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If you sat through the upfronts in May, you know that broadcast TV is on the defensive, trying to assure advertisers it’s still the best way to reach a mass audience and convince viewers it can still make exciting television despite the looser standards of cable or the binge-inducing strategy of Netflix. So it’s not an encouraging sign that the fall season doesn’t appear to hold any breakout shows, according to a roundtable of top TV critics B&C polled about the five English-language networks’ fall shows.
Why This Matters
But a savior could be waiting in the wings with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The series was not made available to critics before presstime (although it was screened for fans at Comic-Con on July 19), but it still garnered the most excitement. The curiosity for the ABC project has been off the charts since its development stage due to its impressive pedigree. Not only does it exploit Disney’s synergistic ownership of Marvel, but its executive producer Joss Whedon directed and cowrote The Avengers, which grossed $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, third all-time behind Avatar and Titanic. Plus, Whedon still has cred with TV critics for creating the beloved series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“It has to be mentioned that I think ABC is skewing this entire thing by not putting S.H.I.E.L.D. out there,” says Dan Fienberg, TV critic for HitFix. “Either S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to be this great sigh of relief…or it turns out to be really mediocre.”
Critics are hoping the former, as the pilots that were made available were generally found lacking in surprise or innovation. However, critics did feel there was more solid execution across the board than last fall, which brought us Animal Practice and The Mob Doctor.
“I wouldn’t say this was a particularly strong development season, but neither was last year. The networks as a whole are kind of in a creative free-fall,” says Tim Goodman, chief television critic for The Hollywood Reporter. “But I’m also not super negative about it either, because I found maybe a handful of shows that I’ll watch regularly and DVR the seasons. And a few could turn out to be pretty great. It’s not a high-odds business, so I’ll take that.”
A Growing Laugh Track
Without having seen S.H.I.E.L.D. and two other fall hours—NBC’s Dracula and ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland—prior to presstime, critics felt drama overall declined from last season, which had the buzzy Last Resort (RIP) and Nashville. But they agreed comedy improved over last season’s lackluster crop, which saw only two freshman comedies renewed— Fox’s The Mindy Project and ABC’s The Neighbors.
While Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine was the favorite among the half-hours, critics also saw potential in Mom, The Millers, Trophy Wife, Back in the Game, The Michael J. Fox Show and Welcome to the Family. It was clear the Modern Family effect was in full force with this season’s development, even if the result was of uneven quality.
“I’m encouraged by there being this much comedy on the schedule, because I think comedy is important and had been somewhat undervalued in recent seasons. And the fact that they’re going for a broader type of comedy, I appreciate that and to some extent I approve,” says Matt Roush, senior critic for TV Guide.
On the drama side, critics found NBC’s The Blacklist to be the best of the hour-longs. There was some interest in CBS’ Hostages, though several found NBC’s similarly plotted midseason entry Crisis to be the superior of the two, as well as Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, which was better than many expected despite its preposterous premise. But overall, there were too many drama pilots that left wide doubt as to their viability as a series.
“I’m really, really tired of concept pitches that don’t actually bother to make each episode interesting. Lucky 7—I’ve been burned by 8 million shows, 6 million of them on ABC, that are, ‘You’ll see how this plays out over time,’” says Maureen Ryan, TV critic for The Huffington Post. “The bones of what you’re doing have to be good within that 40 minutes. If you’re not nailing that, I don’t care what the concept is.”
A Level Playing Field
With critics not seeing any breakouts, no network this season was given the edge of the best pilot slate, with all on basically the same level of one or two good shows but also a couple to hate.
At ABC, beyond S.H.I.E.L.D. being the season’s most anticipated series, the rest of its drama development was deemed weak, especially the soapy Betrayal, which was labeled exceedingly bland. The Once Upon a Time in Wonderland spinoff seems like less of a sure thing given the flagship’s lukewarm sophomore season. And Lucky 7, about seven gas station employees who win the lottery, was deemed uninteresting and having the unenviable task of capping ABC’s entirely relaunched Tuesday night.
On the sitcom side, ABC is doubling down on family comedy, hoping to find a successor to Modern Family. Critics saw potential in both Trophy Wife and Back in the Game, mostly for stars Malin Akerman and Maggie Lawson. But the two pilots that ABC is giving its prime scheduling slots—The Goldbergs (which follows S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night (which follows Modern Family—were the two most polarizing to critics. While acknowledging each had some potential, Super Fun Night was thought to misuse Wilson’s talent while The Goldbergs simply had too much volume.
“They assembled a really good cast; it’s just so loud and over the top and obnoxious,” Ryan says of The Goldbergs. “I feel like somewhere lurking in there is a well-intentioned homage to someone’s crazy family, but there’s just so much noise around the edges that I couldn’t get into it.”
