USA TODAY’s Robert Bianco handicaps the fall season based on brief looks at the new series on broadcast TV.
In TV, the fall always looms.
True, the current broadcast season won’t end until Wednesday, but in their hearts, minds and wallets, network executives already have moved on. They spent last week presenting their new shows and schedules to advertisers at the annual broadcast upfronts, and they’ve already begun selling those shows to viewers. Which, in case you were wondering, explains those CBS house ads for Momand The Millers that popped up in the middle of The Big Bang finale.
TV CHAT: Robert’s taking questions here
So what can you expect from this new fall lineup? Overall, more sci-fi, more spin-offs, more family comedies and no new family drama of the sort that is built around people rather than events (meaning fans of the genre should be happy NBC is bringingParenthood back).
It’s obviously too soon to say whether those shows will warrant the time, talent and money that’s about to be poured into them: All that the networks have shown so far are brief clip reels from their pilots, some of which already are being tweaked and recast. Still, as the networks show those clips to create a first impression and build buzz (positive, they hope, in both cases), it seems only fair to share those impressions — as long as you keep in mind that impressions, like shows and schedules, can and will change.
We’ll save “best” and “worst” for later, when we have more to go on. For now, here are the most promising and most puzzling among the new fall shows.
ABC has the most new shows of any network with eight, including four on one night alone. That kind of wholesale change always is a sign of past failure and most often a predictor of future failure, as viewers generally balk at changing their habits en masse. On the plus side, the network does have what is probably the fall’s most buzzworthy new drama in Joss Whedon’s Avengers spin-off Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and one of its most promising comedies in Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night. If it can get two hits out of the fall, ABC will no doubt count itself lucky. Or at least better off.
PHOTOS: New series in the ABC lineup
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays, 8 ET/PT)
Thanks to its much-desired slot after Modern Family, Wilson’s Fun Night has the easier path to success. Still, easy isn’t everything: ABC’s hopes for a game-changing, youth-grabbing hit are more firmly pinned on this cult-ready comic book series fromBuffy creator and Avengers writer Whedon. He’s built it around Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, who returns from the Avengers dead to lead a team of gifted (but not super-powered) agents as they protect ordinary people from extraordinary threats.
S.H.I.E.L.D., you may notice, faces an extraordinary threat of its own: It’s airing opposite America’s most popular series, NCIS. Still, Whedon is one of our most talented writers, and any show he does is almost by definition promising. Whether that promise is completely fulfilled, like Buffy, or less so, like Firefly, remains to be seen, but you can bet ABC and Marvel will do everything they can to turn what he produces into a franchise.
Lucky 7 (Tuesdays, 10 ET/PT)
Remember Windfall, a 2006 NBC series about a group of unhappy lottery winners — which quickly flopped, mostly because viewers had trouble identifying with the problems of unhappy lottery winners? If you don’t, you may be wondering why ABC thinks the same premise will work any better in this show, unless the network was just blinded by the presence of Steven Spielberg’s name in the credits. Perhaps this version will be different. Perhaps the execution will be much better. But nothing in the clips would lead you to believe either statement will prove true.
CBS has the fewest holes to fill and, with The Millers and the intriguing, short-run drama Hostages, seems to have found two of the best shows to fill them. And as a bonus, the network chose not to go ahead with another NCIS spin-off, a lazy bit of programming that would have been a sign of excess complacency. For years, CBS has demonstrated the best grasp of what viewers want and the best ability to provide it, which is why, for years, it’s been the most-watched network. Odds are that’s not about to change.
PHOTOS: New series in the CBS lineup
The Millers (Thursdays, 8:30 ET/PT)
There are a dozen sitcoms joining the networks’ schedules this fall -and none came close to matching the big-laugh response that greeted the clips of this comedy fromRaising Hope’s Greg Garcia. Will Arnett stars as Nathan Miller, a newscaster whose divorce prompts his parents to reconsider their own marriage — causing Mom (Margo Martindale) to move in with him while Dad (Beau Bridges) moves in with their daughter and her husband (roles that are being recast).
CBS is giving this show TV’s best comedy launchpad, the slot after Big Bang, and you can see why: The scenes between Martindale and Arnett were Big-Bang level funny, and that’s high praise indeed. To be sure, the comedy is broad and, with its jokes about passing gas, juvenile, but neither is uncommon for a pilot. What counts in terms of justifiably high expectations is a proven writer in Garcia and a fabulous trio of actors in Arnett, Martindale and Bridges. If the show softens some of the rough edges, and adds the right two actors to the ensemble, this could be the season’s biggest comedy hit.
We Are Men (Mondays, 8:30 ET/PT)
It’s unwise to dismiss a show on clips alone, but it is fair to say this: A comedy that can’t find even one funny joke to slip into its highlight reel is never going to be considered one of the season’s best bets.
Tony Shalhoub, Kal Penn and Jerry O’Connell star as three bachelor mentors for a newly dumped younger man (Chris Smith) who moves into their apartment complex. That’s a talented quartet, but the clips made the show seem old, tired and flat — a supposedly comic take on Men of a Certain Age that forgot to add the comedy.
Granted, the clips from Robin Williams’ highly anticipated return The Crazy Oneswere even worse, but that stars Robin Williams, so it’s easy to see why CBS would give it a try. Why the network would put its considerable power behind Men is, for the moment, a puzzlement.
CW is undergoing a makeover, as it switches from teen-girl soaps to more teen-boy-friendly fantasies. As that description indicates, no one very far removed from teenager status is likely to watch, but parents of younger fantasy fans should be happy to know their kids are watching some genre shows that are less violent and sexualized than the cable alternatives.
