According to both the calendar and Nielsen, the fall season doesn’t technically begin for another few weeks. But Labor Day has come and gone, and the TV business for all intents and purposes has already moved into fall mode, with premieres of several dozen new and returning shows happening over the next couple of months.
Some falls are more exciting for new shows, other for returning ones. Last fall — which gave us Atlanta, Better Things, Speechless, and more — was one of the former group. This looks more like one of the latter ones. The broadcast networks in particular seem to have saved their most promising rookies for January or later, while (with one very notable exception), cable and streaming are devoting the fourth quarter of 2017 to shows you may already know and love.
So I’ve broken down this fall TV micro-preview into two pieces: five new shows debuting in September or October that could be promising — or, really, one great one and four that could be promising — and 15 series I’m excited to see return in that same span. I couldn’t decide in which category to place PBS’ Vietnam War, because in many ways Ken Burns is TV’s greatest ongoing series, so just mark your viewing calendars for September 17.
Note that in some of these cases, I haven’t seen any episodes of the new shows in question — those will be marked with asterisks — and am guessing based on the premise and/or creative teams. (I tried to only pick a couple of those, or else ABC’s Kevin (Probably) Saves the World — from the Reaper/Agent Carter team — might have wishcasted its way onto the list.)
Also, I’m still figuring out what’s realistic to recap every week in the fall — and may give some shows the every-other-episode treatment or something like that — but it’ll tentatively be drawn from a group that includes You’re the Worst, The Deuce, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mr. Robot, with lots of other ones being checked in on as time and my interest warrants.
The Deuce (HBO, Sept. 10)
This is the great one, as you might expect from the duo of George Pelecanos and David Simon (plus director Michelle MacLaren!), who bring some Wire-style patient storytelling to an early ’70s tale of a bartender (James Franco, who plays identical twins), prostitutes (including Maggie Gyllenhaal), pimps (several played by Wire alums like Method Man and Gbenga Akinnagbe), cops (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), wiseguys (Michael Rispoli), and more dealing with the relaxing of public standards as the pornographic film industry became very public. Smart, honest, and almost shockingly fun, it’s among the most purely entertaining things you’ll see on TV this year.
*Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access, Sept. 24)
The first Star Trek series in over a decade has been through delays and production turmoil, with the departure of co-creator Bryan Fuller, who was the biggest reason to be excited about it in the first place. But it’s got a terrific cast — Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Jason Isaacs, James Frain — and even if it’s not, as the producers sometimes claim, the first serialized Trek (that would be Deep Space Nine), the ideals of the franchise melded with the narrative sensibilities of modern cable could be really interesting. But after the first episode (which will air on CBS proper), you’ll have to pay for All Access to see if it works without Fuller.
*Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders (NBC, Sept. 26)
Yes, it’s a transparent cash-in on the success of FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson. And yes, it’s shamelessly using the Law & Order brand name, despite being a straightforward docudrama, rather than a fictionalized twist on headlines. But it’s also Dick Wolf and Rene Balcer, who’ve done very well over the decades dramatizing infamous crimes, it’s directed by the superb Lesli Linka Glatter, and it’s got Edie Falco as defense attorney Leslie Abramson. That’s great raw material, if nothing else.
Ghosted (Fox, Oct. 1)
This is one of several new network shows (see also ABC’s The Mayor, which debuts on October 3) with a strong idea and cast, but that struggles with explaining itself in a premise pilot that’s not as much fun as later episodes will be in theory. But it’s got Adam Scott and Craig Robinson in a sitcom X-Files. Are you going to bet against it?
SWAT (CBS, Nov. 2)
There are two shows jockeying for position in this remake of the ’70s Robert Urich cop drama with the iconic theme song. One is a meat-and-potatoes police procedural with lots of car chases and shootouts. The other is a more complicated show about the fraught relationship between the LAPD and the communities they police, as seen through the eyes of a team leader (Shemar Moore) who grew up on these mean streets. The former’s generic (even with Justin Lin directing the pilot’s various shootouts and chase scenes), while the latter could be something special, and seems like the version that creator Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (Southland) and producer Shawn Ryan (The Shield) are most interested in making. But what ratio of the two is CBS going to let them do? This could either be well-meaning but forgettable, or something really good. Only time will tell.
You’re the Worst (FXX, Sept. 6)
After three seasons of chronicling an improbably deep romance about two selfish cynics with no use for or understanding of love, You’re the Worst tries something different this year, by showing how Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) cope with being single again since he ran away immediately after proposing marriage to her in last season’s finale.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix, Sept. 8)
BoJack is confronted with the possibility of fatherhood, Princess Carolyn tries to become a mother, Mr. Peanutbutter runs for governor of California (against a dignified woodchuck voiced by Andre Braugher), and Todd explores what it means to be asexual as the strangest, funniest, most melancholy animated show on television returns for its fourth season.
