It’s been a long summer, hasn’t it? In between the resurgence of the War on Women, the torments of The Newsroom, and the slog of the political conventions, I’m ready for it to be fall — and for the return of the fall television season.
This autumn is the beginning of a big turnover for NBC on Thursday nights, as The Office and 30 Rock head into their confirmed swan songs, and Coommunity and Parks and Recreation enter what could also be their final seasons. Fox is more stable, but investing in female-centric comedy as it adds Ben & Kate and The Mindy Project to run alongside New Girl. ABC, coming off a fourth-place finish in the ratings, is throwing everything at the wall, but with more joie de vie and less desperation than NBC. And while I never thought I’d say this, one of the more intriguing dramas of the fall is taking its bow on CBS. To help you sort through the new offerings, here’s the complete ThinkProgress guide to fall television.
SEPTEMBER 11 Show: Go On (NBC)Time: 9:00The Concept: A radio host (Friends vet Matthew Perry), in deep denial after losing his wife unexpectedly, gets ordered to a support group by his boss (John Cho). There, he meets a possibly-underlicensed group leader (Laura Benanti), a widowed lesbian with anger issues (a fantastic Julie White), a taciturn young man whose brother is in a coma (Tyler James Williams), and a middle-aged Latina woman who’s lost her entire family (Tonita Castro).Watch If: You appreciated Community’s ability to pull off a relatively low-concept episode. In a lot of ways, Go On feels like the show NBC initially hoped Community would be, about misfits who choose and build an adult family for themselves. You’re interested in seeing more diverse casts on television. Your mileage may vary on Perry’s white-dude cheerleader effort, but Go On may have the most diverse cast of any network pilot ever, and makes that a strength of the show rather than an excuse for lazy racial and ethnic humor. You like Matthew Perry, who could have the opportunity to do some really interesting work here.
Show: The New Normal (NBC)Time: 9:30Concept: A gay couple, Bryan and David (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha), decide to try to have a baby by surrogate, and end up working with Goldie (Georgia King), a single mother, who decides to act as a surrogate to fund her dream of going back to law school to give her daughter (a sharp Bebe Wood) a better life — and to escape from her narrow-minded mother (a sharp-tongued Ellen Barkin).Watch If: You miss the days when Glee had actual focus. The New Normal doesn’t improve on some of Glee’s core problems, including a weird distance from lesbians and Ryan Murphy’s fondness for stereotypical gay men, mean older women, and Nene Leakes. But at this point, it’s got at least a core story that in some places comes across as deeply felt. You want to see more gay families on television. I’m more curious how Go On will pull off Julie White’s character’s family, but hopefully, Murphy can pull off a gay-headed family with a couple that has more sexual chemistry than Modern Family’s Mitch and Cam.SEPTEMBER 12Show: Guys With Kids (NBC)Time: 10:00Concept: Males of the species raise their young. Literally. In this case, divorced dad of a very young son (Jesse Bradford) moves into the same apartment building as his two best friends, also relatively young fathers (Anthony Anderson and Zach Cregger).Watch If: You, like Jimmy Fallon, think the term DILFs is hilarious and original. By which I mean, don’t. Guys With Kids is in contention for the worst comedy of the fall. If you want to see men raising small, adorable children, tune in to the retooled Up All Night, which returns on September 20 at 8:30, instead.
SEPTEMBER 17Show: Revolution (NBC)Time: 10:00Concept: Electricity stops working everywhere (except, apparently, in an African-American lady’s basement and in biology), causing a global catastrophe and setting back society to a steampunk iteration of the flint-lock era. In the United States, a representative of an oppressive government (Giancarlo Esposito) comes for the last man who may know how to turn the lights back on. His daughter (Tracy Spiridakos), with the help of members of their settlement, including a former Google executive (Zak Orth, who really should be the show’s main character), sets off in search of her uncle (Billy Burke), who she thinks may be able to help her unlock her father’s secret and return society to the way it used to be.Watch If: You’re looking for a big-concept science fiction show. I happen to think this particular concept is a little silly, but creator Erik Kripke has emphasized that the mystery is a significant driver of the story. You don’t mind some Tea Party-ish politics in your television. The idea of a Revolutionary War allegory is an intriguing one, but done rather better by ABC’s Lost Resort, and without the prospect of an African-American man implementing taxation without representation and taking people’s guns away. Esposito is, as always, fantastic, but it was somewhat unattractive to watch him and Kripke double down on the show’s celebration of the right to bear arms mere days after the Aurora shooting this summer.
