Unlike the two leading U.S. presidential candidates, American television is in robust health. That’s a fact. Even network TV, slandered by accusations that it is irrelevant and in poor shape, took a deep breath and decided to take some bold steps.
Will it work? That’s a maybe. But what can be said with certainty is that the fall TV season, launching this week, has some excellent shows of depth and sophistication, and enough wildly entertaining series to satisfy many tastes.
For the networks, experimentation is the new, radical health fix. Of course, there are new versions of old hits and attempts to spin a drama or comedy from a familiar movie franchise. Old habits die hard. But there are notable “high-concept” comedies across four of the big five – ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. That is, an imaginative story nucleus that might be a shot in the dark but might click with enough viewers to build loyalty to an entire slate of programs.
NBC’s The Good Place and Fox’s Son of Zorn (reviewed here) are part of that pack. ABC’s comedy Speechless, which stars Minnie Driver as a mom and is about a family with a special-needs child, also falls into the category. And the same network’s Imaginary Mary, about a fictitious being named Mary who reappears to her now grown-up creator from her childhood, is in the same vein.
In a year in which as many as 450 scripted series will air on network, cable and streaming services in the United States – more than twice the 216 scripted series that aired in 2011 – it makes sense to want to stand out with originality. None of the Big Five networks showed growth in overall viewers last season and for several the median age of viewers is in the 50-to-59 demographic. Old-school and old-timey TV doesn’t cut it any more to increase viewership.
What younger viewers are drawn to is cable and streaming. Many cable outlets save their new series for the start of the year. But there are major, enticing new series from HBO and FX. The latter is in the strongest position of all, with a commitment to incisive drama and comedy for the discerning viewer. The unpredictable, anchored in recognizable human experience, is FX’s strength and it has already launched a landmark comedy called Atlanta, which started several weeks ago. Seemingly plotless, it is brilliantly droll. HBO has the crazily ambitious Westworld (reviewed here) and several superb comedies.
Thematically, American TV – what is covered here since most new Canadian TV arrives later and with lurching momentum – hews to themes below the surface in the culture that sometimes rise to the surface. The fear of terrorism and dissatisfaction with government (both tackled in Designated Survivor, reviewed here) is evident. The fear that genuine evil lurks everywhere (Fox’s slow-moving reboot of The Exorcist is an example). There is also an urge to put on TV the mores and perspectives of millennials and others who are not traditionally represented. This urge is on display in numerous series.
Herewith, 10 shows worth your time and attention; can’t-miss dramas and comedies from across the TV platforms.
Designated Survivor (ABC, CTV, starts Sept. 21)
The legend about this show is probably apocryphal but rings true. It’s this: The producer goes into a meeting at ABC to pitch the series. An exec asks, “So, what’s the show?” The response is: “It’s The West Wing meets 24. And Kiefer Sutherland plays the president.” The exec replies: “Deal!” Designated Survivor is summed up in the legend. It is indeed a political drama set inside the White House while a terrorist attack is unfolding and, more, must be foiled. Sutherland is very good as Tom Kirkman. A low-level official who becomes president when a bombing during the State of the Union address wipes out the president and all senior goverment members, Tom’s a family man and a bit earnest. He is initially overawed but soon understands that he needs to play the role of president or things will fall part. He has enemies, of course – an army general has contempt for him, for a start. And then there’s the plot about the attack that really must have been an inside job. The show also presents a fascinating escapist fantasy anchored in U.S. politics today – what if the most powerful were simply erased and an outsider came in as president to make a fresh start?
Westworld (HBO, starts Oct. 2)
The most lavish and anticipated HBO series in years is loosely based on the 1973 movie of the same name, which was a Michael Crichton creation. In that, things went awry at a futuristic Wild West theme park. Visitors got to experience the fantasy of old west tales involving varmints, gunfights and kicking back in a saloon. The western characters were played by robots. Here, it’s the same gist, but the point of view is, essentially, that of the robots. They are, it is clear, becoming cognizant of their status and beginning to rebel. Meanwhile, there’s one visitor to the park – played by Ed Harris with ferocious menace – who knows there’s something evil going on and wants to take advantage. In the background is the creator of everything, a deeply melancholy genius, played by Anthony Hopkins. In fact, for all its brutal violence and sex – some of the visitors merely want to kill, rape and pillage – the series is a gorgeous exercise in profound melancholy. What horrors has humankind wreaked with a mass devotion to perfection, personal satisfaction and entertainment? At times terrifying bleak and cynical, Westworld is lugubrious. It can have characters announcing, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” and set out to illustrate that.
