This week kicks off the annual summer press tour at the Beverly Hilton, when TV critics and reporters get to hang out with TV executives and stars for two and a half weeks and take closer looks at everything premiering between Labor Day and Christmas (and sometimes beyond).
Based on B&C’s very informal annual survey of TV critics, ABC’s The Muppets is the most anticipated new fall show, closely followed by CBS’ Supergirl and The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Least anticipated—and this doesn’t hold true for everyone—are Fox’s Rosewood and Grandfathered, with shows such as Fox’s The Grinder falling somewhere in the middle.
Still, it’s better to be talked about than completely ignored, and that was the case for many fall entries as critics and viewers alike continue to be overwhelmed by their many choices.
Fall TV season aside, critics also revealed some of their secret faves for people looking for their next great binge-watch. One hint: Just watch FX’s The Americans already. What follows is an edited, combined transcript of contributing editor Paige Albiniak’s one-on-one conversations with critics.
Immediately coming out of upfronts, what did you think looked best based entirely on first impressions?
Rob Owen, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: As someone who was born in the ’70s, I was very excited about [ABC’s reboot of] The Muppets. At the same time, I’m a little tired of every single show having to be revived. Still, I’ve seen ABC’s presentation and it was a clever way to update the show.
Eric Deggans, NPR: I was really excited about The Muppets. It’s been a long time since [the Muppets have] done something explicitly for grown-ups and this show is that. If ABC can maintain the quality of the ten-minute presentation, it will be great. They are taking the storytelling style of Modern Family and doing their own version of it.
Matt Roush, TV Guide: I walked away from ABC’s presentation being the most impressed—by Quantico as a solid procedural with a strong mystery hook, with The Muppets as a fun twist on a classic franchise and even Blood & Oil as a promising return to a dynastic soap opera, an ABC specialty. Even ABC’s midseason shows look to be worth the wait.
I also loved what I saw of the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, nutty and tuneful and wacky. And Supergirl seemed, well, super.
Joanne Ostrow, The Denver Post: My best first impression was NBC’s Blindspot. If you liked The Blacklist, you may switch to this one. It may turn out to be indecipherable, like the tattoos, but that was a strong start.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix: Supergirl was the show I was most curious about going into upfront week, and while its trailer had some bumps (particularly the way the first half evoked that fake Black Widow movie trailer on SNL), the second half looked like the kind of show I was hoping for, given the character and the talent involved.
Which fall pilot, of all that you’ve seen so far, surprised you with how much you enjoyed it?
Owen: The Real O’Neals on ABC [starring Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson] was quite funny and very good and I hadn’t heard as much buzz about that one.
James Poniewozik, Time: I went into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with no expectations or foreknowledge. Whether or not it can sustain itself remains to be seen, but it’s like little else out there: A raunchy musical about a self-destructive female protagonist. It woke me up and that’s the first thing I ask of a good pilot.
Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is still my most-anticipated fall show. I had no expectations of it and the execution and world-building were amazing from the jump.
Gail Pennington, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: If Fox’s The Grinder holds up, it could fill some of the emptiness left in my soul by the loss of Parks and Recreation.
Roush: I wasn’t sure what to make of Rob Lowe as The Grinder (awful title), but when I watched the whole thing, I thought it was fresh and funny. Not sure where it goes in the long run, and how long he can keep going in the courtroom as a pretend lawyer, but it’s worked OK for Suits and the chemistry between Lowe and Fred Savage (welcome back in front of the camera) was genuine.
Which, of the fall pilots that you’ve seen so far, surprised you with how much you did not enjoy it?
Owen: I heard lots of great buzz about Grandfathered [starring John Stamos] and The Grinder and didn’t think those were as funny as the buzz made them out to be. Just because a show has a big star doesn’t mean we should have outsized expectations for it.
Poniewozik: I had heard good buzz around Grandfathered but the show I watched was—not awful, but obvious and tired and felt like it took way more than a half-hour to watch.
