It’s the TV’s critics’ version of the Super Bowl; or perhaps the Thunderdome.
More than 25 new shows will debut on network, cable TV and online this fall, starting this week. And if past results are any indication, very few of them will survive to a second season.
The very idea of a fall TV season — when the broadcast networks kick off most of their new shows and the 2014-15 TV season officially starts – sounds a little antiquated. Especially in a media world where fans can increasingly watch shows wherever they want, whenever they want.
But that change paradoxically makes this time even more important for broadcasters, which lose viewership ever year. The fall season is one of the few cultural moments when a wide array of TV shows, radio reports, magazine covers and newspaper sections all focus at once on what network TV is doing.
Which likely leaves you with a simpler question: What new show is worth my valuable time?
Here’s my list of the top shows coming your way in the next few weeks, along with my picks for the three worst shows to avoid – or hate-watch, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Best New Fall Shows
Gotham, debuts at 8 p.m. Monday (9/22) on Fox. This series centers on the Batman story before Bruce Wayne becomes the Caped Crusader. In fact, he’s still a kid, coping with the murder of his parents during a mugging, comforted by Ben McKenzie’s idealistic young Det. James Gordon. The show is more a noir-ish cop drama that shows how Gordon rises in the Gotham police force and villains like The Penguin and Catwoman get their start. There’s even a few new characters, including Donal Logue as Gordon’s cynical, experienced partner Det. Harvey Bullock and Jada Pinkett Smith as brutal crime boss Fish Mooney. It’s a mishmash of previous Batman stories – a bit of The Dark Knight‘s gritty realism, a touch of the timelessness and silliness of Tim Burton’s Batman. It’s an interesting blend which leaves one question: can a superhero series succeed without the hero?
Black-ish, debuts at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on ABC. Anthony Anderson is a typically exasperated dad, reacting – some might say over-reacting — to his impertinent kids. But what makes this show special is that Anderson is an African American father worried his wealthy kids have lost touch with their black heritage; that they’ve gone from black to black-ish. And he leads a funny, irreverent, interesting show about race, class and culture in another truly modern family. Laurence Fishburne steals scenes as Anderson’s dad (and a fellow executive producer), while Tracee Ellis Ross finally gets to play a character who shares her biracial heritage. At a time when so much talk about race is so serious, it’s a pleasure to see a show which has a good time poking fun at everyone’s misconceptions and hangups.
Transparent, debuts Friday on Amazon Prime. At first, I had a tough time with the pilot of this series starring Jeffrey Tambor as a man with three unlikable, dysfunctional adult children who reveals he’s going to have gender re-assignment surgery and become a woman. But later episodes hint that their dysfunctions may be connected to growing up with a patriarch who always felt he was a woman inside. And Tambor’s heart-rending portrayal of a man finally becoming who he’s always feared to be is worth enduring three self-obsessed, not-quite-adults and the emotional wreckage left in their wake. Finally, Amazon’s original online video offerings may have a signature drama to shape their brand; all 10 episodes drop Friday for viewing by Amazon Prime subscribers.
The Flash, debuts at 8 p.m. Oct. 7 on the CW. At the risk of looking like a serious comic book nerd, I will also recommend another comic book series debuting this fall, a faithful rendering of the story behind the fastest man alive. Where Gotham plays with mythology and twists Batman’s history into new shapes, The Flash shows lab geek Barry Allen getting hit by lightning and given the ability to move at super speed, just like the classic comic. Grant Gustin is super-appealing as Allen and Ed alum Tom Cavanaugh is compelling as his millionaire scientist mentor Harrison Wells. The one big change – making Allen’s sweetheart Iris an African American woman and an unrequited love (with Jesse L. Martin as her police detective dad) – just makes the show more interesting.
Jane the Virgin, debuts at 9 p.m. Oct 13 on the CW. Yes, this is historic: I’m picking both of the CW’s new shows as among fall TV’s best. Based on a Venezuelan telenovela, Jane the Virgin centers on a chaste girl who plans to save sex until after marriage but winds up pregnant thanks to a mixup at her gynecologist’s office in which she is artificially inseminated. There’s the same soap opera pile-up of circumstances that made me love Ugly Betty – the father who donated sperm owns the hotel where Jane works and also briefly romanced her, for instance. But it’s also wonderful seeing three generations of Latinas together, as Jane lives with her mother — who had her as a teenage, single mother — and her grandmother, who speaks only in Spanish.
The Worst New Shows
Mulaney, debuts at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 5. Star John Mulaney is a great standup comic and former writer for Saturday Night Live. But he’s created a humorless sitcom that feels like a bad Seinfeld ripoff with casting that often makes no sense (Why is Elliot Gould playing his gay neighbor? And why did Penny Marshall and Lorraine Bracco make cameo appearances as Gould’s friends?)
The Mysteries of Laura, debuted Sept. 17 on NBC. If Jane the Virgin is a textbook example of how to adapt a Spanish-language program to American TV, this provides the opposite lesson. Based on a Spanish TV show, this series features Debra Messing as a messy, tough police detective who is also an overwhelmed single mother with two bratty kids. So much to hate here: an unfunny script, hackneyed female character tropes and adults who act as if they are helpless to make knuckleheaded children obey their rules.
Stalker, debuts at 10 p.m. Oct. 1 on CBS. What can you say about a show which wastes Maggie Q. in a lame procedural that is so explicit it doubles as a how-to manual for any potential stalkers in the audience? How about: Don’t Watch This.