Jeff Jensen
May 16, 2016 AT 12:00 PM EDT

NBC is adding only three new shows this fall. A sign of strength or a sign of simply not sucking as much as usual? Debate. The line-up is propped up by two nights of The Voice, four shows from The Dick Wolf Factory of Social Services Procedurals, three hours of Dateline, and football on Sunday. But the news of NBC’s plans for the 2016-2017 season bring some encouraging moves (The Carmichael Show: renewed! Hooray!) and admirable risk taking, like a renewed commitment to comedy on Thursday nights in the 8 p.m. hour. It’s not quite a return to the days of Must See TV — Superstore hasn’t yet earned my regular patronage — but it’s a start. The can’t-we-see-them-now? midseason projects include a new entry from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (30 Rock; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and a buzzy DC Comics superhero laugher called Powerless headlined by the killer cast of Alan Tudyk, Vanessa Hudgens, and Danny Pudi. And the three new shows we’re getting this fall? I’m intrigued by all of them.

The Good Place

Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., after Superstore

If you’re like me, then you were raised on comedies like Cheers in the ’80s, thrilled to see mystery-serials like Veronica Mars in the early century, and now, today, think about death, constantly, to morbid, paralyzing degrees, because you’re middle-aged and spiritually tired and still drink too much soda pop. Seriously, I spend hours each week freaking myself out by thinking about eternity. Whether it’s singing in heaven and burning in hell or not experiencing the non-existence of annihilation, forever and ever and ever, without end, without end, without end… terrifying. But this is why we have TV: so we can distract ourselves from these things.

Any-hoo, The Good Place appears to be right in my existential wheelhouse and sitcom sweet spot. It comes from Michael Schur, who co-created an all-timer, Parks and Recreation, and a current gem, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It takes the star of Cheers, Ted Danson, and the star of Veronica Mars, Kristen Bell, and puts them in a comedy of mistaken identity, set it in – of all places – the afterlife, which, as established, I think about too much.

Bell is Eleanor, recently deceased. Danson is Michael, her orientation counselor. They reside in a heavenly estate that appears to be a kind of satirical representation of planned suburbs or gated communities, something that might actually be called, like, “Heavenly Estates.” Here, in ‘the Good Place,’ vice is redeemed (you can drink and drink and drink and never get drunk), and divine regulation subverts your dirtier inclinations. Try to swear and your harsh words turn absurd. Big twist? Eleanor — a big, bad, self-absorbed materialist during her flesh and blood days (“Eat my farts!” she scolds an environmentalist, throwing a coffee cup toward a garbage can and missing) — shouldn’t be kicking it in paradise. Per Eleanor’s sanitized words: “Someone royally forked up.” She’s not terribly keen on correcting the error, obviously, but can she perpetrate a ruse of goodness and remain true to herself? Ah, but what does it mean to be worthy of heaven, anyway? Sizing up her alleged betters, Eleanor sees pretentiousness and phoniness: “These people might be ‘good,’ but are they really that much better than me?”

The Good Place recalls the themes of Albert Brooks’ 1991 film Defending Your Life and thematically similar high concept sitcoms that explored and skewered modern notions of happiness and righteousness through shaggy protagonists: NBC’s My Name Is Earl, ABC’s Samantha Who?, and Fox’s The Last Man on Earth. As the trailer makes clear, the spiritual perspective is pluralistic/irrelevant: Michael explains all the world’s major religions got about 5 percent of the truth of anything. Still, the stakes – in a word, Hell – are interesting in the context of contemporary faith: The Good Place arrives at a time when many young Evangelicals are reconsidering traditional notions of the afterlife, and in particular, the idea of Hell (see: the controversial book Love Wins by Oprah fave Rob Bell, who has no relation to Kristen Bell, although coincidentally, his wife happens to be named… Kristen Bell). It’s possible The Good Place might have something to contribute to that larger narrative, but I suspect very little of what I wrote in the last sentence will have anything to do with the show’s comedy; it strikes me as a satirical fantastique about the here and now, as it should be. Bell looks like she’s found the perfect vehicle for her dynamic talent and edge-skewing charm: she sold me with her high-pitched burp-hiccup-yelp in the trailer. I trust Schur’s sensibility and vision and will follow him anywhere, but The Good Place might be too peculiar to score a mass audience out of the gate or, like, ever. That may not be what NBC wants to hear, given that the network is putting the show on Thursday nights at 8:30. Still, it’s Must Try for me. How about you?