Pennington: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which looked like fun, turns out to be just sad. That poor woman needs therapy and possibly medication. I couldn’t laugh at her ruining her life, and the random songs gave me Ally McBeal flashbacks. I disliked ABC’s midseason entry, The Chase, so much I wanted to turn it off after 20 minutes. At the time, I didn’t remember if it was from Shondaland, but that makes sense—it’s as incoherent as How to Get Away with Murder but a lot less engaging.
Roush: I was rooting for CBS’ Life in Pieces, because many have been wondering when and where the next Modern Family would come from. But maybe not this spot-on. As terrific as this cast is, and James Brolin in particular is a joy, it just felt too derivative and I hope they can move past the vagina jokes. Keeping an open mind on that one, though, because the cast is so strong and I’d like to see CBS succeed with something that aims a bit higher than the Odd Couple remake. On the drama side, I was left cold by the altogether generic Rosewood on Fox—felt like a castoff from USA Network’s “blue skies” period—and am dismayed that this is what’s being paired with Empire. Such a wasted opportunity.
How much do you think we’ll be talking about diversity again this fall season? How close do you think we are to a time in which diversity in front of and behind the camera is so common that we don’t even feel the need to mention it?
Owen: The efforts that ABC made last year to get a more diverse line-up of actors in their shows in primetime paid off, and we are seeing those shows—How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat—return. I hope diversity isn’t a trend but something that becomes the new normal. It’s a better way of thinking about how to put a show together and I’m fairly confident it will be this way going forward. This is probably one these things where once you’ve broken the seal, you can’t really reseal it.
Deggans: When we stop paying attention to diversity, we slide back into all of our bad habits. Trying to figure out how to reflect the nation’s diversity in primetime television is difficult and trying to find a way to do that that is entertaining and insightful is really difficult. What’s surprising to me is that the networks have not learned from that. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to stop giving shows to people to whom they have always given shows. You look at what Fox has done over the past few years—they have slowly developed how diversity works at Fox. They’ve launched shows like Empire and Sleepy Hollow—they know how to do it. ABC decided to bet big on diversity last season and they not only got great shows, almost all of which are coming back, their level of return shows is pretty remarkable as well. But what’s the point of a black Uncle Buck? I don’t understand that at all.
Poniewozik: Call me Pollyanna but I hope we’re nearing that point with diversity. We now have a show like Dr. Ken, and it’s great that show came out after Fresh Off the Boat because it’s a bad pilot, but not a bad pilot of the first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years. You also have a show like Rosewood, which matter-of-factly has an easy-on-the-eyes African-American man [Morris Chestnut] playing the brilliant but difficult male lead. It’s mediocre, but so are a lot of shows. Part of the battle is to get to the point where shows like this can be as mediocre as ones cast entirely with white people.
Pennington: Progress has definitely been made. There’s a lot more color in casts for fall, and it’s great that, say medical dramas look more like real hospitals. But some of the diversity feels opportunistic, like efforts to come up with the next Empire. (Looking at you, Rosewood.) Just because you land a well-known person of color as your lead, that person still needs a good show behind him or her. (See: Wesley Snipes in The Player).
Roush: I’d like to think that we’re getting pretty accustomed to seeing more minorities in lead roles on TV. It’s worth celebrating, and great that it’s no longer being seen as revolutionary—or a setback for the cause should one fail. If Rosewood doesn’t make it, it’s not because the leads are minorities, it’s because the characters are so familiar and paper-thin. Last year was clearly a breakthrough TV year for diversity, and with the Bollywood star of Quantico and Ken Leung fronting a family sitcom (not a great fit, but still), we’re still seeing gains in a variety of genres. There are still miles to go before there’s a sense of parity, but it’s getting better.
How do you feel about the continuing trend of shows based on superheroes/comic books?Do you think TV will suffer the same ennui with that trend that movies seem to be suffering?
Owen: Success breeds excess. There’s a natural ebb and flow so we’ll go through a period where there are tons of medical shows or tons of cop shows. I hope at some point we get back to the point where we can create original properties rather than basing shows on revivals such as The X-Files or Heroes Reborn. Who wanted Heroes brought back? I am at a loss to understand why we need that show to come back. We have seen revivals work—Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Star Trek: Next Generation—but not that often.