Show: The Mob Doctor (Fox)Time: 9:00Concept: An attractive young surgeon (Jordana Spiro) goes into debt with the Chicago mob to get her brother, who is following in their abusive father’s underworld footsteps, out of trouble. The deal? She has to patch up members of the mafia who would rather their injuries go unnoticed by hospital authorities — and sometimes, she’s under pressure to violate her oath to do no harm.Watch If: You liked Spiro on TBS’s underrated My Boys. I’m not sure drama will end up being a stronger vehicle for Spiro than comedy, but she’s an immensely likable young actress, and I want her to succeed. You’re interested in experiments that would give us more female anti-heroes. Again, I’m not sure how well this can work on network, but creator Josh Berman has a long-arc plan for his main character, and he’s a creator who genuinely loves fictional women. Plus, the show takes on one of television’s biggest sacred cows in this pilot episode.
SEPTEMBER 24 Show: Partners (CBS)Time: 8:30Concept: Louis (Michael Urie) is gay. Joe (David Krumholtz) is straight. They’re best friends and partners in an architecture firm. Their equilibrium gets upset when Joe proposes to his girlfriend (Sophia Bush) and Louis starts questioning his relationship with long-term boyfriend Wyatt (Brandon Routh, playing a gay man for the second time).Watch If: You time-traveled here from 1995. It’s nice to see gay men and straight men hang out on TV, but the idea that such a friendship is a concept novel enough to hang a show on is beyond tired. Even the sets look antiquated. All the men involved here are fun to watch, but I wanted nothing so much as to rescue them from the project and give them something better to work on.
SEPTEMBER 25 Show: Ben and Kate (Fox)Time: 8:30Concept: Kate (Dakota Johnson) is a young single mother. Her brother, Ben (Nat Faxon) never quite grew up. That is, until he came home, and decided to help Kate raise her daughter. Echo Kellum plays Ben’s best friend Tommy, who’s been in love with Kate forever, and Lucy Punch is B.J., Kate’s hilariously acerbic colleague at the bar where she works.Watch If: You’re looking to be surprised. Ben and Kate didn’t do much for me as a concept before I saw it. But the show is profoundly nice without being wishy-washy, and Dana Fox has hit on something important — she told me she wants to distinguish the show from competitors like Guys With Kids by developing Ben’s relationship with his niece in detail, and basing it his deep respect and like for her. You’re looking for a good sibling show. Fox based the show substantially on her interactions with her real-life wild and crazy brother, and judging by the number of stories she can tell about him in a single sitting, she’s got genuinely engaging material to last the show a long time.
Show: The Mindy Project (Fox)Time: 9:30Concept: Mindy (Kaling) is an OB/GYN who grew up on a steady diet of romantic comedies, and is struggling to balance work and her feelings about being unmarried, not to mention resisting the charms of hot colleague (Ed Weeks) and taking the advice of her obvious soulmate and fellow doctor Daniel (Chris Messina).Watch If: You’re excited to see Kaling do something other than play Kelly Kapoor. For better and for worse, this is Kaling’s project — that means it can be hilariously precise, as when Mindy hallucinates a Barbie berating her for being a drunk, single mess, or tonally jarring. I couldn’t always tell if Mindy was meant to be a low-key anti-heroine, a mess, or someone I rooted for unreservedly. You’re interested in seeing an OB/GYN on television. This was my initial attraction to the series, and while I think the subject gets short shrift in the pilot, there’s some interesting stuff in there about accepting uninsured patients. The show also plans to address medical billing on a regular basis. I’m not sure The Mindy Project will push the boundaries of television medicine, but if it draws drama from how to pay the bills, that would be something new.
