It’s that time of year again.
The time when I have to come clean about my TV viewing habits.
Hello, my name is Amy and I love network TV. I know it’s not cool anymore. But I can’t help myself. There’s something so comforting about network comedies and dramas. But because of the onslaught of new shows that premiere all at once, network TV can get a bad reputation. It can be a numbers game. But for every dull, cliched procedural, there’s a Lost or The Good Wife. For every clunky comedy with a grating laugh track, there’s a 30 Rock.
Okay maybe not for every, but there are pure gems currently on network TV from the bombastic and delightfully outrageous 9-1-1, which returns for a third season September 23 on FOX, to the water-cooler family drama This is Us which returns for a fourth season September 24 on NBC (I know it went off the rails last season, but I believe in the Pearsons) to the hilariously nuanced black-ish which is back for a sixth season September 24 on ABC.
Producing, on average, somewhere between 22 and 24 episodes a season, network TV is there for us week after week. You don’t need a subscription to watch. It may not get as dark and depressing as The Handmaid’s Tale and the comedy will be broader than Amazon’s Fleabag. But never discount broadcast TV. They were here long before this current boom of streaming content and my guess is they will be here long after some of them go quietly to the cyberspace in the sky.
While other content providers, like Showtime and Amazon, generally provide critics with multiple episodes of a new series to review, networks, for the most part, continue to offer only the pilot episodes. And as we all know, pilots are not always the best representation of what a TV series will become. Great pilots full of promise can beget mediocre shows (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip still breaks my heart a little) and average pilots can blossom into amazing shows (Hi, Parks & Recreation). So it’s hard to judge a show fairly on its pilot alone.
I did it anyway.
I watched all the network pilots so you don’t have to, and picked the best and the worst show each network is debuting this fall. The grading is a bit on a curve—some networks’ offerings this fall are mediocre all around so their best show may be some other network’s worst. In reverse, some networks really hit it out of the park and their worst show is probably the envy of another struggling network. And there are definitely mandatory demerits for wasting talent (you’ll soon learn of a certain FOX show that pulls off the hat trick of wasting Michael Sheen, Lou Diamond Phillips and Bellamy Young).
Here are the five best and five worst network shows coming your way this fall:
With a healthy returning lineup of comedies and reality stalwarts including Dancing with the Stars and Shark Tank, ABC is premiering only three new shows this fall.
Best: Emergence premiering September 24
A mysterious child appears out of nowhere. Is she an alien? A product of a secret government experiment? I know what you’re thinking: From Stranger Things to last season’s short-lived The Passage, we’ve seen this before. But Emergence has a secret ingredient: Allison Tolman. Tolman, who burst onto the scene in FX’s Fargo, and was so fabulous in ABC’s Downward Dog, takes the show to the next level. There’s something so palpably believable in Tolman’s Jo Evans, a police chief who suddenly finds herself responsible for Piper (Alexa Swinton), a young girl with amnesia found next to a mysterious plane crash. Bonus points for getting to see Donald Faison back on TV as Jo’s sympathetic but a bit skeptical ex-husband.
Worst: mixed-ish, premiering September 24
ABC is definitely an example of a network that is coming out swinging this fall. mixed-ish isn’t a bad show, but it’s not nearly as good as it should be given that it’s a spin-off of black-ish, which always managed to be enlightening without ever being preachy. mixed-ish goes back to the 80s to follow 12-year-old Rainbow (Arica Himmel) as her family leaves the safe environment of their commune for the harsh reality of the real world, where their mixed race isn’t so easily accepted. There’s obviously a lot to explore there and part of the pilot’s chunkiness may be due to the fact that Mark-Paul Gosselaar replaced Anders Holm, who was originally cast as Bow’s dad Paul. So the show may improve now that the cast is sorted out. And even though black-ish and grown-ish both feature voice-over narration, something about hearing Tracee Ellis Ross as the grown-up Rainbow doesn’t quite work here. It’s a little too on-the-nose. But, I’m definitely not giving up on the show. Gary Cole is a hoot as Paul’s dad (“That’s why I don’t do cocaine. I am cocaine.”) but the show is not where I want it to be, either.
CBS skews the oldest of all the traditional networks in viewership and it’s easy to understand why. The network’s schedule is peppered with looooong-running episodic dramas including three (!!) versions of NCIS, as well as Blue Bloods, which begins its tenth season on September 27. But CBS also lost its biggest cash cow The Big Bang Theory last May and is looking for the next comedy hit.
Best: EVIL, premiering September 26
A priest-in-training who solves mystical mysteries? No, thank you. But what if I told you the priest was played by Mike Colter, a.k.a. Luke Cage himself. And that the series is from Michelle and Robert King, the duo behind both The Good Wife and The Good Fight. See? You’re intrigued aren’t you. The pilot episode transcends its awkward premise to introduce us to Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) a forensic psychologist who becomes something of a believer when she meets David Acosta (Colter) and they begin to investigate the inexplicable. The always creepy (in the best way) Michael Emerson is also on hand as Leland Townsend, a mysterious character who epitomize the title of the series.
