Notes on an underwhelming fall TV season

Senior Television Writer
09.16.15 43 Comments


Early last week, I published two posts about the fall season: one about new shows I found intriguing, the other about returning shows I was excited about. As the intro to the latter post acknowledged, I had to squint and wishcast a lot to come up with 12 names for the former list(*), particularly since this is among the most depressing network fall slates I've seen in a long time.

(*) Several of the shows on that list were ones I hadn't yet seen, like “The Bastard Executioner,” which didn't live up to my hopes for it. I've spent the past few days watching final versions of the broadcast network pilots, none of which have improved in any notable way. I still have a few to go (ABC only made “The Muppets” available last night), but…

It's not that it's necessarily loaded with garbage. Plenty of recent seasons have had worse shows than any of these, and/or had more shows that were outright terrible and worthy of dismissal before seeing a second episode. What's so depressing about this freshman class is that there's so little worth getting excited about, even if you assume some of the shows will get better in time. The only network show I'd feel satisfied with if it merely remained at the level of execution evident in the pilot is “Supergirl,” and even that has room it can (and needs to) grow. 

Every network television writer I've spoken with lately (some whose shows got picked up, some whose didn't) says the constant refrain from execs this past development season was “We want shows that can cut through the clutter.” The people running ABC, NBC, et al are aware of Peak TV in America, and they're convinced that the new shows that have the best shot to succeed are ones with attention-getting concepts (like “Last Man on Earth”) or casts (like “Empire”). Simply saying, “Here's a really smart workplace comedy!” or “Here's a legal drama with well-written characters!” doesn't cut it anymore, as far as they're concerned, so what's flashy and easy to market has a leg up on what has a better chance at actually being good(**).

(**) I was talking about this yesterday with Grantland's Andy Greenwald (who will be posting his own fall preview piece tomorrow, touching on some of these same problems), and he pointed out how many of this fall's new shows would improve instantly if you ditched the high-concept premise at the heart of them. (For instance, imagine “The Player” if Philip Winchester from “Strike Back” was just a badass security expert, rather than someone caught up in an elaborate game where the super-wealthy gamble on crime.) Of course – as Bill Lawrence likes to say about the show “Cougar Town” became versus the one that he initially sold to ABC – the networks would be far less likely to buy that version of the series in the first place.

I'll still be writing reviews of many of these shows before they debut – some at length, some briefly, a few ignored altogether – but it's hard to imagine wanting to make time for most of them past episode 2 or 3 when there are so many interesting things coming up (some new, some not) on cable, satellite, streaming, etc.

It's the first fall in a while where there's not a single new network show I'm planning to cover weekly right out of the gate… but that's only partly due to the underwhelming quality of the material, and partly due to a new way I intend to approach the beat, at least over the next few months.

We're closing in on the 10th anniversary of when I started up my old blog. As you may have noticed, TV has changed a lot in that decade, and so has the way I and others write about it. I used to try to cover a lot of shows every week, but that was when there were far fewer original scripted series being made, and when I tended to write much shorter things about each. In more recent years, I've picked a bunch of shows at a time to be part of the regular blog rotation, writing about them so frequently and at such length that I often didn't have much time to write about (or at times watch) the rest of TV.

So this fall, I'm trying something different: a handful of shows I'm committing to writing about every week (give or take vacations, hospitalizations, or acts of God), and then everything else will be covered if/when I have both time and something to say.

Just in terms of shows debuting over the next month or so, the ones I'll be sticking with as a weekly thing are “Fargo,” “The Leftovers,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” (And maybe “The Knick,” depending on how I feel about the season 2 episodes once I have them in hand.) It's a mix of highbrow and lowbrow, dark and light, popular and niche, that I feel I'd have things to say about every week, while still leaving me room to check in on other shows as needed.

It may be that some of the shows that are no longer part of the weekly rotation (say, the ABC and CW superhero shows) will still inspire at least a brief commentary often enough that I'm writing about two episodes out of every three, or I may choose to spread the wealth more. I'm going to play it by ear.

There's enormous value in writing about a show at the micro level, week in and week out. But I also want to give myself time to watch and write about more things, given the overflowing tide of scripted series available at the moment. So I'm going to try this compromise approach for a few months to see how it feels. And if I find myself fiending to write more recaps, maybe we'll revisit this in January when the next wave of new and returning shows premiere.

The network TV season officially begins on Monday, and the non-broadcast parts of the business are no longer shy about debuting shows they are about up against what the networks have to offer. Things about to get busy, if not always thrilling.

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