The new fall TV season gets into full swing this week with an abundance of new shows. Our TV critic takes a look at five of them – This Is Us, Speechless, Designated Survivor, Pitch, and The Exorcist — and says three are worth sampling.
This Is Us
Premieres Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 10 p.m. on NBC
Premise: The first of two shows from screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love., Cars) premiering this week is a multigenerational dramedy that tracks a group of adults as they navigate identity crisis, transitions, and the everyday grind of life. They share a common bond. See if you can guess what it is. Randall (Sterling K. Brown), 36, is a successful lawyer and family man looking to connect with the father who abandoned him as an infant. Kevin (Justin Harley), 36, is a hunky, hard-partying actor who stars on a sitcom that keeps him shirtless; he’s looking to shed his vapid himbo image. Kate (Chrissy Metz), 36, is a single lady struggling with weight, food, and self-esteem. Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) are a madly-in-love couple about to experience the greatest and worst moment of their lives – on Jack’s 36th birthday, no less.
Quick Take: The current vogue for dramedy is raw, slightly absurd, shaky cam sitcom subversions – the indie film aesthetic of “authenticity” that has become cliché to the point of bogusness. This Is Us ain’t that. In some ways, it typifies the big turn, big feel sentimentality that neo-grunge tries to deconstruct. I loved it. This is a brilliantly cast show about flawed people who care about being quality, loving human beings. How refreshing! There’s no doubt This Is Us will struggle to stay on the right side of sappiness. But the talent suggests a show capable of doing so. The ace performances ground the characters, there’s an abundance of leavening humor, and Gerald McRaney provides an MVP guest spot with beats that frame everything within a gritty-optimistic worldview. And then there’s the storytelling concept, which makes everything more interesting by [REDACTED DUE TO SPOILERS]. The pretentious title is the worst thing about it. A 21st century thirtysomething for a TV generation that likes a splash of high concept in their shows and isn’t afraid of melodrama.
PILOT GRADE: A
Premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC
Premise: Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) is one of those parents — a relentlessly demanding, nothing-can-ever-be-good-enough tiger mom on a never-ending quest to find the perfect school for her son, J.J. (Micah Fowler). Annoying! The twist: J.J. has cerebral palsy. This makes everyone’s responses to her overbearing nature more complex, from exasperated teachers terrified of being seen as insensitive, to her other kids, frustrated by the instability of so many moves and mounting neglect of their needs. Things change when they find a new school that still doesn’t meet Maya’s standards, but it has at least one great thing going for it: a janitor who serves as J.J.’s voice and doesn’t take s— from anyone, including Maya and J.J.
Quick Take: Driver’s uncorked mom is a boss, funny and touching. John Ross Bowie is also very good as her spouse and one of the TVs fastest growing archetypes, the super-supportive super-husband — patient, adoring, and happily subordinate, the leavening, stabilizing compliment to the big personality, slightly chaotic materfamilias who runs the family. The briskly paced humor is delightfully irreverent, taking aim at PC posturing and entitlements of all kinds. I love that it gives voice to Maya’s other kids or that it isn’t afraid to portray J.J. first and foremost as a teenager and everything beautiful and irritating that it entails. A worthy addition to ABC’s diversity-minded sitcoms.
PILOT GRADE: A-
Premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 10 p.m. on ABC
Premise: Meet Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), the brainy and earnest Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He’s having a bad day: On the morning of the President’s State of Union address, he’s told to step down. His last act of duty will be serving as the “designated survivor,” a member of the Cabinet who remains absent from the State of the Union in case something really, really bad happens at the event and wipes out the government. Guess what happens in the pilot?
Quick Take: The fall’s best new box of crackerjack. In 2001, Sutherland helped usher in an age of realpolitik thrillers that responded to terrorism with 24 and took the measure of the moral cost. Those shows largely focused on the ground level foot soldiers; Designated Survivor relocates this drama upstairs to the White House, which, as we all know, is where the real action is these days. To be clear, Designated Survivor has little in common with Trump-Clinton warfare, but Sutherland’s Kirkman is a balm for it. He’s wish-fulfillment POTUS, both insider and outsider, pure and good. He’s overwhelmed by his sudden promotion but honest about it and surely able to rise to the challenge. Sutherland is incredibly appealing and credible in a change-of-pace role. The supporting players are well cast. Maggie Q is the FBI agent tasked with heading up the investigation into the terror attack that blows up the Capitol Building. Natascha McElhone is Kirkman’s attorney-wife and Kal Penn is a speechwriter who becomes one of Kirkman’s key aides. I’m not quite sure what to make of the subplot with Kirkman’s son, Leo (Tanner Buchanan). I won’t spoil it here, but it’ll either be one of the most interesting things about the show or one of the worst.
