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Closer Look

September 3, 2013

Fall TV Preview: A look at new harvest of compelling shows

NEW YORK — There’s something antiquated about the custom long known as the Fall TV Season.

It was born of a bygone era (and still harkens back to it) when fall signaled all things important in America: the much-anticipated return to school, the resumption of football and the grand unveiling of next year’s car models.

It was an era of the Big Three. And not just General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, but also ABC, CBS and NBC, which each autumn launched their new shows with the stated intention of airing these dramas and comedies through much of the season to come.

This was an orderly, narrowly consigned TV world. So the Fall Season represented for viewers most of what they could expect to see in prime time for months ahead, at least until the “summer replacement” shows arrived the following June.

“Midseason” (a term even Fox boss Kevin Reilly said recently he’d love to ban) wasn’t part of the lingo back then.

Nor, of course, were terms like “cable networks,” HBO, Hulu or Netflix.

A half-century later, the Fall Season persists — a festival of premieres by not three, but the five self-designated broadcast “majors” (which somehow includes the little-watched CW), with, some years, no discernible dividing line between the fall crop and the winter harvest.

And no acknowledgment that outside this magic garden, bumper crops of other network shows are always blooming, stealing viewers (and a large share of Emmy love).

With all those caveats in mind, then, make way for the Fall Season.

DON’T I KNOW YOU?

Many of more than two dozen new series may already be familiar, at least by name, to viewers, since the networks have been flogging them all summer.

They are familiar to TV critics, too, who got early copies of many of the new shows as long ago as June.

This doesn’t necessarily help. For a critic to make a sweeping assessment of any TV series’ potential on the basis of a lone episode, or even two or three, is as reasonable as writing a tell-all biography of someone after meeting at a speed-dating event.

So there’s a possibility that CBS’ “The Crazy Ones” will ultimately reveal itself to be hilarious, and not one of the lamest new comedies on the schedule (as an initial viewing might suggest). A comedy set at an advertising agency, it brings back Robin Williams to TV sitcoms after “Mork & Mindy” 35 years ago.

“The Crazy Ones” isn’t really a comedy. It’s a mystery: Who thought it, and bringing back Williams as its star, was a good idea?

NBC has brought back another sitcom veteran with what seems like happier results: Michael J. Fox in a self-named comedy. Addressing the real-life health problems (and triumphs) of this breakout star of “Family Ties” in the 1980s, “The Michael J. Fox Show” strikes a fresh, funny tone amid the flood of new comedies.

NBC has further relied on its once-stellar past by reviving the successful cop show “Ironside,” this time with Blair Underwood, not Raymond Burr, as the intrepid detective in the wheelchair.

FANTASTIC?

Fantasy is fueling many new shows.

NBC’s “Dracula” stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a reimagining of the vampire as a proto-environmentalist. In his guise as a 19th-Century American industrialist, Dracula wants to develop cheap, alternative energy in defiance of his enemy, Big Oil.

There’s also Fox’s set-in-modern-day “Sleepy Hollow” (complete with a headless horseman), ABC’s very cool, comic-driven “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and ABC’s storybook spinoff, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” which explores the psyche of tumbled-down-the-rabbit-hole Alice, complete with CGI rabbit voiced by John Lithgow.

CW’s “The Originals” is a spinoff of “The Vampire Diaries,” while the same network’s “The Tomorrow People” is a sci-fi series about a genetically advanced race that also happens to be young and sexy, and the paramilitary group of scientists who see this band as a threat to the status quo. And Fox’s “Almost Human” is a police drama set 35 years in the future, when human officers work alongside humanlike androids.

From HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” historical costume drama is big on TV. Youth-skewing CW is jumping on that trend with “Reign,” which focuses on Mary Stuart, who, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots, had been queen of Scotland since she was six days old, but, as the series begins, is a verrrry attractive teen (with babalicious ladies-in-waiting).

GETTING REAL

Another costume drama, of a sort: ABC’s very funny comedy “The Goldbergs,” which revisits the childhood of creator Adam Goldberg in the distant, “simpler” time of the 1980s.

Rare on the lineup is a straight-ahead, humanist comedy-drama. This fall there’s only one: ABC’s “Lucky 7,” a potentially charming and engaging series about a group of New Yorkers who share a winning lottery ticket, and the effects of that windfall on their lives.

