The vast majority of new dramas on the broadcast networks this fall aren't flat-out terrible. Most of them display a certain competence when it comes to laying out their premises, which is something, I guess.
The problem is, this devotion to patiently explained premises just reinforces the idea that the broadcast networks have, as the Brits would say, got the wrong end of the stick. The broadcast networks appear to be convinced that what audiences want are gimmicky concepts, and so they largely fail to populate them with people who are A) Even moderately interesting and B) Behave like actual human beings.
The vast and rapidly expanding universe of televised storytelling is chock-full of memorable characters, exciting new ideas and fresh takes on familiar genres and premises. Of course, there's room safe, known quantities -- I'll never hate on TV's versions of comfort food -- but we don't really need most of jittery pablum the networks are churning out this fall. It comes down to this: You know what the TV viewers of America are not crying out for? A series of TV premises that are adequately explained.
Plots, premises, gimmicks, outsized concepts -- these are the bells and whistles that the networks apparently think will pull viewers away from their Netflix marathons and their On Demand viewings of more addictive and appealing fare. It's not that those instincts are entirely wrong: Part of what made "Sleepy Hollow" such fun was the loopy, colliding ideas at its core. But what actually made that show work in its debut season was the fact that it took the characters and their deepest dilemmas seriously. "Sleepy Hollow" often executed its ideas with flair, but more importantly, it made audiences care about Abbie and Ichabod and their friends (and even their enemies), not necessarily the MacGuffins the gang chased around town.
Thank goodness that show returns soon, because most of September's new drama offerings aren't bonkers or awesome. The broadcast networks' collective response to the challenges they face, to judge by another largely tepid crop of dramas, is to embrace two ideas that don't actually sit well together. Idea 1: We need a hook! A Big Concept! Something wild, wacky, quirky or out there! Idea 2: We need every show to stay within certain strictly defined boundaries and we need every character to be safe and predictable. Nothing can surprise or challenge the viewer, nothing can be ambiguous, weird, shaggy or off-kilter, but the shows have to be "big" in the sense of being loud and promotable and easy to sum up. Executives who want shows that are both "noisy" and safe end up making shows that end up being both exhausting and comatose.
Some of the expensive flailing might be related to the fact that, as this piece in Variety points out, the broadcast networks are no longer the first stop for many creative types. The expansion of the marketplace means that there are more options for those with compelling ideas, and that's not a bad thing for TV viewers. As was the case last year, 2014 has been a great year for TV. But this fall, on the broadcast networks, I'm reserving most of my excitement for returning shows, not for newbies.
It's not all bad news: There are a few good pilots that will arrive in coming weeks. The CW's "Jane the Virgin" and "The Flash" are my favorite broadcast network drama pilots, and I'll write about them in coming weeks. I'm going to stick with a couple of the shows I mention below, for a few weeks, at least. "Black-ish" is a promising ABC comedy that deserves all the attention it'll be getting this fall. "The Affair" is a terrific new drama from Showtime, and I'll write about it closer to its Oct. 12 premiere. "Constantine" and "State of Affairs" don't premiere for a while, so I'll probably cover them down the road (and in the next week or two, expect another roundup like this covering the new broadcast network comedies).
Below are capsule reviews of many of the new fall dramas on the broadcast networks, in the order of their upcoming premieres:
"The Red Band Society," 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, Fox: It pains me to say negative things about a show that wears its heart so obviously on its sleeve, but "Red Band" is, at the end of the day, just too manipulative, obvious and shallow to work. This energetic drama tells the story of a bunch of sick teens who live full-time in a graciously appointed hospital, and all I kept thinking was, holy cow, who's paying for these hardwood floors and this lavish care, which does not look like part of any in-network health-care option I've ever seen? To really hook into this drama, you have to care about the kids and their fates, but to me, they all remained predictable types throughout, and the show did a poor job of showcasing the terrific Octavia Spencer.