Deggans: I’m a comic-book fan so I’m not going to knock the comic-book-based shows. I’m actually surprised it’s taken so long for comic books to come to TV and I think the reason why is because of the bias against comic-book stories in mainstream showbiz, and the fact that the special effects in the movies are so impressive that it’s been hard for TV shows to compete. But TV shows have upped their game in the special-effects categories. And TV’s strength is its ability to tell human stories. The best superhero TV shows are about people, not about powers or villains. The Flash is the best superhero series on TV and it’s all about people—his relationship with his father, his unrequited love, not wanting to lose his family. These are all things people can relate to. I hope that’s the lesson CBS learns for Supergirl. It’s not about her stopping freight trains with her six-inch heels. It’s about who she is and who her family and friends are.
Poniewozik: I’m tired [of it] but I’m probably the wrong person to ask as I’ve always lacked the superhero gene. Supergirl was fine but I would have been much more excited about it 10 years ago. Now it’s ‘Ah, add this to the pile of the kind of competently executed superhero shows The CW does all the time.’
Roush: I’m not sure we’re at the same saturation point here that we are with crime and even (this season) medical dramas, and Supergirl is just different and entertaining enough to stand on its own. Two of the more interesting shows of last season were The Flash and Gotham, so as long as they each stay distinctive enough (while allowing for crossovers in the case of Flash-Arrow and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow), this will remain a viable niche. It helps that they’re mostly all very well produced. I’m surprised Marvel hasn’t made a bigger impact with its shows on ABC—Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a particular disappointment—but overall, the genre is a thriving one and hasn’t worn out its welcome quite yet.
Why do you think sitcoms continue to be so challenging, while we’re seeing a sort of renaissance of comedy—and particularly sketch—on cable and in late night?
Owen: The thing I always go back to is fear. It’s a fear-based business and everyone is afraid of putting on a dud. I don’t know what it is with comedy, but it’s harder to do than drama. We know what drama is, comedy is harder to pin down. I do think that if you look beyond the broadcast channels, we are seeing a lot of great experimentation with shows such as Another Period on Comedy Central or Spoils Before Dying or Portlandia on IFC.
Poniewozik: I’ve written about this a few times but specifically: the best cable and sketch comedy now has a very specific, distinct point of view, often of just one or two performers: Louie, Broad City, Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer. The creative energy and audience response is there but specificity also means not being for everyone and so it makes for “challenging” network sitcom material.
Ostrow: The sitcom format feels tired compared to the sketch/single-cam shows. It felt dated in 1980 and feels more so now. Now and then something different comes along, and this year it was FX’s You’re the Worst, that reminds us how inventive a comedy can be.
Pennington: I remind people all the time that nothing is more personal than a sense of humor. What makes me laugh probably doesn’t make you laugh and almost certainly doesn’t make a 25-year-old guy laugh. It’s a real rarity when a network comedy like The Big Bang Theory manages to appeal to as many viewers as it needs to be a true hit. Most of those late-night sketch shows would die a quick death on network primetime.
Roush: There’s a timidity and sameness to so much of what passes for comedy on network TV right now—the new batch of comedies are awfully generic or just plain awful (NBC’s terrible People are Talking feels like a copy of CBS’s abysmal Friends With Better Lives from a season back, only swapping James Van Der Beek with Mark-Paul Gosselaar). When they try to be edgy, it often comes off smarmy instead of bold, and the premises are so thinly high-concept: John Stamos and the baby are adorable in Grandfathered, but is that enough for a show? Jane Lynch is having a good time as the Angel From Hell, but it’s not what I’d call inspired.
That said, credit should go to ABC for its terrific lineup of distinctive family comedies on Wednesday, now joined by Fresh Off the Boat on Tuesday and the return of The Muppets. These may not make the sort of noise among the Twitterati as Amy Schumer, Key & Peele or Broad City generate, but ABC knows and understands its brand, and these are very enjoyable shows for a broad audience. And as I always say about The Big Bang Theory, there’s no shame in being popular as long as you’re delivering the laughs.
