Times are tough in network television, kids. Ideas are hard to come by, and decent scripts even harder. Prestige cable and Netflix are making everybody nervous, and goddammit, Time Warner doesn’t even carry CBS anymore. The scrambling is evident in the sheer number of bad pilots which the networks put up this season. There are shows that think that putting a family in a bunch of matching sweaters is “so 1980s,” and others that think “We Are Men” counts as a witticism about the state of the single father. Le sigh.
But we are not totally without new things to watch. Here, by network, is the lowdown on what I think you will be most pleased to find on your DVR when you come home this fall. Evaluating a show by its pilot is a tricky thing, of course; most shows take a while to rise and bake in the oven, and even the best pilots can spin out of control by episode three. But looking out long-term, this is what seems promising.
Trophy Wife (ABC, September 24)
I don’t generally go in for these women-at-war type network shows, because the notes from the executives usually mean we get a ton of stereotypes and very little red meat for all the production value expended. But this particular show is the partial creation of the internet-beloved Sarah Haskins. Who knows from stereotype. I’ll be interested to see if the show ends up more subtle and funny than this somewhat terrible trailer.
Lucky 7 (ABC, September 7)
This is yet another British-TV-show-given-zombie-American incarnation, but I think the multiculturalism of it could be great. Five gas station employees win a $45 million lottery, and the series tracks the way it changes their lives. It’s possible that my affection for this can be directly traced to my living in Queens, where the show is set. It’s quite possible this show will end up trafficking in some pretty terrible stereotypes. But it does, other than the one hunky spiky-haired guy, contain people who actually look like people who live in New York. Which is a good enough reason, I think, to wait and see if the slightly broad-looking trailer actually pans out into a worthwhile show.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, September 24)
This seems to be aimed pretty directly at Marvel fanatics. Sadly, I know nothing of comics, and am therefore not fit to pronounce this show either amazing or terrible. I mean, it’s Joss Whedon, whose status as my lord and saviour (kidding! sort of) I’ll one day write a long piece about. But even Whedon is always a bit unintelligible to me in high comic-book form. That said, I’ve missed J. August Richards, who’s been gone since he played Gunn on Angel, so I’ll be sitting through this one with you. And ER‘s Ming-Na!
Hostages (CBS, September 23)
The premise of this one is a little tired — All-Americans kidnapped — but Toni Collette, Toni Collette, Toni Collette, Toni Collette. It’s unfair to put the whole show’s success on her shoulders, but she’s the kind of actress, as a friend of mine used to say, who’d be interesting to watch even if she did nothing but pick her nose for an hour.
Mom (CBS, September 23)
Worth watching more for what it might develop into rather than for the pilot itself. I probably would have given this one a total pass for its awful script if it weren’t for my personal interest in the continued employment of Allison Janney. Anna Faris isn’t bad here either, though she’s a bit miscast, sarcasm never quite having been her thing. Perhaps they’ll hire some funnier writers and the thing will sail on and let Janney let her blowsy flag fly some more, because I do rather love that part of the show.
Reign (The CW, October 17)
In the category of “oh god this looks TERRIBLE but I can’t stop watching the trailer,” the CW’s Reign is all powerful. A slightly modern spin on the tale of Mary, Queen of Scots — though of course the historical setting is maintained, the costuming and the dialogue clearly hold “maximum hotness” as their highest priority — this show stars Megan Follows. Who was Anne of Green Gables. Who will always be Anne of Green Gables. And in this show, Anne is a Queen, you guys. A must-watch.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, September 17)
Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher team in this weird Odd Couple cop show. Produced by Parks and Rec‘s Mike Shur, his offbeat sense of humor is well in evidence in the above trailer. Although I really feel that Braugher has earned the career chops at this point not to have to actually utter the word “manscaping.”
Almost Human (Fox, November 4)
Late-season entry is a disadvantage only a series with the magical name “J.J. Abrams” might survive. The deeply stylish trailer — and lack of instant memorable characters from same — make me suspicious that we’re in for yet another well-conceived pilot but unwieldy execution from Abrams. But Lili Taylor! Karl Urban! I want them to stay employed, too.
Masters of Sex (Showtime, September 29)
This is the one new cable show that looks like it has staying power. Lizzy Caplan plays the ingenue to Michael Sheen’s sex researcher. It looks like a longer version of Kinsey, which just about anybody should be up for, lack of Liam Neeson notwithstanding. The Mad Men-ish aesthetic will likely help, too.
The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC, September 26)
Critics all seem to agree that of all the pilots in all the land, The Michael J. Fox Show‘s was the strongest. Using his natural charisma as beloved anchorman Mike Henry, Fox channels his personal life into a good premise for a television show. After “retiring” from public life following his Parkinson’s diagnosis, Fox/Henry grew bored. His family — including wife Betsy Brandt, who has way better instincts for this kind of role than she does for Hank’s Marie — is pretty glad to see him go back, as it happens. With a breezy take on the politics of disability this is practically guaranteed to generate a fair amount of discussion online, and is almost a guaranteed hit at this point — though sadly the only one that the Fall season has on offer.