As the fall seaso starts, new stories keep nudging old ones aside.
Still, I wanted to keep the fall season-preview package handy. So I’ve put all four stories together here, updating them slightly.
First is an overview; then are three lists rounding up the shows — the scripted ones on broadcast networks (includig “Ghosts,” shown here) … the unscripted broadcast ones … then a sampling of scripted cable shows. Here we go.
a) A SEASON OVERVIEW
Summer sagged the pandemic persista and we need a fresh diversion.
We need the new TV season – new shows, new …. Well, maybe we can settle for “new-ish.”
The season officially started Sept. 20, when all of the reruns and most of the summer reality shows vanished. But by pre-pandemic standards, this doesn’t seem terribly new.
A typical fall brings 20-plus new, scripted shows on the five broadcast, commercial networks. This year, there are 11. And those include two reboots (“Wonder Years” and “CSI”) and two spin-offs (“FBI” and “NCIS”). Look further and you’ll find more reboots – “Doogie Howser” on Disney+, “Highway to Heaven” as a series of Lifetime movies.
Especially missing are new laughs. “Other networks seem to be abandoning the comedy business,” said Thom Sherman, a CBS programmer.
Starting the season with zero comedies are NBC, CW and (if you don’t count cartoons) Fox. ABC has four (if you count the comedy/drama “Wonder Years”); CBS has six – including the only new outright-comedy. That’s “Ghosts,” which breaks the CBS mold, with no special effects and broad sight gags.
“We put it in the primest of primetime slots, 9 o’clock Thursday,” Sherman said. “It’s a bold move.”
There are few bold moves from the big networks. NBC does have an ambitious sci-fi show, “La Brea,” and the most complex drama: “Ordinary Joe” has the talented James Wolk playing the same guy if his life had gone in three drastically different routes. “It’s a huge puzzle,” said producer Garrett Lerner.
Fox has the most intriguing show visually in “Alter Ego,” with real contestants singing offstage, while their high-tech avatars are onstage. “This is something that we’ve never seen before on TV – or anywhere,” said Nick Lachey, one of the judges, who called it “groundbreaking” and “mind-blowing.”
And Fox tries a multi-layered drama, “The Big Leap,” which has its characters in a reality dance show, seeking a second chance in life. Liz Heldens said she started creating it five years ago, but the timing now seems ideal. “The entire world is coming back from a punch, (so this) felt a little more universal.”
Most shows, however, feel a tad familiar. Indeed, CBS has three straight “FBI” shows by producer Dick Wolf on Tuesdays … just as “NBC” already has three “Chicago” ones by Wolf on Wednesdays and – before a late switch – planned three “Law & Order” ones by Wolf for Thursdays.
That happens, partly because viewers – their attention stretched in all directions – no longer sample all the new shows. “It’s very expensive to get eyeballs to your program,” said Christopher Meloni, the “Law & Order: Organized Crime” star. “Everyone loves variety – until no one (watches) the variety.”
So networks turn to variations of show that already work. “They still garner audiences in the tens of millions on live broadcast, dwarfing the vast majority of shows on all other platforms,” insisted Kelly Kahl, CBS’ entertainment chief. Also, they score big via streaming, reruns and overseas sales.
The spin-off shows can be good (“NCIS: Hawaii”) or ordinary (“CSI: Vegas”). But what about shows that feel new or fresh? For that we might try “Ordinary Joe” or “Ghosts” or PBS, starting with Ken Burns’ brilliant “Muhammad Ali” (whic aired Sept. 19-22). And mostly, we’ll turn to cable and streaming.
“We can all see the focal point of consumption of scripted programming moving towards streaming,” John Landgraf said. He was at NBC during its “must-see” days in the ‘90s, took over the FX cable network in 2004, saw it soar, then sag with the pandemic, then bounce back.
“The great news is that we (FX) are back to where we were before the pandemic and ramping up (to about) 30 shows a year,” he said. Right now, he has some of TV’s most distinctive shows – some on FX (“Impeachment,” “What We Do In the Shadows”) and others – “The Premise,” “Y: The Last Man” – strictly streaming on Hulu, “a really, really vibrant platform … growing fast.”
Other cable or streaming shows also feel special – “American Rust” on Showtime, a powerful “Dopesick” on Hulu; even a spin-off (Showtime’s “Dexter: New Blood”) feels fresh.
And old-school TV occasionally scores. Last season, Sherman said, the new “Equalizer” averaged 12.6 million viewers. “The acclaimed shows on other platforms … would kill for numbers like these.”
b) THE NEW, SCRIPTED SHOWS ON BROADCAST
It’s a small, sturdy crop – this year’s group of new shows on the broadcast networks.