Divorce (HBO, starts Oct. 9)
The return of Sarah Jessica Parker to television will get attention, but what really matters is that this acid comedy is rather brilliant. Created by Sharon Horgan (co-creator with Rob Delaney of the equally funny Catastrophe), it is scintillatingly strange, hilarious and foul-mouthed. Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church), a long-married couple with two kids, aim to divorce after each decides the other is a bothersome, repulsive dolt. In fact, it is Frances who instigates everything, following a bizarre dinner party with friends that amounts to one of the most beautifully farcical segments in recent TV history. These are not nice people caught in a dilemma. They are awful and so are their friends. Even Church, who tends to play oafs with a heart of gold, doesn’t signal that his character is redeeming. At the same time, there is an almost festive air about the series. The jokes are excellent, the pace is rollicking and nobody ever, ever behaves well. Bracing and brilliant.
The Good Place (NBC, Global, starts Sept. 22)
It’s much more assured, clever and breezy than you might expect, this comedy. A young woman, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), dies and goes to heaven. Or at least the ’hood known as “the good place.” She is greeted by the chap who guides new arrivals (played with comic deftness by Ted Danson) and tries to fit in. Trouble is, there has been a mistake and it’s the wrong Eleanor. This one is selfish, nasty and not a good person. The comedy derives from the character trying to control her nasty side and blend in with the good, decent people. Created by Michael Schur, who also wrote Parks and Recreation, this one has that show’s wryness and a dollop of wildly imaginative leaps. It’s quite waggish – heaven has a lot of frozen yogurt shops – and Bell is a gifted actor who can make the satire lightly defined and do an Eleanor who is both funny and compelling. A very pleasant surprise for a network comedy.
Pitch (Fox , Global, starts Sept. 22)
It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s better than that. The pilot for the heavily promoted drama about Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), the first woman to play in Major League Baseball, is good. She’s a pitcher and an exceptionally talented one. But is that why she’s called up to the San Diego Padres, or is because she can sell tickets and guarantee TV ratings? The pilot treads lightly where you might expect clichés to run riot. It starts with an unusual coolness for new network drama these days – it takes a while to get to know the main character and in the middle of the opener there’s an emotional shift that is surprisingly strong. Bunbury is low-key for most of the pilot and the show gives space to Bob Balaban, as the club’s owner, and to Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who is excellent as the team’s captain, Mike, a swaggering jock who is at the end of his career and is realistic about what the arrival of a woman means. This isn’t Friday Night Lights, but it’s fresh and has a feistily unpredictable heft to it.
Son of Zorn (Fox, starts Sept 25)
Goofy as all get-out, but deceptively sly, this is a high-concept comedy that is worth watching at least once. The blend of live action and animation isn’t new, but here the stakes are low – nobody goes on and about Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) being a cartoon character who is the defender of Zephyria, a mystical island somewhere. He fights against evil creatures while wearing a fur loincloth and armed with a very large sword. He decides to visit his son and his ex (the wonderful Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm) in California. And realizing he doesn’t really know the kid, he tries to settle down in a job. A hint of the show’s satiric intent comes when he is told he would be a “diversity hire.” What unfolds is a sharp take on macho men and the absurd worship of superheroes.
This Is Us (NBC, CTV starts Sept. 20)
Relentlessly promoted and with trailer that has tens of millions of view online, This Is Us is all too clearly an attempt at a dollop of pathos about ordinary people. It’s not brilliant. Far from it. But interesting as an experiment. There’s a large ensemble cast and the characters at first seem like random people not connected to each other. They are indeed connected, which most viewers will figure out quickly. There are Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), who wait for their triplets to arrive. All characters are supposed to be ordinary, but with issues. The point is, really, to pour treacle over everything and make it uplifting. Not for the cynical, but a fascinating hodgepodge.
Incorporated (Showcase, starts Nov. 30)
Made for the SyFy channel and produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Incorporated is a wildly ambitious, dystopian drama. Set in the near-future when the big corporations control every aspect of life and have enormous power, it is in fact a world uncomfortably close to our own. The well-off live in the “Green Zone” and the poor in the “Red Zone.” It is capitalism on steroids, this arena. The portrait of the key company is well done, with Dennis Haysbert playing a key executive and Julia Ormond playing the sinister figure who is the public face of the company. Seriously creepy without any scary monsters.
Better Things (FX Canada. Now running and on-demand)
Pamela Adlon, familiar as Louie’s love object, Kim, on Louie (Louie CK is a producer here), plays actress Sam Fox, an acerbic and endearing single mother. She has three daughters, an ex-husband, an English mother and, well, life to deal with. The languorous pace matched with Adlon’s steely comic timing is irresistible. The show defies description or neat summary. It is, however, much more accurate about a recognizably ordinary life than This Is Us.
Insecure (HBO, starts Oct. 9)
Issa Rae, a YouTube star with her series Awkward Black Girl, gets full HBO freedom here in a show created with Larry Wilmore. It is very, very funny and treads easily through the core matter of being a black woman who is not entirely comfortable with much of black culture. Rae plays a woman in Los Angeles who works for a non-profit that helps underprivileged kids. There’s that, but the show doesn’t veer toward pathos. Rae cuts like a knife through presumptions about what matters in black life.