Once upon a time, network shows were appointment television. Now, with more TV than ever before, with most shows available at all hours of the day on a host of channels and streaming services, broadcast networks are no longer dominant. But network shows can still bring in reliable ratings, and the traditional fall TV season is still a good time to discover new shows.
This is the second consecutive fall TV seasons that’s been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic; as a result, only a handful of new network shows will launch over the next few weeks. Here are a few that seem promising so far, based on the initial episodes. Each follows the familiar rhythms of network TV — while also exemplifying how the familiar can be comforting and worth tuning in for each week.
“The Big Leap”
Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” which ended in 2018 after four seasons, was a dark and juicy drama about the making of a fictional reality show based on “The Bachelor” franchise. Though not quite as ruthless and cynical, FOX’s “The Big Leap” has a similar show-within-a-show premise: It follows the contestants and production crew of a fictional dance competition show of the same name. The first episode opens with the initial round of auditions, introducing us to the starry-eyed contestants. As they advance, each dancer joins the show’s company and competes for roles in a production of “Swan Lake,” the show’s grand finale.
In what will likely become a pattern on TV shows premiering right now, “The Big Leap” is set in a fully post-pandemic world (which we learn because the pandemic is mentioned in past tense). On one level, it’s understandable: the show’s writers and producers could not have anticipated the pandemic dragging on this long, and viewers want to move on and not be reminded of it. But why not just ignore the pandemic completely if it’s not consequential to the show’s premise? In “The Big Leap,” COVID-19 is used for jokes that are decidedly not funny, and in some cases, veer into the offensive — like, “There was a global pandemic from a bat. A bat killed all of our grandparents.”
While the show’s pandemic references are disorienting and distracting, the characters are winsome and compelling enough to sustain the show for now. And if you like a good dance number, this is the show for you. (In the first episode, there’s a very impressive one at a bowling alley.)
If anything, it’s worth watching “The Big Leap” just for stalwart Scott Foley, who plays Nick, the reality show’s deliciously ridiculous executive producer. Foley makes a meal out of being smarmy and manipulative, like when he shoves a release form toward a contestant’s estranged wife in order to get the couple’s marital drama onto the show, or demands large squirts of hand sanitizer from his assistant. Even while making cutting remarks at everyone, he is annoyingly charming.
“The Big Leap” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX and is also streaming on Hulu.
Starring James Wolk (Sen. Joe Keene on “Watchmen” and Bob Benson on “Mad Men”) as the titular protagonist, Joe Kimbreau, this NBC drama is built around a “Sliding Doors”/“what if?” premise. It imagines Joe’s life in three different career paths: nurse, police officer and famous musician.
This entire show hinges almost entirely on the concept, which could easily get unwieldy in episodes to come. (NBC provided the first two for reviewing purposes.) Already, there’s a lot to keep track of. For instance, the core characters in Joe’s life remain the same, but switch roles and relationships in some of the storylines. They also don’t get very much character development, in part because of the amount of time needed to build out each parallel universe. The show is emblematic of a common pitfall on TV: building out a diverse cast of supporting actors who are relegated to spouse and best friend characters opposite the white male protagonist.
In addition, like “The Big Leap,” “Ordinary Joe” is set in the present day and, through a brief line of dialogue, establishes that the pandemic is firmly in the past. It’s only mentioned once in the first two episodes, so it’s less distracting than it is in “The Big Leap.” But it still made me wonder: Why mention COVID-19 at all?
Despite the limitations of the format, the show is a fascinating experiment, so I’m interested to see where it goes.
“Ordinary Joe” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC and is also streaming on Hulu and Peacock.
“Our Kind of People”
Created by Karin Gist with Lee Daniels as executive producer, this new FOX drama series is about a set of elite Black families who spend their summers in the upscale town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. The show is soapy and escapist, with the characters trading gossip and intrigue as they frequent each other’s social events throughout the summer.
The numerous characters are navigating power dynamics, social pressures, and expectations from their families and peers. I’m especially intrigued by the “Succession”-like subplot at Franklin Holdings, where CEO Teddy Franklin (Joe Morton) is facing a power grab from his daughter Leah Franklin-Dupont (Nadine Ellis).
In typical network TV fashion, the show’s first episode has a lot of explanatory monologues and telling instead of showing. But the drama surrounding these characters, as they reveal more secrets and strive for more power, is the core of the show, and it’ll be exciting to see what happens next.
“Our Kind of People” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX and is also streaming on Hulu.
“The Wonder Years”
Admittedly, I was skeptical when ABC announced this reboot of the late ’80s family dramedy, simply because the reboot/revival/reimagining industrial complex has become too much. But in a pleasant surprise, the new version — from showrunner and executive producer Saladin K. Patterson and also executive produced by Daniels — is not a replica of the original, which it just uses as a model. The show is set in 1968 in Montgomery, Alabama, which provides opportunities to meaningfully explore race and draw connections between the past and the present, setting it apart from reboots that are purely about nostalgia.
The wonderful newcomer Elisha Williams plays 12-year-old Dean, who lives with his parents, professor and musician Bill (Dulé Hill) and Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh), and older sister Kim (Laura Kariuki). Narrated by Don Cheadle as adult Dean, the show immediately dives into what’s happening around him: the civil rights movement, desegregation and white flight. At his newly integrated school (which is named after Jefferson Davis), Dean experiences racism and microaggressions from his white peers and teacher. The first episode packs a lot into a half hour, and it can get heavy. But it’s also warm and endearing, allowing its characters to be their full selves by showing their joys too.
By doing all of this on a family show, “The Wonder Years” is a real and intentional way to expand representation in a classic genre. (Though it’s not as substantive, Disney+’s “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.” takes a similar approach by rebooting “Doogie Howser, M.D.” It sets the new version in Hawaii with a native Hawaiian protagonist and meaningfully folds aspects of the characters’ identities and culture into the show, without drawing too much attention to them.) Yet as much as I appreciate the care that goes into these “reimagined” reboots, I wish that instead of having creators of color reboot old properties that had white characters, network executives would give them more chances to develop their own original shows.
“The Wonder Years” airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC and is also streaming on Hulu.