It’s fall-TV season, which means a lot of new network dramas try to be like daring cable-TV dramas, and a lot of new sitcoms in which people in their 20s deliver punchlines about having either no sex or a lot of it. Of course, some of the new shows are better—and worse—than that. Here’s my guide, divided into three handy groupings: Watch It, Might Prove Worth It, and Avoid It.
Marry Me (NBC)
Writing makes or breaks a sitcom, and so the superior conversational byplay and punchlines of Marry Me lift it above its ordinary-sounding premise, which is simply a couple (Casey Wilson and Ken Marino) is perennially on the verge of getting engaged. Wilson knows how to make daffy intensity funny rather than embarrassing, and Marino, who’s been great in everything from Party Down to Childrens Hospital to the final season of Eastbound & Down, deliver the delightfully fast-paced, occasionally witty dialogue overseen by show creator David Caspe. (Caspe also created Happy Endings, the amusing ABC sitcom that co-starred Wilson; the two are married in real life.)
The Flash (CW)
It’s damned hard to create a good superhero TV show—just ask the folks struggling to turn Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. something you’ll want to follow into its second season—but the people who’ve launched this adaptation of the DC Comics fast-runner know what they’re doing. A semi-spin-off of Arrow, The Flash finds Barry Allen (the boyishly disarming Grant Gustin) freshly doused with lightning charged chemicals and suddenly able to run at blurring speed. Following the Arrow template, our Flash is aided by a gruff cop (in thise case, Law & Order’s Jesse L. Martin) and, back at the lab, a brainy, curvy scientist, Dr. Caitlin Snow, played by Danielle Panabaker. The only thing that would improve The Flash for me would be if he carried his costume in a little ring on his finger, as he did in the Silver Age, Carmine Infantino-drawn era of this comic book fave.
The Affair (Showtime)
Two lovers married to other people try to sort out their feelings and their lives. The Wire’s Dominic West is married to married to Maura Tierney (ER, NewsRadio) but he’s cheating on her with Ruth Wilson (Luther), who’s married to Fringe’s Joshua Jackson. I know, it’s a bit of a stretch to think of anyone cheating on Maura Tierney, but The Affair is both convincingly well-done and artfully conceived. Frequently, you’ll see the same scene as interpreted first from West’s point of view, and, later, from Wilson’s. But rather that be repetitive, The Affair makes a convincing case that everyone has his or her reasons, motives, and interpretations.
Madam Secretary (CBS)
Tea Leoni stars as Elizabeth Faulkner, the new Secretary of State, a rulebook-breaker who’s also a devoted wife and mother. Which could have been awful, except for a few key ingredients. First, there’s Leoni, making a strong return to television with an approach to her role that’s at once steely-strong and artfully humorous when the scene calls for it. Then there’s the solid dialogue and plotting overseen by creator Barbara Hall, who gave us the cult favorite Joan of Arcadia. And finally there’s the deep-bench cast of good supporting players, including Tim Daly as Leoni’s husband-with-a-mysterious-past, Bebe Neuwirth as Elizabeth’s Chief of Staff, and the always welcome, TV-omnipresent actor Zeljko Ivanek (Damages and Heroes, to name but two) as a passive-aggressive White House Chief of Staff. Will America tune in to CBS on Sunday nights post-60 Minutes, pre-Good Wife, to watch a political drama at 8 p.m., give or take football overruns? It’s a steep challenge, but I hope so.
Might Prove Worth It
How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)
It’s impossible to tell from the pilot whether this new Shonda Rhimes drama will succeed on the literate-junk level that makes her Scandal so enjoyable. Murder’s great asset is star Viola Davis as an exceedingly shrewd, tough law school professor/lawyer, who teaches a class in how to get a client off for the charge in the title. What might drag the show down is the succession of droopily good-looking law students who need Davis’ constant tutelage.
Anthony Anderson stars as an upper-middle-class husband and father who thinks his happily suburban family may have lost touch with black culture. The sitcom follows his anxiety, which is heightened by the presence of his skeptical father, played by Laurence Fishburne. When the pilot for Black-ish was made, its showrunner was Larry Wilmore, who’d done wonders as a writer-producer with The Bernie Mac Show and was so good as a Daily Show correspondent. Then Wilmore was tapped to take over the Colbert Report time-slot when Stephen Colbert replaces Letterman, and exited this show. I’m wondering if Black-ish will retain its sharp edge without Wilmore, or turn into just another squawky family sitcom.
The premise: We follow Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) as a child—his parents have just been murdered, and he’s left an orphan in a town overrun by criminals, some of whom will become familiar Batman villains such as the Penguin and the Riddler. Gotham’s chief protagonist, however, isn’t Batman but Jim Gordon (Southland’s Ben McKenzie), not yet the Inspector we know from the comics, TV, and movies, but a young cop gung-ho to clean up the corrupt town of Gotham. Could be terrific (the pilot has oodles of atmosphere) or could prove slow (will we get impatient to see some superhero action?).
Jane the Virgin (CW)
Jane (a sunny Gina Rodriguez) is a virgin (duh) who’s accidentally inseminated by her gynecologist (wha…?). And the father is her new boss. The opening episode is charming, but does this premise have what it takes to last longer than nine months?
I read a fair number of thrillers, and I don’t have any philosophical objection to a serial-killer storyline, even if it’s now been overdone in the bestseller world. But as weekly TV fare, Stalker is outstandingly obnoxious, for the sheer ugly, frequent violence against women exhibited by this variation on Criminal Minds crossed with The Following (the latter created by Stalker’s creator, Kevin Williamson).
If I were the King of Television, I’d decree a ban on stubble. Yes, stubble, that impeccable three-day length maintained assiduously by far too many TV characters that are supposed to be obsessed-with-their-work unpretentious blokes who couldn’t care less about the impression they make. (Improbable stubble also figures far too prominently in countless sitcoms, and on David Tennant in Fox’s new cop show Gracepoint.) In Constantine, based on yet another DC Comics character, from Hellblazer, a British tough guy (Matt Ryan) is a hardboiled demon hunter. It’s like Supernatural with only one brother, and he’s a charmless, humorless one who unfortunately thinks he’s witty.
Good actor (Ioan Gruffudd from Hornblower and The Fantastic Four) in a flimsily whimsical idea for a series: he’s a New York City medical examiner who can’t die. Every time he’s killed, he reappears somewhere, stark naked, and starts all over again. Immortality is a grand theme, but Forever seems to take forever just to get through its first hour, and I’m not inclined to watch this repetitive notion worked out over and over each week.
Red Band Society (Fox)
It’s about a group of teen patients united in an L.A. pediatric ward by dire diagnoses (cancer, heart defects, etc.). They’re all cute and poignant in their Breakfast Club-with-bad-Jello sort of way, of course. Fox is banking on Red Band Society to be its entrée into the Fault in Our Stars teen sob market, and to attract adults added the terrific Octavia Spencer in what, in the pilot, looks like a thankless role: a grumpy ward nurse. This show is at once too pandering and too condescending. But that may not stop mine from being a minority opinion if any of these attractive young actors turns into a TV-viewer heartthrob; Red Band Society needs its drama version of a Fonzie to survive.