First, the big picture. Yes, the best, most innovative and serious minded of TV shows are still on cable. Add a handful of satisfying or arresting series on network TV to the mix. There's no bonanza of brilliant TV this fall, but some new cable series of startling quality will debut, with many more to come in early 2015. It's a good menu for the next few months.
In themes, trends and strategies, U.S. network television is going in two directions. First, the invasion of comic-book heroes. Gotham on Fox, The Flash (The CW), Constantine (NBC) and, later, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. called Agent Carter (ABC). The intent is obvious. Seriousness is being ceded to cable and these shows, connected to movie franchises and comic books, are aimed at drawing in a younger audience more interested in flash and fun than thoughtful sober-mindedness.
Second, some networks are sticking to familiar successful formulas. CBS isn't losing money on CSI and Person of Interest, police procedurals with elements of high-tech, gadget-savvy nerdiness. So along come NCIS: New Orleans; also Scorpion, about nerdy-but-witty tech geniuses doing good; and Stalker, about tackling stalkers, obviously. NBC has State of Affairs, which feels like a knock-off of The Blacklist. ABC has How to Get Away With Murder, from Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal), which feels like it's deeply inspired by Scandal. Some viewers like cookie-cutter shows. And some series are shorter – cable-style 10 episodes.
Two cultural shifts are evident. First, we see more diversity as network series are beginning (beginning!) to look the way America looks – ABC's very droll Black-ish and crude Cristela, along with CW's wonderful Jane the Virgin, and on CBS, The McCarthys. Amazingly, these aren't peopled entirely by bland white actors.
Secondly, powerful women abound. CBS's earnest but simpy Madam Secretary has Tea Leoni as U.S. secretary of state, juggling international politics and family life. On NBC's State of Affairs, former Grey's Anatomy star Katherine Heigl is a top CIA official working for a female president (Alfre Woodard).
The following list of recommended shows are mostly American and British. There are few new Canadian productions – very oddly, CBC declined to release its showcase Strange Empire drama, coming Oct. 6, in time for this review – but more will come in 2015.
For now, here are 10 shows worth your attention:
Red Band Society (Fox, starts Sept. 17)
The premise seems too saccharine: It's set in a children's hospital and the narrator is a boy in a coma. But the pilot absolutely sings with wit and verve. This turns out to be a Glee-style teen drama that happens to be set in a hospital, not a high school. The ensemble cast, playing kids and teens with both physical and mental problems, is excellent and the show doesn't steer away from the grim realities of death and loss. An elusive blend of sombre pathos, black humour and feel-good vibe is captured in the pilot. An outlandishly odd but quality network show.
Gotham (Fox/CTV, starts Sept. 22)
It's typical of where network TV is going, but this "origins tale" about the beginning of the Batman story is by far the best of superhero shows. If you like the lurid, unreal look of comic-book dramatizations, Gotham looks stunning. It's childish fun, of course, as characters address each other with chestnuts such as, "Listen hotshot!" and "Do the right thing for once!" But it is very well cast. While little Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz, who was the silent, genius kid on Touch) is only a cipher at first, others are emphatically there. Much is seen through the eyes of straight-arrow Detective James Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie, from The O.C. He's wonderful, all gravity and grace. With him is Donal Logue, eating the scenery as the palooka cop Harvey Bullock. Robin Lord Taylor, as the vicious, soon-to-be Penguin, is sensational.
Black-ish (ABC/City, starts Sept. 24)
"I'm gonna want my family to be black, not black-ish." That's what wealthy black businessman Andre "Dre" Johnson (Anthony Anderson) shouts. He has a struggle with this, since the kids seem to want to be white, preppy people, and maybe even Jewish. A comedy with real zip and zest, this also benefits from Dre's dad, played by Laurence Fishburne (who's also an executive producer), turning up often to make hilariously deadpan remarks.
The Honourable Woman (Sundance Channel/BBC, starts CBC, Sept. 29)
It's a superb political drama and taut spy thriller. Homeland without the hysteria. Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) inherited her father's business and wealth (he was assassinated) and tries resolve the Middle East peace process through a charitable foundation, supporting hospitals and laying communication cables in the West Bank. A business partner dies, suspiciously. England's MI6 is looking into it (Stephen Rea is brilliant as the smoothly conniving head spy). Then there's a kidnapping. Then it seems Nessa, who sleeps in a panic room, is less then pure. The Honourable Woman orbits around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but never avoids it – an astute, tough-minded and thoroughly gripping drama. A must-see.