Is the pilot worth a look? Not really, unless you're keen on seeing Dave Annable as a silver-fox doctor (which is by no means an invalid reason to watch).
"The Mysteries of Laura," 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, NBC: What a big mess, and what a disappointing waste of Debra Messing, who plays a cop who is -- What? This is sheer insanity! What lunatic approved this premise? -- also a mother, "Laura" is an attempt at something light in the crime-and-detecting arena, but "Castle" or "Monk" this is not. Critics Alan Sepinwall and James Poniewozik ably sum up what's wrong about the show (i.e., everything), and long after this disappears from our screens, Linda Holmes' musical summation of the show will probably still be stuck in my head.
Is the pilot worth a look? Not unless you enjoy being annoyed.
"Madam Secretary," 7 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS: If you were hoping this drama about a female Secretary of State would be a smart, sophisticated and thoughtful government version of "The Good Wife," well, so was I. Unfortunately, this show is not that, at least not yet. I've seen three episodes of "Madam Secretary," and so far, it's contrived, predictable and seemingly allergic to ambiguity and subtext. Tea Leoni is terrific and it's great to see her back on TV, but even she can't make some of the clunkier stuff work. There are a number of problems: All the State Department characters around Leoni's character are poorly defined and uninteresting, the show seems tone-deaf about how Washington and the media really work, and the home-life story lines are either cloying or painfully clumsy. If the world tells me this show improves a lot, I'll give it another chance, but so far, "Madam Secretary" is an elegantly appointed disappointment.
Is the pilot worth a look? Sure, the pilot is all right, but the next episode, "Another Benghazi," gave me pause. Much pause.
"Gotham," 8 p.m. ET Monday, Fox: I wrote a bit about "Gotham" before, and after a second viewing, I stand by my overall assessment of the pilot: It's too dour and it takes itself too seriously, but it has potential. I like Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue, who star as new Gotham police detective Jim Gordon and his sketchy partner, Harvey Bullock, but I don't think Danny Cannon, who directed the pilot, did the lead actors and the script many favors. The pilot tries hard for the mood and the feel of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" films, but it doesn't have the budget or the visual style of those movies, so it ends up feeling stiff and having a bit of a "wannabe" vibe. That said, Jada Pinkett Smith is diverting as mob boss Fish Mooney and executive producer Bruno Heller appears to have a reasonable grasp on the challenges faced by a show in which Bruce Wayne is merely a grieving young boy, and not the center of the action.
Is the pilot worth a look? Yes. I'll be watching and hoping it capitalizes on its potential.
"Scorpion," 9 p.m. ET Monday, CBS: Well, this is a pile of nonsense, but at least it's more or less inoffensive nonsense. Elyes Gabel plays the head of a misfit crew of geniuses who solve problems, and the reliably gruff Robert Patrick plays the group's liaison to the government. We're told over and over again that geniuses are different from you and me, but the irony is, everything about this pilot is familiar and formulaic. The characters are supposed to be eccentrics, but they're all exactly what you'd predict they'd be. And I'm just going to say it: I just cannot tolerate Katharine McPhee. Her acting range, if you want to call if that, is exceptionally narrow, and in this underwritten, tedious role, her lack of skills and her absence of charisma are grating and obvious.
Is the pilot worth a look? Not particularly. I like nonsense, but this is not diverting or interesting nonsense.
"Forever," 10 p.m. ET Monday, ABC: Some of us remember this show when it was called "New Amsterdam" and aired briefly on Fox in 2008. That version of the drama starred a talented, handsome non-American -- "Game of Thrones'" Nikolaj Coster-Waldau -- as does "Forever," which stars the amiable and talented Ioan Gruffudd. Gruffudd is "Forever's" Guy Who Cannot Die, and despite his easy-on-the-eyes presence, this ABC show is the poster child for this fall's crop of meh dramas. Is it competent? Sure. Do I understand how just about every episode that follows the first one will work? Yep. Do I ever feel the need to tune in again? Nope. The show is so bland and forgettable that it gives me no real reason to return.
