TV critics freely admit the yawning gap between which new shows stand out and which have the best chance of actually being a hit. Conversely, the hackneyed pilot that fails to elicit a reaction among TV’s tastemakers— the formulaic procedural, the sitcom with the joke you see coming before Matt LeBlanc’s character even does—may actually end up a longtime ratings magnet.
“What stands out,” says Myles McNutt, critic at The A.V. Club and assistant professor at Old Dominion, “is often what has the potential to fail spectacularly in a broadcast context.”
So we asked our panel of top TV critics to measure both quality and hit potential, with a small handful of shows sticking the landing in both categories. They also delivered on other programming issues centered on the new season, including diversity, year-round programming and remakes of movies.
Ah, those pesky reboots of musty film franchises, including The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon on Fox and Training Day on CBS. Successes are few and far between. “One that worked was Parenthood,” says Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic. “But that was always on the verge of cancellation.”
And while the networks’ love of time travel concepts prompted a thousand time machine jokes during upfront season, viewers will soon decide what they think of Timeless on NBC— and similarly themed shows (Making History on Fox, Time After Time on ABC) come midseason. “They say they don’t know how that happened,” muses Deggans. “But everybody knows what everybody else is working on.”
Swing and a…
So what’s got a chance to break out? The latest “it” showrunner, Dan Fogelman, got raves from critics for baseball drama Pitch (Fox) and twisty dramedy This is Us (NBC). “I have my reservations about both, but they represent a well-oiled combination of a familiar genre with an ‘idea’ at their center that distinguishes them from their generic forebears,” says McNutt.
Other shows with a strong number of panelist plugs include NBC’s madcap heaven comedy The Good Place (“seems like a lot of fun,” says Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com), ABC’s special needs sitcom Speechless (“a moving dramedy,” says Joanne Ostrow, a freelancer formerly of The Denver Post), White House terror thriller Designated Survivor on ABC and FX’s acerbic Better Things.
While Lethal Weapon earned a few admissions of curiosity, the movies-to-series movement did not spark a positive reaction among critics. “I hate the reboots,” says Deggans, citing a general lack of new creative energy. “I want them all to go down in flames.”
Most likely to go down in flames among new shows, per the critics, are ABC dramas Notorious and Conviction. “I don’t see audiences being charmed by either of them,” says Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
While the critics hardly warmed to CBS’ new pilots, blasting the likes of Man With a Plan and Bull for a lack of diversity and imagination, multiple tastemakers singled out the Eye for nonetheless retaining its pole position. “It’s hard to bet against Kevin James and [Bull star] Michael Weatherly, although I’d like to,” says Pennington.
Others like NBC’s schedule, with Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic, predicting a possible dethroning of longtime champ CBS. The suddenly stable Peacock is debuting just three series this fall. “NBC seems to be in pretty good shape even though last year’s ‘hit,’ Blindspot, lost a lot of viewers through the season,” says Owen.
No Excuses For Lack of Diversity
Diversity on both sides of the camera was a hot issue during the TCA press tour last month, and remains a passionate topic among critics. Glenn Geller, CBS entertainment chief, was pilloried at the event for talking up supporting cast members of color; the critics preferred to discuss the preponderance of white males among lead performers. “I’m not sure anyone has done enough with regard to diversity among showrunners,” says Owen. “But ABC deserves credit for staying the course with its push for inclusivity, including the addition of Speechless.”
Deggans says it’s a two-step process for networks: Don’t greenlight shows that lack a person of color as a lead or costar, and empower people of color to be producers, directors and writers. “NBC, Fox and ABC have all figured it out,” he says. “CBS’ fall schedule is a flashback to 1990.”
Cable scored much higher marks for diversity, panelists mentioning Insecure on HBO, Queen Sugar on OWN and Atlanta on FX.
And speaking of high marks, the critics weighed in on what they’re raving about these days all over the TV map. For Pennington, it’s Netflix’s Happy Valley. Owen talks up Netflix’s Stranger Things. Ostrow adores HBO’s Getting On and Deggans is all over Netflix’s The Get Down.
Sometimes a broadcast show sneaks onto the list. Sepinwall singled out Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, while McNutt did the same for NBC’s Superstore. “NBC did not seem particularly invested in comedy, pushing it out in midseason without any type of lead-in after its initial Voice preview,” he says. “But it managed to self-start and creatively developed a really nice ensemble that has a lot of potential moving forward.”
Midseason gets lots of cred these days, but for critics, fall season still has a vaunted place. “Perhaps surprisingly in the age of endless TV choices, the fall launch still represents a reset,” said Ostrow. “The back-to-school season means updating DVR settings as much as backpacks.”