One Mississippi (Amazon, Sept. 8)
Tig Notaro’s autobiographical dramedy returns for a second season. Where many cable and streaming half-hours can start with short seasons and then expand as time goes on, this one’s sticking with only six episodes, which feels the perfect length for the series’ mix of pathos (much of it courtesy of John Ruthman’s beautiful work as Tig’s stepdad) and dry humor.
Top of the Lake: China Girl (Sundance, Sept. 10)
The original Top of the Lake — starring Elisabeth Moss as a cop investigating a missing persons case in the remote New Zealand town where she grew up — was one of the best shows of 2013. The sequel season — also co-created by Jane Campion, with Moss back at work in Sydney, now looking into the death of a prostitute with the help of a starstruck rookie cop played by Gwendoline Christie — is terrific in its own right, continuing the melding of the personal and professional as Moss’s detective tries to connect with the daughter she placed for adoption as a teenager, and runs afoul of a college professor played by Nicole Kidman.
Broad City (Comedy Central, Sept. 13)
It’s been nearly a year and a half since we last got to witness the misadventures of Abbi and Ilana, and boy could we use the show’s unapologetic mix of silliness, surreality, and raunch right about now. In an era when many cable half-hours (including several on this list) are, as Matt Seitz puts it, “comedies in theory,” it’ll be nice to have the genuine article back.
Better Things (FX, Sept. 14)
Pamela Adlon’s dramedy about motherhood, Hollywood, and whatever else interests her is even more focused and audacious than in its wonderful debut season. The most direct spiritual descendant to Louie (Louis C.K. continues to write or co-write many episodes, with Adlon directing all), it’s now operating at a comparable level, and the interplay between Adlon and her fictional daughters gives it even more emotional heft.
The Good Place (NBC, Sept. 20)
This comedy about a seemingly imperfect version of Heaven upended itself and its audience in a finale revealing what this afterlife was really about. Where huge storytelling twists at times overshadow all that come after, this one seems more likely to fully unlock the comic potential of a show that at times in its first season could be more clever than funny. After that finale, I’m all in.
Transparent (Amazon, Sept. 24)
The third season of the Emmy winner was a slight disappointment relative to the first two, which still made it one of the very best shows on television. How will the fourth season play in a vastly different political climate — one with an administration that has taken stances against trans rights — than the previous three? I look forward to seeing Jill Soloway, Jeffrey Tambor, and friends navigate this strange new reality.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, Sept. 26)
Last season was the best Brooklyn year yet. Can they top it? Well, first they have to figure out a way to undo a cliffhanger where Jake and Rosa were wrongly convicted and sentenced to prison. So long as Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, and friends are around, expect much silliness even in life-and-death scenarios.
This Is Us (NBC, Sept. 26)
Can I be excited for the return of only part of a show? The sections of This Is Us, past and present, that are about Randall, are four-hankie family melodrama at their finest. The rest of the series? Weeeeeellll…. some parts of it work, but none nearly as well as “The Randall Show.”
Speechless (ABC, Sept. 27)
The latest product of ABC’s reliable family comedy factory was the network’s best by the end of its first season, deftly mining laughs from the world of special needs families while making the entire family and aide Kenneth feel well-rounded and appealing. It’s a marvelous blend of clever and sweet.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, Oct. 1)
The longest-absent show on the list, Curb has been gone since 2011, and seemed unlikely to return, even given Larry David’s “call us whenever you want to do more” arrangement with HBO. He claims he only decided to make another season because he got tired of people asking him if it would ever come back, which seems more of a TV Larry David motivation than an actual Larry David motivation. But if the new episodes are uninspired — especially compared to some of the best TV comedy seasons ever made — we’ll at least know that the line between the two Larrys has never been thinner.
Mr. Robot (USA, Oct. 11)
The Emmy-winning cyber thriller was riveting in its first season. The second? Well, there were some bumps, including a big twist that the audience sniffed out long before the show revealed it, and an underwhelming finale. Mr. Robot isn’t the first freshman phenomenon to experience a sophomore slump; come mid-October, we start finding out if that first year was by far the show’s peak, or if Sam Esmail has more and better in store for us.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW, Oct. 13)
The musical comedy enters the second half of a planned four-season run, now in a mode that co-creator/star Rachel Bloom refers to as “funny Fatal Attraction,” as Rebecca plots revenge against Josh Chan for leaving her at the altar. Plus, a new theme song!
Stranger Things (Netflix, October 27)
What Mr. Robot was to the summer of 2015, Stranger Things was to the summer of 2016: an out-of-nowhere phenomenon tinged with ’80s nostalgia (or bathing in it, in Stranger Things‘ case). Can it avoid a similar bump in its second year, especially now that it’s been moved out of summer to a Halloween week premiere date? On the one hand, the original story felt perfectly fine as a close-ended miniseries. On the other, there are still plenty of ’80s movies for the Duffer Brothers to riff on, the cast’s still swell, and who doesn’t need a few scares (with or without Barb) at the end of October?