It’s that special time of year!
The new TV shows have premiered!
Yeah, okay — that used to be a big deal, back when network TV was a thing. Now? Shows debut pretty much year-round, and most of the best stuff is on cable. True Detective? January. Fargo? April. The Leftovers? June.
Is there a reason to get excited about fall TV anymore? Is there even a reason to tune in? Based on this season’s offerings, my answer is a tepid “yes.” Slowly but surely, the networks are learning valuable lessons from their younger, cooler little brothers and sisters. ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder has some fairly raunchy gay sex in the pilot, something only Shonda Rhimes could get away with on network TV at this point. And I’m not sure what the plan is for Manhattan Love Story — certainly ABC would love a multi-season comedy hit in the vein of How I Met Your Mother — but it has the look and feel of a movie and could easily satisfy as a limited series.
Networks are desperate to reclaim the water-cooler vibe that’s been hijacked by the likes of HBO and Netflix, and they’re not there yet. I do, however, find most of fall 2014’s offerings to be at least a little bit promising, and not quite as dunderheaded as a lot of past efforts.
Below are my thoughts on the new shows (that I bothered to watch), ranked from least favorite to most favorite.
It’s The Dark Knight meets Muppet Babies. If that concept sounds appealing to you, you might like Gotham, Fox’s Batman-free version of the Batman story that begins with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and then concerns the police exploits of pre-Commissioner Jim Gordon, played by The OC‘s Ben McKenzie, as he takes on organized (and disorganized) crime in Gotham City. So who is this show for? Not fans of police procedurals, because the stories here are way too broad and cartoonish to contain any shred of reality. Not fans of Batman, because, hello! No Batman. The show attempts to strike some balance between the campy 60s Adam West Batman and the moody Christopher Nolan universe, achieving neither. It’s too cheesy and stupid for adults and too broody and violent for kids, so something went seriously wrong in the execution here. We all know Bruce Wayne started fighting crime because the police were too ineffective and corrupt, so the central premise of the show is basically asking us to watch the police fail at their jobs and wait for a decade until the cool stuff can happen. It’s DC Comics’ Waiting For Godot, everybody!
There may have been a way to pull that off effectively, but this isn’t it. The pilot blows its load introducing something like six villains (it’s hard to tell for sure), most of whom can’t be all that villainous any time soon, because then we would need Batman. And it does so in the most thuddingly obvious ways — the pubescent will-be Poison Ivy is watering plants 24/7, Catwoman steals a stranger’s milk, and everyone makes sure to clearly enunciate Oswald Cobblepot’s nickname “Penguin” even before he should have that nickname. (It kind of makes you wish the show had resurrected those cheesy title cards from the 60s series, so that every time a new villain comes on screen, a big flashy DURRR! could appear.) Gotham is about as subtle as The Riddler punching you in the face.
It would have been a lot more interesting to introduce characters and then surprise us when they turned into major foes. If these bad guys can hang around for ten years without killing everyone, then what do we need the Dark Knight for, anyhow? I’m not sure why everyone had to be so young — wouldn’t a teen billionaire Bruce Wayne be way more fun? Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if these villains were all high school aged and hooking up and stabbing each other in the back? (Figuratively, I should clarify.) How interesting can these young’uns be?
What kind of storylines are we in for? Poison Ivy gets her period? The Joker calls Two Face a “doody head”? Mr. Freeze experiences his first wet dream? I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea to take a popular and reasonably dark adult franchise and go back to when the characters were tweens, but at this rate I’d rather watch Silence Of The Lambs Preschool than another episode of Gotham. (Sole highlight: Jada Pinkett Smith knows what she’s doing as the campy villainess Fish.)6. SELFIE
Ignore the cutesy, soon-to-be-dated title for a moment, and the whole notion that this is somehow sprung from My Fair Lady (yes, really). The premise isn’t horrible: a self-obsessed social media whore teams up with a co-worker who endeavors to teach her how to actually interact with human beings. There are some decently funny gags centered on that — the jokes fly fast and furious. Unfortunately, the pilot reeks of too much meddling, so that nothing really connects. Karen Gillan’s Eliza Dooley has no real motivation to want to be a better person, and John Cho’s Henry has no motivation to want to help her. Nothing in this pilot feels remotely like the real world, and the somewhat appealing leads can’t save it. It’s destined to run out of steam (and social media tropes to make fun of) in about five episodes — if it lasts that long in the harsh, axe-happy world of network TV. It’s perfectly plausible that this could eventually right its course, but for now Selfie has about as much depth and nuance as… well, a selfie. You’re better off watching your Facebook news feed.5. MADAM SECRETARY
Tea Leoni is the Secretary of State! And that’s a big deal, I guess? She’s not the first female to hold the position, and even if she was, that would be trumped by Commander-In-Chief, in which Geena Davis had an even more powerful position (and was swiftly canceled), and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep. Madam Secretary is not a particularly good title for a series, either — the gender awareness of it is one step above calling it Lady Boss. Tea Leoni seems to have found a role that really suits her, as she has not really had great luck despite a reliable pluck she brings to every character she plays. At this point, she deserves a hit, and this might be it — Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord is a sorta tough, ex-CIA operative, but I can’t shake the feeling that her past with a shady intelligence agency probably would make for a more gripping series. The show has introduced a subplot about someone killing off the former Secretary of State (and also bumping off those who are catching onto the plot), but I’m not sure that’s quite juicy enough yet. For now, it seems like an alternate title for the show might be Things That Aren’t Important Enough For The President To Deal With, and in a post-West Wing world, how appealing can a glimpse into the Secretary of State’s life really be?