There are only 11 scripted ones at the start of the season, about half the usual total. Many are spin-offs or reboots; most have sent only a rough pilot film, not ready for review. Still, a few shows already stand out. We’ll list them first, then the rest; afterward, there’s a list of new, non-fiction shows on broadast; each list is chronological by wen they debuted:
– “The Big Leap,” 9 p.m., Mondays, Fox (starting Sept. . The fictional notion makes little sense: A national dance show focuses only on contestants from Detroit … concluding with “Swan Lake.” (A reality show, setting up a ballet?!?) Once you get past that, you’ll find deep characters. Scott Foley (shown here) plays the cynical producer; Teri Polo plays someone in mid-life crisis. Other roles go to relative newcomers (led by Simone Recasner as a young single mom); you’ll quickly root for them.
– “NCIS: Hawaii,” 10 p.m., Mondays, CBS. Sure, it’s just a spin-off, the fourth in the “NCIS” empire. But this gets it right – an appealing star (Vanessa Lachey as the bureau chief) … strong support (especially Alex Tarrant, a New Zealand actor with Maori roots, as the lone native-Hawaiian on her team) … smart stories … and Hawaii itself. It’s a splendid backdrop.
– “Ordinary Joe,” 10 p.m. Mondays, NBC (plus a rerun at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24). Here’s the consummate character study – the same guy in three different lives, depending on which path he took. That only works if you have a gifted actor – Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1998 “Sliding Doors” or James Wolk, who’s been terrific in everything from “Mad Men” to “Zoo” and “Watchmen,” here.
– “The Wonder Years,” 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC. The original series was a wondrous look at the 1960s, via a modern narrator. Now we do the same, with a Black family in a middle-class Alabama neighborhood. This is partly a comedy, but it’s set in 1968, so tragedy looms in the opener. The result is quietly involving; Fred Savage, the original “Wonder Years” star, is producer-director.
– “Ghosts.” 9 p.m. Thursdays, CBS (starting Oct. 7). Rose McIver has a knack for playing likable souls in bizarre situations. She was perfect as an accidental zombie in “iZombie”; now she plays someone who has just inherited a haunted home. We can see the ghosts, but she can’t … until an accident changes that. In the final minutes of the opener, a sorta-funny show turns hilarious.
And the rest
– “Our Kind of People,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox. Lee Daniels has done great work, from “The Butler” to “Empire.” But now he confesses: “I’m a ‘Dynasty’ fanatic …. Soap lives in me.” He says that as if it were a good thing. Set in a wealthy Black enclave at Martha’s Vineyard, the show has all of the excesses of “Empire,” with none of the redeeming music.
– “FBI International,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, CBS. The story starts during a three-hour blitz of FBI shows, leaping to Hungary. It will stay there, sending its team to other countries.
– “La Brea,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC (starting Sept. 28). Don’t you hate it when you’re swallowed up by a giant sinkhole and end up in an alternate world? The result is sort of “Lost” without the plane … except we also see the people topside, pondering a solution. This is an intriguing notion – harmed by the fact that NBC recently cancelled two other sci-fi shows (“Debris,” “Manifest”) without resolving them.
– “CSI: Vegas,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, CBS (Oct. 6). At least the title is new. This is simply “CSI” six years later, with a new lab, new people … plus, soon, the old ones. By the end of the first hour, we’ve re-met Grissom (who left 13 years ago), Sidle, Brass and Hodges. Their stories are stiffly competent.
– “Queens,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC (Oct. 19). Breaking up a hot music group, these women drifted into so-so lives … until a young star sampled their music in a hit record. That sounds like a good series – which it is in “Girls5Eva,” on Peacock. This show is similar, but with little humor and no subtlety.
– “4400,” 9 p.m. Mondays, CW (Oct. 25). What happens to all those people who disappear, presumably snatched by aliens? Now 4,400 of them suddenly return, with no sense that time has passed. That made a good cable series for four seasons; after a 14-year pause, here’s a fresh version.
c) NEW, NON-FICTION SHOWS ON BROADCAST
– “Alter Ego,” 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox (plus 9 p.m. Thursdays, Sept. 23). We keep finding new ways to hear a voice without seeing the person: Judges turn their backs to the stage … singers wear masks … and now the singers remain offstage, while their high-tech avatars perform. The panel includes two successful singers, Nick Lachey and Alanis Morissette, and two master producers, Grimes and will.i.am.
– “American Expeience: Citizen Hearst,” 9-11 p.m. Sept. 27-28, PBS. This is an artform PBS masters, creating in-depth biographies. Ken Burns’ Muhammad Ali film (Sept. 19-22) is super; coming next are excellet films on publisher William Randolph Hearst and then (Oct. 5) on Rita Moreno.
– “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” 8 p.m. Sundays, CW (Oct. 10). Some good CW dramas have died on Sundays, so the network is going another way. This show – reviving a Nickelodeon one that combined action and trivia tests – will be followed by a second season of “Killer Camp”: Each week, one camper is “killed”; survivors try to beat challenges and figure out who is the secret accomplice.
