The fall TV season is back, smaller than ever
By Mike Hale
The fall television season is back! Or is it really?
The COVID-19 pandemic sucker-punched the broadcast networks last year, knocking out the traditional September introduction of high-profile new shows. This year, “fall premiere week” returns this week. But ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are debuting just six scripted series this week; in the same time frame in 2019, the last time there was a fall season, they debuted 13.
They may have survived the pandemic, but the continuing pummeling they’re receiving from streaming video — especially as they increasingly have to share resources in-house with sister streaming services — only gets worse.
And the lineup of new shows feels like the product of a group under siege. The networks may never be prone to experimentation, but they can usually be counted on for one or two oddball or simply puzzling choices. Not this time. We’re looking at a couple of franchise extensions from CBS, a reboot of a beloved sitcom from ABC and shows with echoes of proven properties like “Glee” at Fox and “This Is Us” at NBC. (If you’re looking for something that will make you say, “Huh?,” next week NBC premieres “La Brea,” in which a sinkhole swallows a big chunk of Los Angeles.)
Here’s a quick look at this week’s premieres, based on one to three episodes each, in order of quality from the top down. It doesn’t include CBS’ “FBI: International,” which wasn’t available for review.
‘The Wonder Years’
Setting this remake of the 1988-93 ABC hit sitcom in the same late 1960s time period as the original keeps intact the simple but fruitful premise of watching a 12-year-old boy and a not-quite-200-year-old country come of age at the same time.
Making the 12-year-old and his family Black profoundly complicates that premise, but the show’s creator, Saladin K. Patterson, doesn’t appear to be planning to tear anything down. The pilot (directed by the star of the first show, Fred Savage) is faithful to the gentle tone and clever whimsicality of the original, and the observations of racism sneak up on you; they’re disconcerting but quickly moved past, in keeping with the chipper, can’t-we-just-get-along spirit of the young protagonist, Dean (Elisha Williams).
He’s an assimilationist, whose mission in the pilot is to set up a baseball game between his Little League team and the white team on which one of his best friends plays; it’s the Black adults, including his musician father (Dulé Hill) and his coach (Allen Maldonado), who object. Patterson and Savage navigate the tricky material with finesse and not too much sentimentality, and they mostly pull off an ambitious, dangerously heavy ending. The narration by the adult Dean is delivered by Don Cheadle with the ease and liveliness you’d expect. (ABC, Wednesdays)
‘The Big Leap’
Since serving as a writer and producer on “Friday Night Lights,” Liz Heldens has created a series of shows, like “Mercy” and “The Passage,” that were standard network fare but also a little better and livelier than they needed to be. “The Big Leap” fits that template, and it’s amusing and easy to watch. But it also feels hemmed in by its premise, a little too overdetermined: It’s a dramedy about the making of a reality TV show (inspired, oddly, by an actual British reality show) in which Detroiters afflicted with the usual varieties of Rust Belt distress try to turn their lives around by putting on “Swan Lake.”
An unemployed autoworker (Jon Rudnitsky), a former cheer squad star (Simone Recasner), a mom blogger (Teri Polo) and a canceled football player (Ser’Darius Blain) are among the bad-news ballet hopefuls in this wisecracking, Americanized heir of “Billy Elliot” and “The Full Monty.” But the one consistent reason to watch is Scott Foley’s nimble, convincing performance as the reality show’s producer, a master manipulator whose deceitfulness is so sincere that you can’t help rooting for him. (Fox, Mondays)
Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend, writing partners from “House,” created this exercise in choreographed, multistrand nostalgia, and it has some of the emotional frostiness and processed sentimentality of that earlier show. James Wolk plays Joe, first seen at his graduation in Syracuse, New York, where he meets an attractive fellow student, Amy (Natalie Martinez), and has to decide whether to take the opportunity to chat her up.
That choice is the sliding door that opens onto the balance of the series, in which we see Joe’s three possible futures: with Amy, in which he is a rock star; with his college girlfriend (Elizabeth Lail), in which he is a struggling nurse; and with neither, in which he has followed family tradition by becoming a New York cop.
The show lays out the three storylines with sufficient clarity and moves among them fluidly, and there’s the brainteaser pleasure of sorting out the different relationships and courses of events. (Joe the nurse has to treat a shooting victim because Joe the cop wasn’t there to stop the shooting.)
Once you’ve figured out the plots, though, you see that they’re all generic dramedy setups (at this point, anyway), and the triple plotting doesn’t give the actors time to build real characters. (NBC, Mondays)
‘Our Kind of People’
Based on Lawrence Otis Graham’s nonfiction book “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” this series created by Karin Gist takes the clichés of the rich-people-by-the-beach prime-time soap opera — a genre she’s familiar with from working on “Revenge” — and applies them to the Black enclave of Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard.
That provides plot points that, sheerly for being unfamiliar, will resonate with audiences. The arriviste (Yaya DaCosta) trying to break into the local scene (and solve a mystery involving her parentage) is an entrepreneur specializing in Black women’s hair care; the one significant white character in the early episodes is a carpetbagger threatening to bring down a Black-owned business. And in this setting, oppression happens intraracially, along lines of class; when a character recites “And Still I Rise,” she’s talking about rising among her wealthy Black neighbors. (It’s also interesting to see how characters use the history of racial oppression as an excuse for the kind of selfish, showy behavior that characters in this type of show are expected to display.)
What’s missing, though, is the fun you’d expect. The melodrama doesn’t have much juice, and the performances (even by Joe Morton as a ruthless patriarch) don’t rise above the pedestrian writing. (Fox, Tuesdays)
Exactly what you’d expect, but less of it. CBS scratches its Hawaii itch with this fourth show in the “NCIS” franchise, which pays tribute to the departed “Hawaii Five-0” with a scene set at the Hilton Hawaiian Village (a ubiquitous location in that series) and pious references to ohana (family). It also opens up crossover possibilities with the current CBS series “Magnum P.I.”
Vanessa Lachey, herself an Air Force brat, is the first female lead in an “NCIS” show; her Naval Criminal Investigative Service team includes the usual suspects, like the action figure with a chip on her shoulder (Yasmine Al-Bustami) and the wacky guy back at the office (Jason Antoon). There’s no indication yet of the creaky banter and slightly quirky personalities that made the original “NCIS” a guilty pleasure, but these things take time. (CBS, Mondays)