Being black is hilarious! That’s the basic premise of Blackish, ABC’s new comedy about an African-America family just hanging out and being African-American. It’s unfortunate that the state of diversity on television these days necessitates that a show about a black family has to be titled after and hang every punchline on the characters’ race, and I wonder if this will pave the way for even more blatant stabs at diversity on television, like Kinda Asian or Pseudo-Native American or Half-Puerto Rican, Half-Perisan-esque. Yes, I may be giving Blackish a harder time than it deserves, because it is exploring some fresh and topical ideas — it’s just doing so in a canned, sitcom-ish way. Anthony Anderson’s mugging grows swiftly tiresome in the pilot — all the supporting characters outshine him — and it doesn’t help that his voiceover points out plenty of ironies we could very well observe for ourselves. I don’t mean to suggest that Blackish‘s humor should be color blind, but I’m also not convinced that a typical family sitcom needs to trot out this many gags about being black if it’s going to play them so safe and down the middle. (But what else would you expect from a network sitcom?) Tracee Ellis Ross is the show’s best asset as “the wife” — hopefully she’s given a bit more to do in future episodes. I’ll give Blackish another shot or two, but for now, it’s only funnyish.3. RED BAND SOCIETY
An evil cheerleader gets sick and finds herself in a hospital ward populated by live-in teens who are all suffering from one disease or another. Some have cancer, one girl has an eating disorder, and the whole series is narrated by a kid in a coma (a cloying touch I could have lived without). It could all be pretty maudlin, but mostly it isn’t, thanks to an appealing young cast and solid writing that doesn’t shy away from the gravity of the situation (much). Dave Annable and Octavia Spencer are the main adult figures around the hospital as a doctor and a nurse, respectively, while Charlie Rowe and Nolan Sotillo are the standout teens. It’s sometimes heartwarming, occasionally a little mushy, and might best be described as Glee With Cancer, but that’s what you get from a show about teens set in a hospital. It’s easy to see how this could go south without special care and attention, but I’m with it for the time being.2. HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER
Or “How. To Get Away. With Muuuuurdeeeeerrrrr.” You kinda have to say it the way Viola Davis does, all menacing and drawn-out and kinda sexy like that. Since unjustly losing the Oscar to Meryl Streep in 2012, Davis has mostly been cooling her heels, doing far less than she is capable of in movies like Beautiful Creatures, Ender’s Game, and Prisoners, so I guess it’s no surprise that she decided to headline a television series that she seems at least a notch too good for. (Though winning the Oscar may not have helped, since her Help co-star Octavia Spencer, who did win for her role, also ended up on TV this year.) The show is about law students helping their professor win cases, or some such ridiculousness; it also flashes forward to show these students burying a body and, presumably, getting away with muuuuurdeeeeerrrrr. Paired with Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, How To Get Away With Muuuuurdeeeeerrrrr buys into Shonda Rhimes’ brand of soapy self-seriousness, making for a reasonably fun twist on the standard TV lawyer formula. The cast is diverse and appealing, the morals are kinda wonky, and Viola Davis (predictably) nails it as Annalise Keating (AKA The Next Olivia Pope), so I’ll be back for more, assuming that “more” remains up to the snuff of the pilot.1. MANHATTAN LOVE STORY
So which pilot did I enjoy the most thus far in fall 2014? Probably this little gem, which I expected nothing from. Manhattan Love Story does nothing that has not been done before, as we have all seen plenty of love stories set in Manhattan. (That’s roughly all of them.) Analeigh Tipton is Dana, who arrives in New York City all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as winsome newcomers tend to do. She gets set up on a date with Peter (Jake McDorman) that goes badly, and with some nudging, he tries to make it up to her. That’s about all that happens, but Manhattan Love Story is well-written, well-acted, and well-directed (though yet another new comedy that is over-reliant on voiceover). I know from experience that days in New York City get a lot worse than the supposedly terrible day Dana deals with in the pilot, and I’ve definitely had worse dates. But what makes it work is that the leads feel, more or less, like believable people, so the comedy is grounded rather than just insane rapid-fire patter (I’m looking at you, Selfie).
The supporting characters are rather broad, as is typical in romantic comedies, and Jake McDorman doesn’t really get a chance to break out of the stereotypical male role of wisecracking boob-oggler. But Analeigh Tipton proves herself worthy of anchoring the show, and I have faith that the characters will get stronger in future episodes. Manhattan Love Story is not quite at the level of Manhattan’s very best love stories, but that’s a tall order. It feels more like a movie than a sitcom and contains enough of the charm and energy of something like Annie Hall to keep me watching.