It’s not an avalanche. It’s a tsunami. Last year, about 500 scripted shows aired in the U.S. market across network, cable and streaming services. The idea of a fall TV schedule, a package comprising new and returning shows, still stands, but looks increasingly shaky. Yet it persists, as U.S. networks in particular stick to the belief that as soon as summer is over, the public’s attention turns to TV content and there are avid consumers primed for comedy and drama.
Other services stick to the pattern, too. The fall season traditionally begins the day after the Emmy Awards, and this year, that is Tuesday. That’s when Facebook Watch launches Sorry For Your Loss, a half-hour dark comedy starring Elizabeth Olsen as a newly widowed woman who discovers what her late husband hid from her. Featured at the Toronto International Film Festival, it looks gorgeous but appears pretty ordinary as drama. It does, however, stand as an example of even more female-focused content than usual.
Across the networks and on Netflix, the trend of relying on reboots and revivals continues, but is much less secure as a business model. When Fox revived The X-Files in 2016, it was a ratings hit. But when yet another batch of episodes aired early in 2018, almost 70 per cent of the audience had fled. All network TV is a gamble, mind you, and CBS is betting on big numbers for a new Murphy Brown, while The CW revives Charmed with a new cast and calls it “a feminist reboot.”
The Roseanne effect continues to impact U.S. TV. In this case, a show reboot transcends the trend because the issue at its heart is political – it’s alleged that pro-Trump viewers savoured the show’s depiction of working-class family life. U.S. President Donald Trump even claimed the ratings victory as his own. Given the astonishing ratings, the continuation of the series without the disgraced Roseanne Barr was inevitable. The theme of connecting with viewers in what is called flyover America remains intact, too. Fox has two new comedies that attempt to depict unglamorous characters living fairly ordinary lives. Laughter is meant to ensue, of course. The Cool Kids (Sept. 28, Fox, City) is about strapped-for-cash seniors in a retirement home. REL (Fox, Sept. 30) stars comedian Lil Rel Howery as an African-American do-gooder dad whose life is upended when his wife has an affair with his barber and leaves him. Both shows are, frankly, hopeless.
If you reach for an overriding trend, three types of TV are being made. First, the familiar: Cop-shows-with-a-twist remain in vogue. There’s FBI (CBS, Global, Sept. 24) from Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, featuring steely agents fighting crime and terrorism, but with more female authority figures. There is always a medical drama, too, and this year there’s New Amsterdam (NBC, Sept. 25), but this one is about a new boss trying to reform a hospital to better cope with health issues in the Trump era.
Meanwhile, cable and streaming services aim for more challenging, prestige-laden TV. Specifically, literary adaptations. HBO has an Italian-language adaptation of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, AMC has a six-part version of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, and even CBC, bless it, has picked up the new British adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. And the new series from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, The Romanoffs, has the aura of a highly anticipated novel.
Herewith, 10 new shows that will matter this Fall.
Hang Ups (CBC, Sept. 18)
It’s one of those Brit imports CBC uses to fill the schedule until Canadian content arrives in early 2019. And thank heavens – it’s a brilliant bit of comedy. An adaptation of Lisa Kudrow’s Showtime series Web Therapy, it stars Stephen Mangan (Episodes) as a broke, slightly desperate psychotherapist who launches an online therapy business. From the vantage point of his chaotic home, with wife, kids, family and friends barging in, he does short online therapy with clients. Much of it is improvised, and hilariously so. The short, sweet and daft therapy sessions mean Mangan attracted an array of fine actors to let loose, including Celia Imrie, Richard E. Grant and Charles Dance.
Murphy Brown (CBS, City TV, Sept. 27)
This is bound to fascinate at first, but could go badly wrong. Twenty years after the show’s 1998 finale, the cast and producers reunite to make it more topical and newsy. Candice Bergen is back as Murphy, now the host of a cable news show, Murphy in the Morning. CBS says the plan is to film episodes as close to air as possible to be topical. Producer Diane English says: “The First Amendment and free press is under attack like I’ve never seen before. I don’t think anybody’s ever seen before. The press is not the enemy of the people, and these guys, our characters, are the press. So we deal with that a lot.” Sounds good, but this is CBS not HBO, so earnest sincerity is the likely upshot.