Show: Vegas (CBS)Time: 10:00Concept: Rancher Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) agrees to take over as Las Vegas sheriff when a young woman is murdered — just as Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis) arrives in town to clean up the mob’s messy management of the casino business. Plus, ADA Katherine O’Connell (Carrie-Ann Moss, doing television for the first time) is there to oversee investigations, and to worry about the future of the booming city.Watch If: You were intrigued by Magic City on Starz. As befitting its home on CBS, Vegas is more disciplined than its premium cable counterpart. But it’s got a lot in common with Magic City, including clashes between powerful men and a woman with an unusual amount of power for the era. You’re interested in the rise of Las Vegas. The show’s producers and Moss told me that the show will have strong plotlines about both the environment and labor. Moss’s character is something of a conservationist concerned about the changes in her desert hometown, and labor rights will provide plot fodder later in the season.
SEPTEMBER 26 Show: Animal Practice (NBC)Time: 8:00Concept: A veterinarian who loves animals but hates people (Justin Kirk) has to deal with the latter when his ex-girlfriend (Joanna Garcia Swisher) inherits the hospital where he plies his trade.Watch If: You have a depressed cat. Some of the animal psychology bits are kind of funny, as are the things the vets get up to when they aren’t practicing medicine. But the concept seems more cutesy than substantive. And Animal Practice’s pilot traffics fairly heavily in racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Show: The Neighbors (ABC)Time: 9:30Concept: Human family moves to a suspiciously impeccable suburb, discovers their neighbors are aliens disguised as humans who take the names of celebrities for their aliases, bake pies, and have the males of the species get pregnant.Watch If: You miss Third Rock From the Sun. Lots of my critic friends hated The Neighbors, but it’s a low-brow, friendly comedy without high aspirations to fall short of. Creator Dan Fogelman’s said he plans to use the concept to call out various human absurdities, from our warmongering to our gender politics. I’ll be at least mildly curious to see how well he pulls that particular ambition off.
SEPTEMBER 27 Show: Last Resort (ABC)Time: 8:00Concept: The crew of a nuclear submarine get orders, via a circuitous route, to fire nuclear missiles at Pakistan. Their commander (Andre Braugher) is relieved of command when he asks for confirmation, and replaced with a subordinate (Scott Speedman). When an American warship fires on them after he hesitates, the sub goes to ground on a NATO station on a tropical island and declares independence. And once there, issues ranging from women serving on subs to conspiracies involving defense contractors come into play.Watch If: You’ve been dying for another sophisticated, smart, truly grown-up drama on network to go along with The Good Wife. Last Resort was my favorite drama pilot of the season, a juicy hour of television that trusts its audience to manage a huge cast, big issues, and complex morality. You want television to dive into geopolitics. Like Homeland, which begins its second season after an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Last Resort goes straight after an unnervingly plausible nightmare scenario, the destabilization of the Indian-Pakistan region. I say all this with the caveat that I have absolutely no idea how Last Resort is a viable television show rather than a movie — no matter what The Dark Knight Rises tells you, the U.S. military doesn’t usually leave non-state actors in possession of one nuclear weapon, much less more than a dozen. But I can’t wait to see Shawn Ryan try to pull it off, and I dearly hope that the show can thrive despite its tough timeslot.
Show: Elementary (CBS)Time: 10:00Concept: Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering addict. Watson (Lucy Liu) is his sober companion. Together, they solve mysteries.Watch If: You’re in withdrawal waiting for the next installment of BBC’s Sherlock. Elementary isn’t a straight replacement for that show, which is the point. Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation is a legend big enough to bear multiple interpretations, and one that focuses on Holmes as an addictive personality is far more interesting than the steampunk bromance currently populating the big screen. Miller and Liu are strong actors with a nice, non-romantic chemistry. It’ll be fun to see an all-too-rare friendship between a man and a woman without the possibility of a will-they-or-won’t-they romance on television.
SEPTEMBER 28 Show: Made in Jersey (CBS)Time: 9:00Concept: A young lady with a legal degree in hand and a Bump-It in her hair braves the snobbish world of New York law firms.Watch If: You’re writing a thesis on presentations of New Jersey in popular entertainment. Made In Jersey is inoffensive and star Janet Montgomery has charm to burn. But the show feels more like CBS reassuring its core audience that it has no plans to totally ditch its core forumla for more sophisticated fare like Vegas and Elementary.