Worst: The Unicorn, premiering September 26
But Amy, you say, “What about Carol’s Second Act or Bob Hearts Abishola?” I can’t lie. All of CBS’s new comedies fall under my favorite quote “Not great Bob.” But I can never count out the innate charm of Patricia Heaton, who has starred in two of television’s most successful comedies that both ran for nine seasons. And even though Abishola features a major plot line about compressions socks (no, I’m not kidding) there was an unexpected sweetness to it. It also comes from mega-producer Chuck Lorre, who is adept at successfully mixing broad comedy with more nuanced moments. I can see both those series, if not becoming fantastic, at least becoming better. But what can be done about The Unicorn, which wastes Walton Goggins and has one of the season’s most flimsy premises? Wade (Goggins) is a recent widow who isn’t afraid of commitment and is gainfully employed he’s viewed as a “unicorn” in the dating world. Maybe the show will surprise me but the pilot was a cliched disappointment.
Ugh. Let me sum up my feelings about two of the three new shows FOX is premiering this fall. BOOOOOOOO! The network never premieres that much in the fall, as their schedule is soon over taken by the World Series. But this fall seems particularly egregious. FOX was once the edgy network that got everyone talking—but now everyone might be talking for all the wrong reasons.
Best: Bless the Harts, premiering September 29
Joining FOX’s animation domination block, Bless the Harts, from creator and SNL vet Emily Spivey, follows Jenny Hart (Kristen Wiig), her mom Betty (Maya Rudolph) and her boyfriend Wayne (Ike Barinholtz) as they try to make ends meet. The pilot has a fun running gag on a beanie boo/ cabbage patch type toy that Betty has been holding on to because she thinks it will make her a fortune. She’s wrong of course but the pilot, which also finds Jenny occasionally chatting up Jesus, offered many laughs and a nice break from some of FOX’s other, more crude animated series.
Worst: Prodigal Son, premiering September 23
So I have a question: When did we start thinking serial killers were hilarious, full of quippy bon mots and clever word play? Prodigal Son, the aforementioned show that wastes Michael Sheen and Lou Diamond Philips and Bellamy Young seems to find serial killer Dr. Martin Whitly just a delightful dinner guest—not someone who murdered 23 people by paralyzing them and rendering them unable to fight. His son, former FBI profiler Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), tries to atone for his father’s many sins by helping to solve crimes. In addition to thinking a serial killer should be the lead in your next comedy, the show wallows in violence. It’s hard to believe Prodigal Son is worse than Almost Family which is about a fertility doctor who used his own sperm to impregnate his patients. But trust me, it is.
The peacock’s days of Must See TV are long gone, but the network can still churn out a comedic gem like The Good Place or Superstore. Most years, it’s not afraid of taking a comedy risk. This is not one of those years.
Best: Perfect Harmony, premiering September 26
Another coin toss as I could have easily put the network’s other mediocre new comedy Sunnyside in this slot. I gave Perfect Harmony the edge because the premise sounds so bad, yet I didn’t end up hating the show. Bradley Whitford, who brings with him a lot of TV goodwill, stars as Arthur Cochran, a music professor who, after the death of his wife, suddenly finds himself leading a small-town church choir. Anna Camp is terrific as the church member who believes Arthur can help her choir, and I got a kick out of Reverend Jax (Rizwan Manji) whose parents never told him the real names of movies (he knows Mary Poppins as Unmarried Women Cause Trouble). The whole show has an inspirational feel and the ending number will remind you of the early days of Glee. But I have no idea where the show goes from the pilot.
Worst: Bluff City Law, premiering September 23
Jimmy Smits returns to TV where he began as a lawyer fighting the good fight. Smits is a proven TV presence, but there’s just nothing new to see here. The show plays out like a search and replace of a legal show you’ve seen so many times before.
The CW has given itself over to the superhero/comic book experience, and is only introducing two new shows this fall. The network has also once again chosen to get away from all the premiere chaos and has its lineup coming out in October.
Best: Batwoman, premiering October 6
Mega producer Greg Berlanti is an expert at turning iconic superhero characters into successful series. He’s done it again with Batwoman which finds Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) returning to Gotham, three years after the disappearance of her cousin Bruce Wayne. She finds that the city does, in fact, need another hero and she’s up for the job. Rose is terrific in the lead role and the series is notable for featuring a gay superhero as its title character. Kane pines for her ex-girlfriend Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy) while secretly being the one who saves the day. The pilot is a thrill ride with an approachable origin story. You don’t have to be a fan of comic books or superheroes to get on board. (Sidebar: The CW also has the Riverdale spin-off Katie Keene coming out later this year. Katie Keene. Kate Kane. Say it five times fast.)
Worst: Nancy Drew, premiering October 9
AAAARGH. Every fall TV season brings a show I have an irrational anger about (last season it was NBC’s cringe-inducting I Feel Bad). Why take a beloved and iconic intellectual property and ruin it? Why? It makes no sense. In this horrid version, Nancy Drew (Kennedy McMann) has graduated from high school and put off going to college after the death of her mother. We know we are dealing with an older Nancy because one of the first shots of her finds her having sex in the kitchen of a diner with Ned Nickerson (Tunji Kasim), who is decidedly not the Ned Nickerson of the books. They’ve also made Nancy’s best friend George (Leah Lewis) her nemesis. The result is something that has the Nancy Drew name but none of the Nancy Drew spirit. To be fair, at press time, the CW still had only the pilot featuring Freddie Prinze, Jr. as Nancy’s father available. He’s since been replaced by Scott Wolf, so obviously what I got to watch is not what will air. So maybe, maybe some of these egregious errors can be fixed.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).