In TV, the fall always looms.
True, this broadcast season won't end until Wednesday, but in their hearts, minds and wallets, network executives have already moved on. They spent last week presenting new shows and schedules to advertisers at the annual broadcast upfronts, and they've already begun selling those shows to viewers. Which explains those CBS house ads for Mom and The Millers that popped up in the middle of Thursday's Big Bang Theory finale.
What can we expect from this new fall lineup? Overall, more sci-fi, more spinoffs, more family comedies and no new family drama of the sort built around people rather than events (meaning fans of the genre should be happy NBC is bringing Parenthood back).
It's too soon to say whether those shows will warrant the time, talent and money about to be poured into them; all the networks have shown so far are brief clip reels from their pilots, some of which are already being tweaked and recast. Still, those clips are designed to create a first impression and build buzz (positive, they hope, in both cases), so it seems fair to share those impressions, as long as you keep in mind impressions, shows and schedules can and will change.
We'll save "best" and "worst" for later, when there's more to go on. For now, here are some of the most promising and puzzling fall shows.
ABC has the most new shows of any network with eight, four on one night alone. That kind of wholesale change is always a sign of past failure and often a predictor of future failure; viewers generally balk at changing habits en masse. But the network does have probably the fall's most buzz-worthy new drama, Joss Whedon's Avengers spinoff, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and one of its most promising comedies, Rebel Wilson's Super Fun Night.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Tuesdays, 8 ET/PT
ABC's hopes for a game-changing, youth-grabbing hit are firmly pinned on this cult-ready comic book series from Buffy creator and Avengers writer Whedon, built around Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson leading a team of gifted (but not superpowered) agents protecting ordinary people from extraordinary threats. S.H.I.E.L.D. faces an extraordinary threat of its own, airing opposite TV's No. 1 series, NCIS. Still, Whedon is one of our most talented writers, and any show he does is almost by definition promising. And ABC and Marvel will do everything they can to turn what he produces into a franchise.
Tuesdays, 10 ET/PT
Remember Windfall, a 2006 NBC series about a group of unhappy lottery winners, which quickly flopped because viewers had trouble identifying with the problems of unhappy lottery winners? If you don't, you may wonder why ABC thinks the premise will work better here, unless the network was blinded by Steven Spielberg's name in the credits.
CW is having a makeover, switching from teen-girl soaps to more teen-boy-friendly fantasies. While no one far removed from teenager status is likely to watch, parents of younger fantasy fans should be happy to know their kids are watching genre shows that are less violent and sexualized than cable alternatives.
The Tomorrow People
Wednesdays, 9 ET/PT
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 that's no surprise: "Good-looking" is built into the job descriptions at CW. The premise casts the younger Amell as a high school outcast who discovers he can teleport, a power he has gained from being a genetically advanced, evolutionary step forward. Now he's torn between his birth family and his "tomorrow people" family, threatened by your usual shadowy conspiracy.
Thursdays, 9 ET/PT
The "untold" story behind the legend follows the teenage Mary, Queen of Scots as she travels to France for an arranged marriage. The question is not so much whether to expect historical accuracy; it's whether anything in CW's history indicates the capacity to pull off a complicated period piece. Preliminary answer: no.
For a decade or so, Fox has been free to worry less in September than other networks, as huge ratings from American Idol in winter have compensated for fall shortcomings. Those days are gone, and looking at Fox's fall slate -- dependent on some unproven comedies and the proven dud that is X Factor -- it's possible the network has not worried enough.
Mondays, 9 ET/PT
The more sensible choice here would be Almost Human, from one of the entertainment world's hottest talents, J.J. Abrams, with one of the most easily grasped sci-fi concepts: human cop unwillingly partnered with android. 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 suspension of disbelief but out-and-out termination. Ichabod Crane (yeah, that Ichabod Crane) is brought back to life 250 years later to 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 part Grimm, part National Treasure, and part freshman English. What's promising? The clips, with 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.E.I.L.D.
Fridays, 9:30 ET/PT
This military comedy about three brothers and their misfit unit of Army rejects came across as bizarrely dated, a landlockedMcHale'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.
For far too long, NBC was addicted to niche comedies far too narrow for a broadcasting network's bottom line. Now it's 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.
The Michael J. Fox Show
Thursdays, 9:30 ET/PT
One of TV's most popular stars Fox reduced his workload after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Now he's ready to take on a new sitcom of his own -- loosely based on his own life. Mike Henry, a beloved but retired New York news anchor with Parkinson's, decides 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, chalk that up to the tendency of pilots to print 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 better be the last viewers have to endure guest shots by the Today team.
Wednesdays, 10 ET/PT
It's great to see Blair Underwood back on TV, particularly as minority leads of network series are still far too few. If only he were starring in a sturdier vehicle than Ironside, yet another NBC attempt to remake an old series no one asked to see remade. And to make matters worse, he's playing a renegade cop leading a handpicked renegade team, as tired a trope as they come.
CBS has the fewest holes to fill and, with The Millers and intriguing short-run drama Hostages, seems to have found two of the best shows to fill them. For years, CBS has demonstrated the best grasp of what viewers want -- and the best ability to provide it. That's not likely to change.
Thursdays, 8:30 ET/PT
There are a dozen new sitcoms on network schedules this fall; none came close to matching the big-laugh response to the clips of this comedy from Raising Hope's Greg Garcia. Will Arnett is 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 it TV's best comedy launchpad, the slot after Big Bang, and high expectations are justified by a proven writer in Garcia and a fabulous trio of actors in Arnett, Martindale and Bridges.
We Are Men
Mondays, 8:30 ET/PT
A comedy that can't find one funny joke to slip into its highlight reel will never be a best bet. Tony Shaloub, Kal Penn and Jerry O'Connell star as bachelor mentors for a newly dumped younger man (Chris Smith) in their apartment complex. That's a talented quartet, but the clips made the show seem old, tired and flat.
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