Once upon a time, conventional wisdom in TV suggested that any shows debuting outside of the fall were in some way lesser than the ones launching in September and October. Thanks to cable, streaming, and even a transformation of the way the broadcast networks schedule things, the roles have almost entirely reversed: now the really special stuff gets saved for January or later, while a lot of what’s scheduled for a more traditional launch can be viewed as cannon fodder. This TV season, for instance, FOX is saving its revivals of 24 and Prison Break for 2017, and the CW is doing the same with its highest-profile new series, Riverdale.
But there’s still a lot of promising stuff coming this fall across broadcast, cable, and streaming – not just the welcome return of shows like Rectify, You’re the Worst, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but a far more exciting batch of new series than were about to debut a year ago at this time. When I did my fall preview last year, it was a struggle to come up with a list of new shows I was even vaguely excited about; now, I’m just trying to figure out when I’ll have time to watch all of it. (In fact, there are several shows I’m looking forward to that I haven’t had time to watch the screeners of yet, and will list those separately from ones where I’ve seen at least an episode.) There are promising comedies from both veteran creators (Mike Schur’s The Good Place) and relative newcomers (Issa Rae’s Insecure), dramas with high-profile talent (HBO’s long-delayed Westworld) or links to other good shows (Netflix’s Luke Cage), some deeply personal and more dramatic half-hours (Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi), and more. Not everything will succeed, either commercially or creatively, but my pre-Labor Day enthusiasm level is the highest its been in a while.
Here are 20 shows debuting over the next two months I’m looking forward to seeing more of (or seeing at all)….
Ones I’ve seen at least an episode of
Atlanta (Sept. 6, FX)
Community alum Donald Glover goes more dramatic in this half-hour he created about a young man who tries to find direction, and money, by managing his rapper cousin. A huge departure for Glover, tonally unlike anything else on TV right now, and slyly funny when you least expect it to be.
Queen Sugar (Sept. 6, OWN)
Selma director Ava DuVernay adapted the book by Natalie Baszile about three adult siblings who reunite to try to run their father’s Louisiana sugarcane farm. When Parenthood ended a couple of years ago, I suggested that audiences might have to look to cable to find the next great family drama. Based on the first three episodes, which have an impressive command of tone and place on top of the family dynamics, this one could be it.
Better Things (Sept. 8, FX)
Pamela Adlon, Louis C.K.’s foil (and sometime-writing partner) on Louie, graduates to her own autobiographical dramedy, created by her and C.K., where she plays an actress focused more on raising her three daughters than on her career. This is a slightly warmer, and far more versatile, version of Adlon than the character she played on Louie, but the two series feel spiritually similar enough that it just may fill that Louie-shaped hole in your heart.
One Mississippi (Sept. 9, Amazon)
Another deeply autobiographical half-hour that trends more towards the serious, this one was created by and stars stand-up comedian Tig Notaro, and deals with her moving back home to Mississippi for a while after the death of her mother. I’ve only seen the first episode (which Amazon made available several “pilot season”s ago), but as with the two new FX shows, there’s an instant command of character and tone and place, in a way TV hasn’t explored much before.
The Good Place (Sept. 19, NBC)
Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur returns to NBC with this clever, very serialized new comedy starring Kristen Bell as a woman who dies and winds up in a version of the afterlife (managed by a joyful Ted Danson) that doesn’t quite resemble anything organized religion has told us. Because the pilot has so much exposition to deliver about how the afterlife works, I want to see another episode or two to be sure, but this cast and creator gets a very long leash.
This Is Us (Sept. 20, NBC)
One of two shows on this list created by Dan Fogelman (Galavant, The Neighbors), it’s a low-key relationship drama where the less you know going in – other than that its cast includes Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, and People v. O.J. vet Sterling K. Brown – the better, but if it works (and the pilot mostly does, particularly at the end), it’s the kind of show the broadcast networks should be making more of.
Speechless (Sept. 21, ABC)
ABC’s streak of churning out instantly specific and well-crafted family comedies continues with this show starring Minnie Driver as a mom who will do anything for her teenage son with special needs (he’s wheelchair-bound and mute due to cerebral palsy), even if her husband and other two kids often feel ignored or steamrolled in the process.
Pitch (Sept. 22, FOX)
Kylie Bunbury plays the first woman to pitch in Major League Baseball in a new drama (the other one from Dan Fogelman) co-starring Ali Larter as her agent, Mark Consuelos as the team’s GM, Dan Lauria as the manager, and a bearded, unrecognizable Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the team’s star catcher. Bunbury’s instantly appealing, and director Paris Barclay makes the game action seem plausible enough to sustain the what-if of the premise. Fun. At press tour, they kept trying to frame it as a sports version of West Wing, but there’s definitely some Friday Night Lights DNA in there.
