09/17/2014 12:07 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

9 Fall 2014 Shows Worth Watching

It's here! Fall network premiere season is upon us. Does it feel more anti-climactic this year than in years past? It used to be that the new fall shows sparkled like beacons as you slogged your way through the wasteland of unscripted awfulness (Wipeout. *Shudder*) and slightly-off Canadian imports (Rookie Blue, that used to define summertime TV.

Now that summer viewing choices include Netflix gems like Orange Is The New Black, basic cable frothy fun with shows like TNT's Falling Skies and USA's stalwart Royal Pains, premium cable must-sees like HBO's True Blood (R.I.P. Bon Temps) and Showtime's Ray Donovan and the time to binge-watch anything you've been feeling guilty about not watching yet, the advent of the new fall season seems a little less momentous.

But good stuff begets good stuff. TV is more of a lightning rod for talent than ever. Top directors, writers and actors don't see TV as a last resort or farm league anymore, they see it as a chance to really develop characters and plots over time (not to mention the syndication bank if the show works), and create, often, more thoughtful and adult stuff than typical box office fare which, except for end-of-year award bait movies, is more and more broad and comic-book based (not that that isn't fun in and of itself too.) Also, cable and streaming venues featuring increasingly challenging and surprising fare, paves the way for broadcast TV to follow suit, and open doors previously closed to mass entertainment.

Social media has also played a role in television's re-ascent. A few years ago, it seemed like DVRs and VOD options were completely undermining the concept of broadcast style event television. But now, with everyone is Tweeting and Facebooking their minute-by-minute reactions to shows while they air, immediacy and urgency seems to have been re-injected into the game.

So with all that in mind, get excited for this crop of new shows! There are some good ones coming this fall, that shake-up formulas (Bad Judge, where a woman gets to be the irascible but impressive and lovable anti-hero), feature incredible actors (Jesse L. Martin, Viola Davis, Alfre Woodard, Donal Logue, Tea Leoni and Tim Daly all have new shows) and, if you give them a chance, might just become your new must-sees.

These are my picks for the best, by night.


Madam Secretary, 8P.M., Sept. 21st
The first great thing about this show's premise is the very fact that it's not particularly high concept. There's nothing shocking or stunty about a female Secretary of State, in contrast to Geena Davis' female president character in the failed 2005 show, Commander in Chief. Tea Leoni's ex-CIA agent Elizabeth McCord seems like an obvious choice for Secretary of State, surprising only because of her relative apolitical-ness. She's confident and comfortable with power and has a solid home life (her character is married to a hottie professor of the Tim Daly variety), which is also a step up from the scattered, good-at-work-but-a-mess-everywhere-else lady bosses that have so often populated TV (even my beloved CJ Craig couldn't commit to anything with more of a backbone than her goldfish until West Wing's final season.)

The show starts with the president, an old CIA colleague of McCord's, asking her to step into the Secretary of State role after the man previously in the job dies in a mysterious plane crash. After the credits, it's a time cut to her already in the job, navigating White House politics, her staff and the cosmetic requirements of her new job, while trying to stay true to her convictions. Soon, she's tangling with the wily White House Chief of Staff, played by the always slightly sinister seeming Željko Ivanek, as they try to save two American teenagers who run into trouble abroad, setting up what portends to be a juicy ongoing rivalry, all the while trying to settle her teenagers into their new life in DC. You root for her right away and when the inevitable government conspiracy crops towards the end of the episode, you want to know more. Nothing is played over-the-top House of Cards or Scandal style; Barbara Hall's (Joan of Arcadia and several episodes of Homeland) firm sense of narrative and nuance is felt throughout. It's the perfect companion to The Good Wife on Sunday nights. This one looks like there might be enough to really bite into and savor.


Gotham, 8P.M., Sept. 22nd
Ben McKenzie, as Detective James Gordon, trying to comfort an 11-year old Bruce Wayne, whose parents have just been gunned down right in front of him was the most emotionally powerful scene in any pilot I saw this season. Fox's imagining of Gotham, years before Bruce becomes the Bat, is enveloping and fully realized from the start. It's a city descending into darkness, plagued by criminal syndicates and corruption, desperately in need of a hero. The baddies include Jada Pinkett Smith, deliciously scary as gang queen Fish Mooney and Robin Lord Taylor as her lackey, Oswald Cobblepot, who hates that people call him Penguin. If the fun of seeing classic characters like Catwoman and the Riddler develop doesn't get you, there's also the makings of a solid police procedural here, as Gordon and his more cynical partner, Harvey Bullock (played by Donal Logue, who makes anything he's in better always) fight the losing battle of trying to make Gotham a little bit safer. Either way, it's mesmerizing escapist fun.

State of Affairs, 10P.M., Nov. 17th
It seems like a terrible idea, right? Katherine Heigl, as a top CIA analyst? Maybe, but it's actually totally fun and Heigl is believable as Charleston Tucker, top advisor to the President (played by Alfre Woodard, like a female Morgan Freeman), trying to move forward after her fiancée is killed overseas. Heigl has always been a powerful physical presence; some of her best scenes in Grey's were when that was highlighted but there were too few. When the intricacies of her relationship with the president were revealed at the very end of the first episode, I was fully on the hook for more. Also, the show is from Joe Carnahan, of Blacklist and The A-Team movie fame. That bodes well.