Is the pilot worth a look? Not particularly, but if you do watch, set your expectations to "mediocre-ish."
"NCIS: New Orleans," 9 p.m. ET Sept. 23, CBS: For actors of a certain age, CBS is the best place to go if you want to make a bundle before you settle into your golden years. The network has already snapped up Margo Martindale and Allison Janney, and this fall Scott Bakula, C.C.H. Pounder and Laurie Metcalf join the nest-egg bunch. To be clear, I have zero problem with great actors making bank, though it makes me sad that these ones are in largely formulaic shows that don't stretch them much. In any event, this iteration of the very successful "NCIS" franchise is, unsurprisingly, as competent as all the others, Bakula is typically good and it's nice that the show actually shot in New Orleans.
Is the pilot worth a look? If you like the "NCIS" franchise, sure. The answer may also be yes if you're a Bakula or Pounder fan, but don't expect anything other than a tightly controlled formula.
"How to Get Away with Murder," 10 p.m. ET Sept. 25, ABC: Hooo boy, you can't accuse this pilot of having a stodgy vibe. "HTGAWM," which cements creator Shonda Rhimes' hold on ABC's Thursday nights, is an exceptionally energetic pilot that introduces a ton of characters and lays out a murder-mystery so quickly that you might have whiplash by the time it's over. It's all a little pell-mell, but it just about holds together and Viola Davis is ferocious in the lead role. All that said, the show needs to have more than just a gimmick to hold on to its audience.
Is the pilot worth a look? Yes, with the understanding that it'll settle down a bit and become somewhat less frenetic in future episodes.
"Stalker," 10 p.m. ET Oct. 1, CBS: This shoddy program is nothing more than exploitative, misogynist trash (and I'm not alone in that assessment). Everyone involved in the creation and production of this show should be ashamed of their association with it. The drama exhibits alleged concern for the deleterious effects of stalking and other menacing behaviors -- it's about a police unit dedicated to such cases -- but it's impossible to take its approach seriously, given that a woman is set on fire in the opening minutes, and "Stalker's" perspective just gets more creepily voyeuristic from there. I'm infuriated that in 2014, with the alteration of a few nouns and names, instead of writing a new review of "Stalker," I could have merely re-run my 2005 review of Fox's "Killer Instinct," a similarly putrid, badly written crapfest packed with violence against women. Do better, television. Shows like this are most certainly part of the problem.
Is the pilot worth a look? NO. A thousand times no.
"Gracepoint," 9 p.m. ET Oct. 2, Fox: What happens when you take a fine drama about a small-town murder and leave much of the story more or less intact, but remake the show with different directors, with mostly different actors and in a different place? Well, if many of the casting choices range from questionable to disastrous and the sense of place never coheres, you end up with a weird photocopy containing little atmosphere and less emotional resonance. Yes, I can't unsee the BBC America import "Broadchurch," which was fantastic, and yes, that affects how I view this U.S. adaptation of that story. But even if I hadn't seen the U.K. drama, I'm pretty sure I would have found this adaptation a problematic slog. It isn't much fun watching David Tennant, who played the lead role in "Broadchurch," struggle with an American accent, and it also isn't enjoyable to see the way Anna Gunn is stranded in a role that doesn't play to her considerable strengths. At least those two are competent actors with presence; the same can't be said of many of the actors supporting roles on "Gracepoint." There are a few simply terrible performances in key roles, unfortunately. I'm not against adaptations as a general rule, but this one simply fails to come alive in a meaningful, purposeful and sustained way.
Is the pilot worth a look? Not for the general viewer. Aspiring visual storytellers and filmmakers should watch the first two hours each show, to see how one collection of creative choices serves the material and one doesn't.
Ryan McGee and I discussed "The Red Band Society" and "The Mysteries of Laura" in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below. We will be doing many more podcasts in coming weeks on new and returning fall television: Subscribe or continue to check the podcast site for much more coverage of what's coming.