PHOTOS: New series in the CW lineup
The Tomorrow People (Wednesdays, 9 ET/PT)
Here’s an odd bit of family planning. CW is pairing this new superhero drama starring Robbie Amell with its returning superhero series Arrow — which stars Amell’s older cousin, Stephen Amell. Both men are good-looking, but then, that’s no surprise, as “good-looking” is built into the job descriptions at CW, a network that thinks shallow is a compliment.
The premise casts the younger Amell as a high school outcast who discovers he can teleport, a power he’s gained from being a genetically-advanced, evolutionary step forward. Now he’s torn between his birth family and his new “tomorrow people” family, which is threatened with extinction by your usual TV shadowy conspiracy. I forgot to mention that all the tomorrow people are pretty, but this being CW, I probably didn’t have to.
Reign (Thursdays, 9 ET/PT)
Based on the clips, the best that can be said for this drama about Mary Queen of Scots is that it represents a change of period for CW, if not exactly a change of dramatic pace. The show, which promises to tell the untold (mostly because it’s untrue) story behind the legend, follows the teenage Mary as she travels to France for an arranged royal marriage. As for the untrue part, the real Mary, played here by 22-year-old Adelaide Kane, was 5 when she went to France, so there’s that.
Still, for viewers, the question is not so much whether they should expect historical accuracy from Reign as whether anything in CW’s history should lead them to expect the network has the capacity to pull off this kind of complicated period piece. The preliminary answer: no.
For a decade or so, Fox has been free to worry less in September than other networks, as the huge ratings from American Idol in winter have always compensated for any shortcomings in fall. Those days are now gone. And looking at Fox’s fall slate — dependent as it is on some unproven comedies and the proven dud that is X Factor — it’s possible the network has not worried enough.
PHOTOS: New series in the Fox lineup
Sleepy Hollow (Mondays, 9 ET/PT)
The more sensible choice here would be Almost Human, which comes from one of the entertainment world’s hottest talents, J.J. Abrams, and has one of the season’s most easily grasped sci-fi concepts: human cop unwillingly paired with android partner. Yet of all the Fox’s clips, the reel that entertained me the most was Sleepy Hollow.
Granted, this show from Fringe’s Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci requires not just a suspension of disbelief, but out-and-out termination. Our hero, for reasons that defy understanding, is Ichabod Crane (yeah, Ichabod Crane), brought back to life 250 years later to once again face the Headless Horseman. Paired with a young female cop, he must unravel a mystery traced to the Founding Fathers while stopping the rise of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — giving you a show that is partGrimm, part National Treasure, and part freshman English class.
So what’s the promising part? The clips, with their jokes about Ichabod’s Starbucks-shocked adjustment to the present, exhibited a sense of humor missing from every other new fall hour save S.H.I.E.L.D. Let’s hope that humor is enough, as TV has all the dour hours it needs.
Enlisted (Fridays, 9:30 ET/PT)
The clips from Dads came closer to being offensive, but that show is from Seth MacFarlane, who exists to offend. Enlisted has no such defense. Instead, this military comedy about three brothers and their misfit unit of army rejects came across as bizarrely dated, a landlocked McHale’s Navy airing at a time when there doesn’t seem to be any great demand for a silly military comedy.
Or at least not one that, in clip form, was silly without showing any signs of being funny.
The lead here is Geoff Stults, who last starred in another Fox Friday series, The Finder. He was fine in The Finder but the show as a whole was ill-conceived, which could end up being the kindest thing anyone says about Enlisted.
For far too long, NBC was addicted to a string of niche comedies that were far too narrow for a broadcasting network’s bottom line. The network isn’t quite ready for a cold turkey shift: Parks and Recreation is back, and Community is waiting in the wings. Still, it is trying to broaden its audience with a few family comedies, led by the return of Michael J. Fox, and some CBS-style crime dramas. They may not work, but you have to start somewhere.
PHOTOS: New series in the NBC lineup
The Michael J. Fox Show (Thursdays, 9:30 ET/PT)
One of TV’s most popular stars, and deservedly so, Fox reduced his work load after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Now, however, he’s ready to take on another sitcom of his own — and he’s chosen a show very loosely based on his own life.
Fox stars as Mike Henry, a beloved but retired New York news anchor with Parkinson’s who has decided to leave the house and go back to work (at the NBC station, naturally). Luckily for NBC, Fox is charm personified, and if the clips leaned a bit heavily on jokes about his disease, you can chalk that up to the tendency of pilots to print out their premises in capital letters.
What would be much harder to forgive, however, would be a running stream of NBC plugs, meaning the first time had better be the last time viewers have to endure guest shots by the Today team. And yes, in case it’s in the works, that also means even one guest shot from Brian Williams would be one too many.
Ironside (Wednesdays, 10 ET/PT)
It’s great to see Blair Underwood back on TV, particularly as minority leads of network series are still too few and far between. Diverse ensembles and minority co-stars abound, but you can count on one hand broadcast series that are actually built around minority stars.
If only he were starring in a vehicle that seemed sturdier than Ironside, yet another NBC attempt to remake an old series that no one asked to see remade. And to make matters worse, he’s playing a renegade cop leading a hand-picked, renegade team, which is as tired a trope as they come. It may all turn out to be a better idea than it seems — yet NBC held out the same hopes for Bionic Woman, Knight Rider andPrime Suspect, and we all know how quickly those were dashed.