This Is Us

Tuesdays, 9 p.m., after The Voice

You hear us critic types pine for original concepts and a break from so much doom and gloom (but excuse us while we geek out in the lux cynical bog that is Game of Thrones). Prayers answered? From the writers and directors of the 2011 blockbuster comedy Crazy, Stupid Love, This Is Us is an earnest dramedy that tries to throw its arms around the world through a vast cast of characters, many united by only thing: the same birthday. Milo Ventimiglia (Gilmore Girls, Heroes) and Mandy Moore (most recently of a similar, more quirky, equally earnest effort, Red Band Society) are young marrieds still very much in love; their lives change when she gives birth to triplets and one of them dies. Sterling K. Brown, fresh off the triumph of The People v. O.J. Simpson, is a husband and a father reconnecting with — and struggling to forgive — the dad who abandoned him. Chrissy Metz (American Horror Story: Freak Show) is a woman struggling with weight and food who finds love. Justin Hartley (Smallville, where he played a very good, somewhat forgotten Green Arrow) is a TV star who quits his series to chase something more meaningful. Not in evidence: everything suggested by the previous credits of the actors. Superhero spectacle. Franchise and format. Quirky comic sensibility. Unless the trailer is underplaying it, even the shared-birthday gag doesn’t seem to be much of a thing. It’s like someone said, “Let’s make one of those we’re-all-connected-in-some-mystical-sort-of-way shows like Tim Kring’s Touch or the Wachowski’s Sense8, but without the mysticism, Tim Kring or Wachowski of it all.” 

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We’ll be sweating sappy sentimentality with this one. Maybe some pretentiousness, too – ugh, the title – but I don’t get that from the trailer. It appears to be a big-feel saga full of recognizable people, most of them thirtysomething, struggling with everyday existentialism, that I suspect might be likened to… well, thirtysomething. Brace yourself for think pieces that either analyze the show as a portrait of a generation or crap on it for inviting that analysis. And yet, the trailer suggests a series that will chase a broad audience by being more general in interests and feeling. It looks like a well-acted, well-shot fiction about real-life concerns, stripped of genre or format crutches, written by people who sincerely care about other people and their world. It looks like nothing else on broadcast TV right now, actually. Good luck with that. Sincerely.

Timeless

Mondays, 10 p.m., after The Voice

Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural and Revolution, and Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, venture together into science fiction with the kind of concept-driven sci-fi show you usually get from Fox. Hopefully, Timeless will be better than the sci-fi Fox has been giving us lately. (See ya, Minority Report and Second Chance.) A trio of reluctant heroes – a historian (Rectifys Abigail Spencer), a soldier (90210s Mike Lanter), and a pilot (Better Off Teds Malcolm Barrett) – are recruited to stop a rogue quantum leaper named Flynn (E.R.s Goran Visnjic) from changing the past. The trailer dazzles with Big! Bang! Boom! spectacle, plus the prospect of twists, complications, and paradox conundrums galore. It appears Flynn – who may not be the bad guy he’s been billed to be — is guided by a journal written by Lucy, Spencer’s character, a book which, as we meet her, she hasn’t written yet. Lanter’s character, Wyatt, grappling with dead wife grief, imbues the enterprise with tragic romance. Barrett’s Rufus plays the comic relief and trans-temporal scold. Dig the scene where he tells off the white racist of 1939 by citing the future accomplishments of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, and Mike Tyson. (But not Martin Luther King or Barack Obama? Maybe the show doesn’t want to be too “political” in the pilot, or at least, with the trailer.)

The whole ‘change the past/save the future’ thing is a popular expression of anxious, nostalgic zeitgeist, apocalypse chic, and the geekification of pop culture. Or maybe Hollywood has just run out of ideas. That’s not true, either, but this year alone has seen The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, Hulu’s 11.22.63 and SyFy’s 12 Monkeys execute some version of this kind of time travel fantasy, to varying degrees of creative and commercial success. There’s certainly opportunity for someone to do it betterLegends of Tomorrow has been a disappointment — or at least, different. In this case, Ryan seems to be exploring these concepts within the format of NBC’s slickly produced, action-driven crypto-serials, i.e., The Blacklist and Blindspot. But don’t be seduced by the special effects in the trailer. Sci-fi/fantasy shows rarely sustain the quality of spectacle of their pilots. (A recent case-in-point: Supergirl.) Timeless will have to win on the qualities of its ideas and characters. Points for being an original franchise – i.e., not leaning on existing, pre-sold properties – although I’m not sure I see anything wholly original in that trailer, just a recycling of genre tropes and ideas expressed via handsome production design and a well-lit and very strong cast. So many time travel sagas end the same way, as bittersweet allegories for making peace with past and engaging the present with a hopeful redemptive spirit. A timeless message, for sure. Still, I’d love to see Kripke and Ryan take us somewhere new.

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