will do right by this kind of property, "Supergirl" is the new broadcast network program with the most potential, in my book.
Ryan McGee and I talked about several fall pilots and discussed (in a non-spoiler-y way) the season premiere of "Doctor Who" on the latest Talking TV podcast, which you can find here, on iTunes and below.
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