Survivor's Remorse (Starz, airs SuperChannel, starts Oct. 4)
Basketball prodigy Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) is sprung from the ghetto when signed by an NBA team. He takes along assorted members of his extended family. Some want to remind him of his roots, others want to feed on his fame and money. Very funny, this toxic comedy touches on some racial issues rarely broached on TV. LeBron James is executive producer but sitcom veteran Tom Werner (The Cosby Show, Roseanne), who is also an executive with Fenway Sports Group, is really in charge.
The Affair (Made for Showtime, starts The Movie Network/Movie Central, Oct. 12)
Adults only, please. And not because it's grown-up stuff about a sexually charged affair between two already-married, troubled people. Created by the team behind HBO's In Treatment, this is sophisticated storytelling. Noah (Dominic West) is married to his college sweetheart (Maura Tierney), with whom he has four children. He meets and begins an affair with Alison (Ruth Wilson), a waitress whose marriage (to a mercurial man played Joshua Jackson) is undermined by the death of a child. It begins as seemingly torrid, but then becomes deeply sinister, as we see events from several points of view. Truly emotionally wrenching.
Jane the Virgin (The CW, starts Oct. 13)
This is an absolute gem of a comedy with its own weirdly buoyant rhythm. Gina Rodriguez, who is fabulous, stars as Jane, who wants to stay a virgin until marriage. Then, she is told she's pregnant. Her mom is all, "It's the immaculata!" but the reason is more mundane. And there's Jane's mystified boyfriend, who hasn't actually had sex with her. Based on a telenovela, the show is loopy, self-mocking about telenovela plot twists and, all in all, funny and utterly charming. Rodriguez glows in what is an unusually adorable comedy from the tiny CW network.
Death Comes to Pemberley (PBS Mystery, starts Oct. 26)
This adaptation of P.D. James's charming 2009 sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, done as a murder mystery, is light as air, but hugely entertaining. It does, after all, blend two staples of Brit TV into one – the lush period-piece literary adaptation, and sorting out who is responsible for the dead bodies. This mash-up has Elizabeth BennetCCT (Anna Maxwell Martin) married to Mr. Darcy (Matthew Rhys from The Americans) and running a grand country house. After viewers feast on the frocks, bonnets and gorgeous house, along comes Elizabeth's hugely irritating sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman) screaming, "Murder! Murder!" Captain Denny, a friend of her husband (the dodgy Wickham), has been murdered and, well, there must be an investigation. Drollery pops up constantly amid the mystery solving.
Olive Kitteridge (HBO Canada, starts Nov. 2)
From what has been made available, this four-part, two-night miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout is dazzling, a magnificent piece of TV drama. Its guiding force is Frances McDormand, who optioned the book herself and brought in Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) to direct. The novel is a series of 13 interconnected short stories that take place across 25 years in a small Maine town, and the miniseries distills it to put Kitteridge (McDormand), a depressive, often acid-tongued math teacher, at its core. Around her, a family and town, sharply drawn, go about their troubled lives. Suicide haunts everything, but there is great warmth. The cast includes Peter Mullan and Martha Wainwright. It screened recently at the Venice Film Festival to adoring reviews.
Worricker (BBC, airing PBS Masterpiece Contemporary, starts Nov. 9)
The great Bill Nighy reprises his role as MI5 spy Johnny Worricker, first introduced in the TV movie Page Eight in 2011. Created by playwright Sir David Hare, Worricker is the sort of spy who is all understatement, dry wit and cunning. A raised eyebrow is a big emotional moment for this man who loves art, jazz and complicated women. And Hare writes beautifully for the character. Hare's name also attracts a startling cast to the short series off dramas, with Christopher Walken, Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes also playing key roles.
Last season's hit, The Blacklist, is back with James Spader's character as arrogant as ever, and little resolved from last season. (NBC/Global, Sept. 22)
Homeland returns with a two-hour premiere. Carrie (Claire Danes) has a baby to raise, and is back on front-line anti-terrorism work. Meanwhile Saul (Mandy Patinkin) has been forced into retirement. Or has he? (Super Channel, returns Oct. 5)
The Walking Dead has survivors being used as guinea pigs by the Terminus people looking for a cure. The producers promise drama that is "brutal" and "explosive." (AMC, Oct. 12)
American Horror Story is back for a fourth season as Freak Show. (FX Canada, Oct. 8)