ABC’s promisingly titled “Betrayal” is a soap that involves a murder, a marital affair, and a powerful family at war with itself.

CBS’ “Hostages” puts Toni Collette in the middle of a political conspiracy: She plays a surgeon ordered to assassinate her patient, the ailing President of the United States, to save her family held captive.

Possibly the season’s most surefire hit is NBC’s “The Blacklist,” which stars James Spader as one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives who surrenders to the FBI with a mysterious offer: to help them catch the terrorists he used to enable.

THEY CAN GO HOME AGAIN

Moving back home is an all-too-common trope in several new comedies.

ABC’s “Back in the Game” finds sexy Maggie Lawson as a former all-star softball player who, post-marriage, returns with her son to move in with her irascible father, himself a washed-up baseball player (played by James Caan).

“Family Guy” mastermind Seth MacFarlane’s live-action Fox comedy “Dads” focuses on two best friends and business partners whose fathers move back in. Its raunchy humor has already ruffled critics’ feathers (and elicited a promise from the show’s creators to give it the necessary tweaks), but its problems are more fundamental: It isn’t funny.

On CBS’ grim-in-spite-of-itself “Mom,” newly sober single mom Christy is suddenly inflicted with the return of her formerly estranged mom (Allison Janney), who, to say the least, didn’t serve as much of a parental example: “While other mothers were cooking dinner,” Christy reminds her, “you were cooking meth.”

On NBC’s “Sean Saves the World,” Sean Hayes plays a divorced dad with an overbearing mom (played by Linda Lavin) and a weekends-only 14-year-old daughter who moves in with him full-time, complicating his life.

On CBS’ “The Millers,” Will Arnett stars as a recently divorced local TV news reporter whose outspoken mother moves in with him while his dad moves in with his sister.

But broken marriages are always ripe for laughs. On CBS’ promising “We Are Men,” three divorced men bond and offer dating advice to a young pal who was left at the altar by his betrothed.

On the comedy “Trophy Wife,” Pete (played by Bradley Whitford) has two broken marriages behind him when he lucks upon lovely Kate (Malin Akerman), who, on becoming Pete’s third bride, suddenly finds herself in a sort-of blended family with three stepchildren and two ex-wives — a big cast and complicated dynamics that surely have ABC dreaming may qualify this show as a hit akin to “Modern Family.”

A strong contender for silliest new show — which means it might be first to go, or, on the other hand, run for years — is “Enlisted.” It’s a military comedy set in the not-so-funny modern age of war, with three brothers stationed on a small base in Florida. If there’s an issue of taste (are wars still being fought suitable for comedy?), this sitcom somewhat navigates it. Whether “Enlisted” is actually funny is another matter entirely.

NOT SO FUNNY

Fox’s cop comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” arrives as perhaps the season’s biggest disappointment, not because it isn’t funny but because it doesn’t measure up to the comedic brilliance of its star, former “Saturday Night Live” player Andy Samberg, nor does it do right by its other leading man, the acclaimed dramatic actor Andre Braugher.

Arguably the most depressing new sitcom: NBC’s “Welcome to the Family,” which attempts to mine laughs from a Stanford University-bound whiz kid who learns his bubble-head girlfriend, who barely got out of high school, is pregnant with his child.

College plans for both of them are off, marriage and parenthood are on, and both sets of in-laws-to-be are distraught.

“The world’s most irresponsible person is now going to become a parent!” moans the pregnant girl’s dad.

This is funny? Or is it just sad?

And what about ABC’s comedy “Super Fun Night”? Its plus-size creator-star Rebel Wilson (”Pitch Perfect,” ‘’Bridesmaids”) plays Kimmie, a lawyer who hangs out with her two best girlfriends every Friday night, to the exclusion of the rest of the world and its inhabitants — at least, until they decide to spice up their social lives.

But Wilson obliterates the comedy by overplaying it, using her heft as a comic blunt instrument. Like Kimmie, she just tries too hard to please.

It’s a familiar condition among the broadcast networks in their latest round of an aging tradition. For the Fall TV Season, there are too many new shows, with too many of them trying too hard to please.

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