CBS, which has the fewest slots to fill and hence generally a better crop, will make a big comedy push this fall, launching four new half-hours. Of those, the edge went to Mom and The Millers, both of which have strong casts: Mom with Anna Faris and Allison Janney and The Millers with Will Arnett, Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges.
And despite the fanfare of Robin Williams returning to television, critics were disappointed in the execution of The Crazy Ones, which felt like it relied on Williams’ star power at the expense of setting the bones of a series. And We Are Men was one of the most hated shows seen for completely wasting a decent cast with terrible material.
“I was disappointed in The Crazy Ones. When you’ve got Robin Williams, you should do more than just put him in situations and let him riff,” says Eric Deggans, TV/media critic for the Tampa Bay Times. “It felt like there was too little structure: Let’s just let Robin be Robin. That might have worked in ’76 on Mork & Mindy, but it ain’t working now.”
With all the comedy, CBS will only debut one new drama this fall, the 15-episode Hostages starring Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott, which had at least some critics wanting to see more. They also praised the network, known as the home of the procedural, for opting to split the Monday time slot with shorterrun, more serialized fare (which is working this summer for Under the Dome).
Fox’s slate was a welcome improvement over last fall, which largely felt like an afterthought on the drama side with the much-mocked The Mob Doctor. The network was complimented for stretching on concepts this year with Sleepy Hollow, which has Ichabod Crane reawakening in present day, and Almost Human, a futuristic cop show about human and android detectives.
Fox even successfully figured out how to make a sitcom out of a cop show with the well-reviewed Brooklyn Nine-Nine starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher. “It’s really difficult to make a sitcom out of a cop show, but I started liking Brooklyn Nine- Nine almost despite myself,” Goodman says.
But as with the polarizing season, Fox also had the most-hated entry in Dads, which may prove to be the end of Seth MacFarlane’s run of good luck. And critics were divided on Enlisted, starring Geoff Stults as one of three brothers stationed at a Florida army base. And Fox’s Friday scheduling also did not inspire confidence.
NBC had the best-liked drama with The Blacklist, and its scheduling after The Voice gives the show the best chance of anything on NBC’s schedule to succeed. But the network’s other fall hour, the reboot of Ironside starring Blair Underwood, felt like a misguided attempt at nostalgia.
This fall, the network will start rebuilding its Thursday in earnest, attempting to launch three new comedies. Its top priority, The Michael J. Fox Show, for which it has already committed to 22 episodes, feels like a strong effort, and Fox brings definite star appeal.
“I do like the idea that they are using his condition for humor, and his self-deprecating wit does make that appealing,” Roush says. “It’s not an A-plus pilot, but I think there’s real potential there.”
NBC’s other star vehicle, the multi-camera Sean Saves the World starring Will & Grace alum Sean Hayes, came off as formulaic, while Welcome to the Family, despite an overdone premise of a teenager unexpectedly getting pregnant, was better than expected due to the cast led by Glee’s Mike O’Malley. Overall, it felt like a better effort from the network than last fall, though several critics wondered why the strong About a Boy was held for midseason.
“If they can begin to bring some life to a Thursday that their previous regime had destroyed, then they will be going into January in much better shape than they did last year,” says Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today.
The CW’s programming this year will again place pretty people in coming-of-age settings, with the biggest risk being Reign, a period drama about a young Mary, Queen of Scots, the pilot of which was shot in Ireland. While critics found themselves wanting to root for the show because it was so different, they generally had reservations that the Gossip Girl in pre- Elizabethan times would work.
“Reign is a big swing that they’re taking, it’s just a really weird swing,” Fienberg says. “It seems to have very little connection to anything else on their network. So I think it’s interesting and I want to give them credit for that, but it’s strange.”
The rest of The CW’s new shows had an assemblyline feel that worked for some critics and insulted others. While one other new entry, The Originals, is an actual spinoff (of The Vampire Diaries), another, The Tomorrow People, just felt like one, in part because it stars Robbie Amell, cousin of Arrow star Stephen Amell.
A ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Against Disruptive Trends
Overall, the networks seemed to match the quality of the 2012-13 season while improving their comedy offerings at the expense of the dramas. But with competition from cable and digital platforms growing ever fiercer, critics said they wished the broadcasters had a stronger arsenal.
“Did the networks take enough chances to beat back all the trends that are killing them? I’m still not sure they achieved that,” Deggans says. “I wish the best shows were better than they are.”
But again, the true story of this season can’t be written until S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes a known factor, which could make up for the lack of excitement and innovation felt in the rest of the fall pilots.
“Right now I’m looking at this season and it does not appear to be particularly exciting. But all it takes is Joss Whedon to make Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a breakout hit, and then the entire season looks different,” Bianco says. “If he can give ABC a real youth appeal hit, then we’ll all look at this season and it will be the season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and we will forget Lucky 7 and Ironside and Dads and Enlisted. Or at least try.”