Sepinwall: Comedy is much more specific than drama. Just among my readers, there’s a fair amount of consensus on what the best dramas on TV are, and screaming matches about what comedies are funny and what aren’t. But I also think that the 15 years or so that the business spent not cultivating new multi-cam talent has hurt. As you can see with the success of Big Bang vs. every critically adored quirky single-cam, that’s still the format the audience prefers, especially if it’s as funny as Big Bang so often is. The networks haven’t stopped making multi-cam shows, but there are so few people anymore who know how to make them well.
Dave Walker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune: Two broadcast networks passed on my favorite comedy right now, The Jim Gaffigan Show. Whatever the reasons were, there is the problem.
How important do you think fall TV remains to the overall television landscape? Should we still even focus on fall?
Poniewozik: Speaking as a critic, i.e. someone whose main brief is quality and not business, we care way too much about fall. (And way too much about broadcast network fall in particular, paying attention to shows we’d ignore if, say, they debuted on CBS in March.) There’s still more TV that debuts in a few weeks, so that drives it, plus habit, plus the general back-to-school conditioning we have for fall. But when I look at my top-10 lists over the last several years, very few of those are fall debuts and the exceptions, like Amazon’s Transparent, tend to be non-network. Winter and spring tend to be the golden seasons for TV right now. This year, we had the likes of Game of Thrones, The Americans and Mad Men all on at once.
Roush: It’s true there’s no longer a pause between spring and summer and summer and fall anymore, with the “traditional” season blurring and upstart outliers like Netflix seemingly heedless of when they put something new out there. (They’re dropping a new series the last weekend in August, for crying out loud.) No dog days for TV anymore.
But for the broadcast networks in particular, the fall launch is still an important marketing tool and will continue to be, and we can’t ignore it. Not when so many longtime favorite shows are back with new seasons and plenty of fanfare—just having Empire back in September is a huge deal—and old habits die hard. As long as there’s a new season starting in the fall, we’ll pay attention to it. But I’m not sure it’s any more important anymore than the launch of a summer season or the winter/spring midseason. It’s all TV and you never know when that next mega-hit is coming. (Case in point: Empire again.)
Sepinwall: I think it’s insane in this environment of year-round programming, of cable and Netflix and Amazon and everything else, to throw so many new shows up against the rocks in late September and early October. Just because it’s the way things have always been done doesn’t mean that’s the way it should always be done. Based on the pilots I’ve watched so far, there aren’t a lot of new network shows I’m going to have the patience to stick with for more than a few weeks, particularly in such a cluttered environment.
What are you watching right now—even if you are catching up on something that’s years old—that you are really digging? What hidden TV gem would you recommend that everyone stop what they are doing right now and start binge-watching?
Poniewozik: Season two of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire is genuinely good. It became an exciting, unusual drama about two women basically inventing the modern social Internet—and IT NEEDS YOU.
Ostrow: I recommend everyone immediately binge-watch HBO’s Getting On, a brilliant tragicomedy with a terrific cast.
Pennington: I haven’t enjoyed anything as much lately as I did Catastrophe on Amazon. It’s smart and sweet and hilarious. But I’ve also been an evangelist for Deutschland 83 on Sundance because it’s so smart, really exciting and also very entertaining.
Roush: I’m fascinated that USA Network has taken such a big swing this summer with Mr. Robot. I’m not sure what to make of it yet—it’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly intriguing—so stylish, so ballsy, and so very original. I’m not a big fan of the binge, but I wouldn’t call it hidden because so many critics champion it. But given its relatively low ratings and (up to now, maybe it will change this year) lack of presence at the Emmys, the show I almost always recommend first to anyone is The Americans. So gripping, so unexpected and rewarding and well done. How it has been ignored this long is beyond me.
Sepinwall: Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is amazing. It’s funny, strange and shockingly emotional, considering it’s a cartoon about an anthropomorphized horse who starred in a terrible ’90s family sitcom. Maybe Will Arnett’s best performance ever, including G.O.B. Bluth.
Walker: The Jim Gaffigan Show and Mr. Robot. I’m sticking with True Detective to the end. Esquire’s Running of the Bulls coverage was brilliant, and a scream.