Timeless (NBC, Oct. 3)
Time travel figures into a lot of this season’s new shows, none more than this drama from Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan about a trio of heroes – Abigail Spencer as a historian, Matt Lanter as a soldier, and Malcolm Barrett as an engineer – going into the past to stop a terrorist (Goran Visnjic) with a stolen time machine from altering history. The pilot’s about average for this kind of thing, but the creative team and cast will get this one a longer look.
No Tomorrow (CW, Oct. 4)
An entertaining twist on romantic comedy, starring Tori Anderson as a woman whose new boyfriend (Joshua Sasse from Galavant) has decided to live life to its fullest because he believes an asteroid will be colliding with the Earth in a few months, destroying all of humanity in the process. The premise seems better suited to a film, or a limited series, but the leads are charming, and it’s another of the CW’s periodic throwbacks to its WB roots.
Frequency (CW, Oct. 5)
Peyton List plays the Jim Caviezel role in an adaptation of the ’90s movie about a cop who begins having ham radio conversations with the father (Riley Smith) who died decades before. I’m not sold on all the changes – not the gender of the lead, but compressing the timeline (so the dad is 20 years in the past rather than 30) and making the dad a cop, too – nor, as with No Tomorrow, its long-term viability, but List is good and the pilot successfully hits many of the emotional beats of a movie I’ve watched many, many times.
Divorce (HBO, Oct. 9)
Sarah Jessica Parker returns to her old TV home to play a wife (to Thomas Haden Church) and mom whose marriage crumbles. Divorce is as cutting as you might expect for a comedy created by Catastrophe‘s Sharon Horgan.
Insecure (HBO, Oct. 9)
HBO’s been developing this show with web comedy star Issa Rae for a while now, and the result – where Rae plays a young woman navigating a job where she’s the only black person and a personal life that’s a mess – feels fully-baked: likable and funny and deeply personal.
Ones I haven’t seen, but am excited about for one reason or other
Quarry (Cinemax, Sept. 9)
A pulpy period drama starring Logan Marshall-Green as a Vietnam vet who can’t escape violence when he returns to his Memphis home in 1972. Its lead director is Greg Yaitanes, who served similar duties on Cinemax’s first original drama Banshee, and I’m hopeful this show can remind me of that one.
High Maintenance (HBO, Sept. 16)
Another HBO comedy with roots online, but this time transplanting a web series – about weed deliverymen – wholesale to TV.
Designated Survivor (ABC, Sept. 21)
The pilot for this one – where Kiefer Sutherland plays a low-level cabinet member who ascends to the presidency in the wake of a tragedy during the State of the Union address – has been available for a while; I just haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. But Kiefer + White House + terrorists was a winning formula for a lot of years on 24.
Luke Cage (Netflix, Sept. 30)
Netflix’s latest Marvel series is less of an unknown quantity than the last two, since Mike Colter played the title character – a super-strong ex-con with unbreakable skin – for a good chunk of the first season of Jessica Jones, and proved to be charismatic enough to carry his own show.
Westworld (HBO, Oct. 2)
Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and produced by J.J. Abrams, this adaptation of the ’70s Yul Brynner film – about a Western-themed theme park of sorts where the robot employees begin to glitch – has been through all kinds of development hell, including a break in production midway through its first season. But it’s finally on the schedule, and the talent both behind the camera and in front of it (the cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen, among others) will hopefully come together for the great new drama that HBO very much needs.
Goliath (Amazon, Oct. 14)
David E. Kelley is one of the great dialogue writers in TV history, even if his many shows (Picket Fences, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) tend to grow more erratic and cartoonish over time. With Goliath – another legal drama, this time starring Billy Bob Thornton, William Hurt, and Maria Bello – he gets his first crack at a streaming service, which means fewer restrictions in terms of content and form. Will absolute freedom prove to be just what Kelley needs to recapture his ’90s glory, or will he turn out to be a creator very badly in need of limits?
Chance (Hulu, Oct. 19)
Hugh Laurie is playing a doctor with a one-syllable name again, but this time in a thriller (based on the novel by Kem Nunn) about mistaken identity, police corruption, and mental illness. I’m just happy to have Laurie in a regular series role again, and in a show created by Alexandra Cunningham, who shepherded the short-lived, under-appreciated Prime Suspect remake.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com