– “Home Sweet Home,” 8 p.m. Fridays, NBC (Oct. 15). “Wife Swap” and other reality shows had people temporarily swaps life. Now that gets serious, under producer Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “When They See Us”) and the Warner Bros. unscripted division, led by Mike Darnell, once Fox’s chief of offbeat shows. The switches involve broad differences in money, race, religion, setting and more.
– “The Activist,” 8 p.m. Fridays, CBS (Oct. 22). Here’s another reality show with a broader goal: For five weeks, six activists compete to see who can bring the most attention to global causes. Usher hosts, joined by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianna Hough.
d) SOME NEW, SCRIPTED SHOWS ON CABLE AND STREAMERS
There are approximately a zillion new cable and streaming shows, so this is just a chronological sampling:
– “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX. The Bill Clinton impeachment story is re-told, with the emphasis on Monica Lewinsky (the film’s prime consultant) and Paula Jones. Wonderfully played by Beanie Feldstein and Annaleigh Ashford, we see them as naive souls, manipulated by Type-A women and men. The result is simultaneously funny and depressing.
– “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.,” Wednesdays, Disney+. Three decades ago, “Doogie Howser” charmed us with the story of a teen doctor. Now – at a time when we like young geniuses, from “Young Sheldon” to “The Good Doctor” – it’s ripe for remake. Lahela, 16, is a Hawaiian surfer like her dad and a doctor like her mom; colleagues, recalling the old show, dub her “Doogie.” The result is an amiable mix of light comedy, teen angst, medical crises and Hawaiian beauty.
– “American Rust,” 10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime. In a small town, money is scarce and problems are personal. The police chief (Jeff Daniels) probes a murder in which the prime suspect is the son of his sometimes-lover (Maura Tierney). It’s a story filled with deeply layered characters.
– “The Lost Symbol,” Thursdays, Peacock. Three Ron Howard films have had Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, an expert on ancient codes and puzzles that unearth modern plots. Now this series – with Howard as one of the producers – has Langdon as a younger guy (Ashley Zukerman, 37) on the Harvard faculty; he’s nudged into a world that’s alternately fascinating and just creepy.
– “The Harper House,” Thursdays, Paramount+. With her finances crumbling, Debbie Harper moves her family into her late aunt’s house – an ominous place in a scary Arkansas neighborhood. This animated show (for grown-ups) offers some fairly funny moments.
– “The Premise,” Thursdays, Hulu. This is rare these days – a real anthology, telling a full story for each of the five weeks. The opener is just as adult as its title – “Social Justice Sex Tape” – suggests; it works quite well, thanks to a terrific performance by Ben Platt.
– “Chucky,” 10 p.m., Tuesdays, USA and Syfy (starting Oct. 12). A sensitive 13-year-old keeps meeting people who are nasty or blank. We might wish something bad would happen to him, but Chucky – the killer doll – puts thoughts into action. Even before the first death, the story gets repetitious.
– “Dopesick,” Wednesdays, Hulu (Oct. 13). Danny Strong has turned real life into brilliant scripts, winning an Emmy for “Game Change” and a nomination for “Recount.” Now he has an eight-part mini-series, telling about OxyContin and the opiod epidemic. There are great scenes with the drug-company people and the investigators, but “Dopesick” soars when we see the effects on a coal miner (Kaitlyn Dever) and an earnest country doctor (Michael Keaton).
– “Dexter: New Blood,” 9 p.m. Sundays, Showtime (Nov. 7). For seven seasons, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) committed grisly murders (of bad guys) against a sunny Miami backdrop. Now he’s in the sort of bleak setting we link with murder stories. In snowy, small-town Oregon, he has an assumed name, argues with his late sister and tries not to kill anyone. It’s a strong start.
– “Yellowjackets,” Sundays, Showtime (Nov. 14). After a plane crash, members of a girls’ soccer team were stranded in the wild for more than a year. Some rose to the situation, some sank to evil, all tried to bury that afterward. Now, 25 years later, secrets loom. A tough story bounces between then and now.
AND SOME SCI-FI NOTES
There’s much more, especially on the science-fiction side. The mega-budget “Lord of the Rings” series on Amazon Prime is still a year away, but others are coming now.
“Y: The Last Man” is Mondays on Hulu. “Invasion” arrives Oct. 22 on Apple TV+ – the same day the “Dune” movie reaches HBO Max. Also coming is “The Wheel of Time” (Nov. 19, Amazon Prime) and series from each of the sci-fi giants:
“Star Wars” has “Visions,” an anime-style series Sept. 22 on Disney+ … “Star Trek” has “Prodigy,” an animated series aimed at kids, Oct. 28 on Paramount+ …. And Marvel has “Hawkeye,” with Jeremy Renner returning to his role in the Avengers movies, Nov. 24 on Disney+