SEPTEMBER 30 Show: 666 Park Avenue (ABC)Time: 10:00Concept: Vanessa Williams and Terry O’Quinn are the proprietors of an exclusive New York apartment building. They may also, collectively, be Satan. And they’ve got their eyes on a young couple who have moved in and signed up to be 666 Park Avenue’s latest caretakers.Watch If: You miss Desperate Housewives. There will never be a time when I don’t enjoy watching Williams in high vamp mode, and she’s a treat here. This supernatural drama is deeply silly and melodramatic, but I almost enjoy its campiness more than the intellectual pretentions of American Horror Story.
OCTOBER 10Show: Arrow (CW)Time: 8:00Concept: Billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) is shipwrecked alone after his yacht is wrecked, killing his girlfriend’s sister, who he’s been schtupping on the side, and his father commits suicide to give Oliver a better chance of staying alive. He returns home a changed man, dedicated to rooting out corruption in his city while hiding behind his playboy reputation.Watch If: You’ve been dying for a credible superhero television show. Everyone will be looking forward to Joss Whedon’s S.H.I.E.L.D. television show in 2013, but Arrow’s pilot does a good job nailing a formula and tone television’s struggled with in recent years. The violence has a nasty edge to it, and the emotional stakes seem real. I couldn’t quite believe it either. But Arrow has a shot to be a very amusing real thing.
Show: Chicago Fire (NBC)Time: 10:00Concept: From Law & Order creator, hot firefighters and paramedics fight fires, save lives, and sometimes do the same to each other. With Rahm Emanuel making cameos insteady of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.Watch If: You miss Law & Order proper/wish the show had featured more beefcake. Chicago Fire is a deeply old-fashioned show, and for NBC, I actually think that’s a good thing. As much as I want the network to have ambition, I’d rather NBC rebuild itself with the help of what Wolf called old-school platinum dramas than on pandering, dreadful comedies like Guys With Kids. The fire sequences in the show are genuinely tense, and Wolf’s said he plans to weave in political and budgeting issues in episodes subsequent to the pilot. Chicago Fire’s the kind of thing to have on with a glass of wine while you do the dishes, or to marathon when you’re sick. And that’s not ignoble.
Show: Nashville (ABC)Time: 10:00Concept: A middle-aged country singer (Connie Britton), whose husband is running for mayor of Nashville as her father (Powers Boothe) prepares to broker a major land deal, gets asked by her label to tour with an up-and-coming Taylor Swift clone (Hayden Panettiere). Add in an up-and-coming songwriter who doesn’t know she’s something special and Robert Wisdom of Bunny Colvin fame as the other candidate for mayor, and you have one of the most promising dramas of this new season.Watch If: You like rich rivalries between women. If Nashville wasn’t a product of the same woman who gave us Thelma and Louise, it might descend into dismal bitchiness, but the rivalry between Rayna and Juliette, who’s stolen Rayna’s limelight (as well as the musical loyalty of Rayna’s ddaughters) is based in genuine differences and real tension. It’ll be fascinating to watch them on tour together. You like shows that are secretly about big issues. Nashville’s creators have described it as a show that’s really about the rise of a new great American city. That’s a fascinating subject, and a kind of story that usually only gets told in relatively hackneyed ways about Vegas. I can’t wait to see how Nashville’s political and economic subplots come together.
OCTOBER 11 Show: Beauty and the Beast (CW)Time: 9:00Concept: A lady cop who, as a younger woman, was rescued from the men who killed her mother by a mysterious figure, meets him again, and finds out he’s the veteran of experiments on combat troops.Watch If: You have Regina George-like standards of what constitutes ugliness. Seriously. What makes the beast a beast is a minor facial scar. The quality of the acting is far more monstrous than anything else in this tepid, teen-pandering drama.
NOVEMBER 2 Show: Malibu Country (ABC)Time: 8:30Concept: Reba McEntire dumps her cheatin’ dog of a husband and moves home to California and back in with her mother to try to get her singing career back on track, and figure out life as a single woman once again.Watch If: You like multi-camera comedies and stoner grannies. I’d totally watch a show about Lily Tomlin, who plays Reba’s mother, hanging out at the dispensary where she and her friends get their magic lollipops. But that’s about as original, or intriguing, as the show gets.