If there are dominant themes and flavours to the new fall TV season, the main theme is anti-acrimony delivered by the vehicle of dark comedy. And the flavour is whatever makes you nostalgic and feeling nice about the world. It’s a bit harum-scarum.
But there are two constants in television: entertaining escapism and psychological depth with sociological analysis. If you just want escapism, then the heavily promoted Stumptown (Wednesdays ABC, CTV) is your thing. It’s a police procedural starring Canadian Cobie Smulders as “a badass army vet with a messy personal life” who freelances as a private investigator. (A co-star is Canadian Tantoo Cardinal.) The superbly made pilot is a propulsive procedural. At the same time, it’s significant that the lead character is a tough female army vet and flawed, wounded and strong, all at the same time. See, sometimes escapism is also culturally significant.
Time was, extrapolating meaning from a slew of new series on U.S. networks and cable meant figuring out how writers and producers embraced the cultural currents of the moment. Often, the currents shifted with each new presidency. Thus, you could say that such network series as Glee, Modern Family and The Good Wife were Obama-era TV; an aura of tolerance imbued two and a reaction against old-school politics was the engine of the third.
This Donald Trump-era TV period has careened wildly from vaguely right-wing, military-themed dramas such as NBC’s The Brave (original title, For God and Country) to ABC’s decision to revive Roseanne and somehow have Roseanne Barr and the Conner family reflect the Trump base. Sometimes embracing cultural currents works easily and sometimes it all crashes and burns. Ask ABC and Roseanne Barr.
Right now, Trump-era American TV is more oppositional and reactive, rather than something entwined with Trump values and attitudes. The new and already running CBS comedy Bob Hearts Abishola (Mondays, CBS, CTV) is superficially a wacky love story, but is really about bringing immigrant experience to romantic comedy. Bob, middle-aged, white and owner of a compression-sock factory, has a heart attack and then falls for his cardiac nurse, the Nigerian immigrant Abishola. When presenting the series to TV critics, creator Chuck Lorre wore a yellow cap with the letters “IMAG,” which stands for “Immigrants Make America Great.” That’s another kind of connection with cultural currents.
Confusion about values is everywhere. Even in the seemingly gimmicky drama Evil, (Thursdays CBS, now running), which pairs a clinical psychologist and a priest-in-training who tackle criminals “possessed by evil," the question of core values, touching on the common good and evil individuals, is teased out. The show is the creation of the writers of The Good Wife and the very political The Good Fight. Their work always seethes with political undercurrents.
There is smart, mordant humour about political and personal values in Ryan Murphy’s first series for Netflix, The Politician (streaming on Netflix, Sept 27). It’s about a teenager, (Ben Platt, star of Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway), who wants to be president someday and is determined to start by becoming president of his high-school student body.
The new Fox animated comedy Bless the Harts (starts Sunday) could be labelled late-Trump-era TV. It’s about a group of dirt-poor Southerners (read: Trump-base) who are always broke and waiting for the arrival of the American dream of status and wealth. Nothing ever goes right, but they know how to enjoy themselves. Kristen Wiig, who is also a producer, voices with Maya Rudolph. The new Fox drama Almost Family (in Canada on CTV, starts Oct. 2) can be seen as rumination on two political and social currents, specifically the #MeToo movement and the matter of what a family clan (read: society) actually means. It’s about an only child finding out her father, a fertility doctor, used his own sperm to conceive upward of a hundred children.
To some people it will matter that the central character in Batwoman (The CW, Showcase, starts Oct. 6) is a feminist, lesbian superhero and for others it will only matter that it’s all wham-bam comic-book action.
There’s something for everyone. Here are 10 coming shows to savour:
Back to Life (Crave/Showtime starts Oct. 6)
Another in a batch of excellent series emerging from Britain recently, this strange dark comedy comes from the producers of Fleabag. Daisy Haggard plays Miri Matteson, who, after 18 years behind bars, returns home and falls chaotically back into life in the small seaside town she grew up in, and where she is now notorious. Exactly what she did to earn jail time is held back for a while. What isn’t hidden is the depth of the poignancy of her situation. Deadpan, droll and funny while being heartbreaking, it’s a small masterpiece.
Modern Love (Amazon Prime Video starts Oct. 18)
Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Andy Garcia and Dev Patel are just some of the names starring in this new anthology series (eight half-hours) based on the popular New York Times column and podcast of the same name. The strongest episode might be the one with Tina Fey and John Slattery (Mad Men) as a long-married couple. When a therapist asks what they do for date night, Fey’s character answers, “This!”
Watchmen (Crave/HBO, starts Oct. 20)
Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) is behind the lavish, loose adaptation of the 1986 graphic novel, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which is regarded as a classic, trenchant dismantling of the superhero genre. The gist: A Tulsa, Okla., police department puts masks on officers to fight a threat (“a vast and insidious conspiracy”) from a white-supremacist militia, the Seventh Kalvary, who have adopted the images of comic-book vigilante superheroes. Utterly engrossing, smart and visually stunning.
The Mandalorian (Disney+; starts Nov. 12)
Disney+ is the major streaming service that’s launching this fall, and it’s kicking off with this drama, the first live-action Star Wars television series. Set in the years immediately after Return of the Jedi, the show’s central story arc will be about a gunfighter – modelled after Boba Fett, “the most feared bounty hunter in the galaxy” – and played by former Game of Thrones and Narcos star Pedro Pascal.
The Morning Show (AppleTV+ starts Nov. 4)
This will be Apple’s calling card for its TV venture. Loosely “inspired” by Top of the Morning, the book by CNN’s Brian Stelter about the morning-TV wars, the series promises an acid take on the politics of those network morning shows with Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell in the major roles. You don’t usually get that kind of talent for a so-so TV drama.
Living with Yourself (Netflix, Oct. 18)
Trippy but serious-minded, this has Paul Rudd in two roles. He plays a regular guy who is a bit depressed and takes a chance on a mental spa-treatment that promises to change him. It does. But it turns out the old version of himself was never discarded, and haunts him and his life. The material to see in advance is wonderfully funny while staying on a theme that is really a meditation on an existential crisis about the true self of the central character.
Catherine the Great (Crave/HBO, starts Oct. 21)
It’s not as though there’s a shortage of historical costume drama, but Helen Mirren as Catherine, empress of Russia, in the last years of her reign, is more than tantalizing. From what’s available in advance, the miniseries (an HBO/Sky Atlantic co-production) is about the absolute power of an absolute ruler and, of course, about the idea of a Russian empire.
Daybreak (Netflix, starts Oct. 24)
Big, broad and madly satiric at times, it’s about teenagers creating their own crazy community in postapocalyptic Glendale, Calif. Adapted from Brian Ralph’s comic series, it’s really about these teenagers imitating the video games and TV series they’ve grown up on, to fashion a new world. Very, very funny stuff, certainly at the start.
The Crown (Netflix, starts Nov. 17)
Olivia Colman succeeds Claire Foy as the Queen in Season 3 of Netflix’s continuing royal biopic The Crown. Foy won an Emmy for best actress for her role, so the pressure’s on Colman. But there is also the casting of Tobias Menzies, brilliant in Outlander, as the older Prince Philip. Plus, there’s Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. The third and the coming fourth series will deal with the Royal Family spanning the years 1964-76.
His Dark Materials (Crave/HBO, Nov. 4)
Often touted as the successor to Game of Thrones in terms of fantasy and intrigue, this big, gorgeous adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novels follows Lyra (Dafne Keen), a girl with very special gifts, whose mission is to stop a plot to secretly abduct great multitudes of children. It also stars James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but they might all be upstaged by the breathtaking special effects.