The CW
Jane the Virgin, 9P.M., Oct. 13th
The concept: Jane's life is a like a telenovela! Oh, you already saw Ugly Betty? Forget it, this (sacrilege! America Ferrara, we love you) is better. Get this: Jane (the winning Gina Rodriguez) is a virgin twenty-something who, during a routine GYN appointment mistakenly gets inseminated with her crush's last remaining sperm and, despite being engaged to someone else, has to decide whether to continue the pregnancy. The crush and his philandering wife (who wants to stay married long enough to keep a pre-nup payout) want to raise her child and her mother (who was unmarried when she got pregnant with Jane) and abuela (grandma!) have lots of opinions. This comes to us from Ben Silverman, formerly head of NBC Entertainment and producer of everything from The Office to, yes, Ugly Betty, and is well-acted, fun and engaging from the get-go. Go for it. It's silly, sweet and worth it.


Manhattan Love Story, 8:30P.M., Sept. 30th
This show hasn't gotten a lot of love from the TV critic world, but I thought it was a darling rom-com of a show. The leads, Analeigh Christian Tipton (I'm told she was a Next Top Model finalist) and James McDorman (I fell for him as Fiona's cuckolded boyfriend this last season on Shameless) are darling and winning and I found their set-up, by relatively disinterested mutual friends, totally believable. If you're looking for a charming, engaging half-hour comedy to add to your The Mindy Project and well, since How I Met Your Mother ended I can't think of another urban romance, mix, do it!

The CW
The Flash, 8P.M., Oct. 7th
Yes, I love DC Comics and I'm a sucker for CW pretty-people-with-superpowers shows. But even if that isn't your go-to, you may like The Flash. It's from the Arrow team, but lighter and sweeter, and more of an underdog story but with amazing visual effects and Jesse L. Martin (in the doubting father police guy Paul Blackthorne role) and he makes everything he's in better. Try it. It's the origin story of Barry Allen, a nerdy smart guy who gets superpowers after being hit with a rogue energy blast, and wants to prove so much, to so many people, and becoming The Flash might just give him the power, finally to do that. It reminds me of Smallville, one of my all-time favorite shows, with its warm values and likable hero.


Red Band Society, 9P.M., Sept. 17th
Did you love The Fault In Our Stars? Did you love the first season of Glee? Are you, like me, a sucker for Dave Annable (he plays the brilliant, caring McDreamy doctor)? Then check out Red Band Society, which visits a hospital full of sick yet full of life (yes, I know that's an awful cliché, but let me know if you come up with something better) teens. There are some painfully treacly elements, like the fact that's it's narrated by the boy in the coma ("This is me talking to you from a coma. Deal with it." Oy.), but otherwise it's a human drama with high stakes, strong dialogue, teens that seem like teens and amazing actors (did I mention Octavia Spencer plays the de rigueur tough-with-a-heart-of-gold Bailey-esque nurse, brilliantly? She cares about these kids, so you kinda think you should too). Also, there's a moment where another teenager asks the resident mean girl if she could let up for a second. When she answered, (I might not have every word exactly right, here) "If I could, don't you think I would?" I was sold.
Check in for a week or two and let me know what you think.


Bad Judge, 9P.M.Oct 2nd
Kate Walsh plays a hard-partying, unapologetic but highly respected criminal court judge in this Will Ferrell and Adam McKay produced comedy. Because the showrunner and half the cast are changing from the pilot, there's not a lot to go on here, but Walsh's messy-but-well-meaning Rebecca is like a cross between Hank Moody and Addison Montgomery, and that's a person I might want to hang out with.

How To Get Away With Murder, Sept. 25th 10P.M.,
Shonda Rhimes. Viola Davis. Murder. The cute (but kind of letchy) one-legged guard from Orange Is The New Black. Davis plays a law school professor in the Oprah/Olivia Pope/"ohmygodIwanttobeher" mode, who offers her law school students the chance to work with her, if they can offer meaningful new thinking to the murder case she and her private law firm are dealing with. Coloring things is the fact that the show opens with a group of those students trying to figure out how to dispose of a body. The students are pretty and clever, but kind of blur together in the pilot. But Davis, is, as always, riveting to watch and the Shondaland what will happen now pacing is intoxicating. I'm tempted to make a "jury says watch," joke here, but how cheesy would that be?

Honorable mentions:
I enjoy Debra Messing so much, that Mysteries of Laura kind of intrigued me, even though it was kind of a mess. But I think my best friend who loves female hero driven crime procedurals might love it.

Black-ish had good cast chemistry from minute one and Anthony Anderson is awesome. I'm never going to go in for a family comedy, but if you heart Modern Family and you're looking for a good DVR/Tivo companion to that, this is it.

Scorpion was kind of fun. Think Heroes crossed with Agents of Shield mixed with Numb3rs and The Big Bang Theory. Crazy smart misfits hook up with a government agency to keep bad things from happening, and likable every girl waitress (Kat McPhee) with a really smart kid helps them.

Odyssey (Crash meets Homeland), Allegiance (The Americans, once the kids have grown up) and Battle Creek (hiiiiii Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters) are AWESOME but they're midseason, so we'll get to them later.

Marry Me features Happy Endings star Casey Wilson and its showrunner, her husband, David Caspe. And cute Ken Marino. That should be enough to recommend anything. But the pilot was kind of shrill and painful. Maybe it'll get better.