Vanity Fair (CBC, Sept. 19)
Does the world need a new adaptation of Thackeray’s novel about the social-climbing, scheming Becky Sharp? Yes. This Amazon/ITV adaptation is so loaded with contemporary context it leaves the period-piece drama genre behind. Thackeray himself (Michael Palin) appears in it, welcoming the audience into this world, “A very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbug, falseness and pretension.” In fact, the Regency period setting is more mocked than fetishized, for its snobbery and catatonic pomposity. Orphan Becky (Olivia Cooke, who is brilliant) must seduce a buffoon into marriage to escape a life of drudgery and then conquer London. It’s an acid, seething drama, and one hopes CBC doesn’t ruin it with excessive commercial breaks.
Mr. Inbetween (FX, Sept. 25)
This one is a real gem – a strange, taut little half-hour drama set in Australia about a career thug, Ray, who juggles the professional responsibilities of thuggery and debt collection with a normal life as a dad and good friend to his mates and extended family. It has the feel of a documentary, and Scott Ryan is astonishingly charismatic as the mercurial Ray.
The Conners (ABC, CTV, Oct. 16)
It’s possible this will be newsworthy, but not required viewing. The original revival of Roseanne was last season’s highest-rated network series for a reason, and that reason was not simply Roseanne Barr’s presence. The show’s in-your-face treatment of socio-political issues was unnerving. Where it goes from here, we don’t know, but since everyone except Barr is back, the continuing crises and small triumphs of the Conner family will have impact, however briefly.
The Rookie (ABC, CTV, Oct. 16)
A flawless pilot indicates why this seemingly conventional cop drama is considered a near-certain hit. It stars Nathan Fillion (Castle, Modern Family) as John Nolan, the oldest rookie in the LAPD. After working in construction for years and divorcing, he moves to L.A. to pursue his dream of being a police officer. Everyone is younger than him, but he’s got life skills. Get it? In part, it’s about about male mid-life crisis, but the opening episode has tons of action, romance and a lot of heart. Smartly written with crisp dialogue, it sure has charm, and Fillion is enormously likeable here. After the pilot airs, the ensuing episodes might rely entirely on that likeable appeal.
The Romanoffs (Amazon Prime, Oct. 12)
Matthew Weiner's follow up to Mad Men is an eight-part anthology series centred on people who believe themselves to be the modern-day descendants of the Romanovs, the last royal family to rule Russia. From the limited content released so far, it looks gorgeous, funny and bittersweet. Christina Hendricks and John Slattery from Mad Men star with a sprawling cast that includes Diane Lane, Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, Amanda Peet, Aaron Eckhart, and Marthe Keller. According to the closely studied credits, 14 alumni from Mad Men are involved.
Maniac (Netflix, Sept. 21)
The critic has to be careful here, since Netfix embargoes full reviews for a period. But I can suggest this: On the evidence of early episodes, this will be gloriously good, mind-bending drama and a delight. Based on a Norwegian series and set in what seems like the present but isn’t, it’s about Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), two strangers who are part of a mysterious pharmaceutical trial. Both are troubled oddballs. Perhaps best described as a sinister dark comedy/romance, it is produced and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who made the first season of True Detective so memorable. Maniac appears to be made with formidable visual elan.
Camping (HBO, Oct. 14)
This is what Lena Dunham is up to, post-Girls. Dunham and producing partner Jenni Konner have adapted the British satiric series Camping, and it stars Jennifer Garner and David Tennant as Kathryn and Walt, a not-so-happily married couple. An outdoor adventure trip to celebrate Walt’s 45th birthday goes awry. You know, the vagaries of nature and uninvited guests, plus submerged relationship tensions rising to the surface. It looks like a lark. An eight-episode lark with some fierce comic bite, mind you.
My Brilliant Friend (HBO, November)
Perhaps the most highly anticipated prestige cable-TV event of the fall, HBO’s Italian-language adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels already has rave reviews after two hours were screened at the Venice Film Festival. As with the novels, My Brilliant Friend opens with 60-something Elena getting a call to say her lifelong friend Lila is missing. Elena then decides to write their story. What ensues is a coming-of-age tale, two girls growing up in 1950s Naples. Elena is charming, polite and clever. Lila is impulsive and vaguely threatening. They grow up in a tightly knit working-class world where male rage and male rules dominate. From what this critic has seen, this is not a nostalgia-laden drama, nor is it in the tradition of raw Italian neorealism. It is a beautifully observed, textured narrative, ferociously truthful, about delicate human cruelties and love.