PILOT GRADE: B+
Premieres Thursday, Sept. 22 at 9 p.m. on FOX
Premise: The other new series from Dan Fogelman is a speculative fiction that imagines the response to the first woman to play in Major League Baseball. She’s Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), a pitcher with a killer screwball, groomed for greatness since she was young by a domineering father (Michael Beach). She’s got a hard-charging agent (Ali Larter) who sees the significance — and the lucre — in this breakthrough moment. But Ginny will have to master her game, win over teammates (including Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the team’s seasoned superstar leader), and navigate a sexist sports culture to achieve her potential.
Quick Take: There are good reasons for this show’s good guzz. The premise is intriguing and meets a moment of redeeming sexist institutions by getting women in the room, both in the real world (see: Hillary Clinton) and in our fiction (see: Supergirl, Ghostbusters). Bunbury is breakout great and Gosselaar is something of a revelation. You might not even recognize him at first behind the scruff and wizened gruff, and he’s very good. Yet despite the participation of Major League Baseball, lending official trademarks, facilities, and personalities to the concept, the pilot fouled out with me. It wants be both a fairy tale and realistic, and not only does the blend not take, but the expression of both modes is simplistic and flawed. The fairy tale is cliché, from the sentimental pep talk speeches to the plot, and so is the realism. The clubhouse sexism (and the few enlightened defenders), the exploitative management – there isn’t anything about this “speculative fiction” that isn’t obvious or predictable. The storytelling relies too much on real-world sportscasters to narrate and debate the action. Their dialogue is canned and their performances are stiff, undermining the pursuit of authenticity. Doesn’t Hollywood know that sportscasters can’t play themselves? There is one certifiably surprising and powerful moment that puts some edge on Ginny’s story. There’s also a twist that I didn’t see coming, but it also felt cheap and it diminished the pilot’s most interesting relationship. Pitch didn’t leave me confident that it has the smarts to smartly explore its own premise. I’m skeptical about the long term prospects for consistently compelling entertainment. Traditional sports narratives won’t take it far. (Think Glee and how “can we get to regionals/nationals?” was compelling for, like, two seasons.) Soapy locker room melodrama? Meh. I’m rooting for Bunbury and Gosselaar in particular. But I’m not sure they have the team that can take them all the way to glory.
PILOT GRADE: B-
Premieres Friday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. on FOX
Premise: Drawn from the aesthetic and story of William Friedkin’s legendary adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel, The Exorcist tracks a case of demonic possession in a post-modern culture that has deconstructed a lot of dumb thinking that propped up the whole notion of demon possession. Superstition. Mental illness. Sexism. Adolescent rebellion. But that doesn’t mean Satan can’t be real, can it? A good-hearted, thoroughly modern priest (Tomas Ortega) and a ragged, faith-challenged exorcist (Ben Daniels) investigate some sinister strangeness bedeviling a Chicago family going through a turbulent time. Angela Rance (Geena Davis), a strong, confident, and suddenly overwhelmed businesswoman who leads a clan that includes two troubled daughters (Brianne Howey, Hannah Kasulka) and a husband (Alan Ruck) suffering from dementia.
Quick Take: The lesson of American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Preacher, and Supernatural teaches us that TV horror needs to offer more than just horror to be successful. It needs visceral style, a hot take perspective, and irreverence. The surprisingly dull pilot for The Exorcist didn’t have enough of those things to grab me, but it did just enough to keep me curious. Rupert Wyatt’s direction is solid, but he’s too beholden to the visual grammar of his inspiration, and the familiarity dilutes the fear factor. It looks frightening, but it doesn’t chill — the images are cliché, the jump scares barely provoke a jitter. (A&E’s failed adaptation of The Omen — which was much worse than this — was flawed in this way, too.) The example for filmmakers to follow is Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, which emulated the audacity, not the aesthetic; the goal should be originality, not homage. The pilot presents the possession as a mystery. You know someone as a demon in them, but who? I saw the final reveal coming, but it’s possible the story has some surprises up its sleeve. The original Exorcist was accused of being misogynistic and anti-Feminist; it’ll be interesting to see how the show depicts female power and body horror and resolves its multiple “fallen father” themes. Is The Exorcist an exercise in post-patriarchy horror or just one more broken dude redemption story?
PILOT GRADE: C+