It's a time-honored rite harking back to an era of black-and-white TVs and the trio of networks whose programs they delivered: the grand unveiling of new fall fare. As part of the ritual, this latest fall crop is an occasion for handicapping the good and the misfires.
Granted, it's a risky business to rate a new series' prospects on the basis of its pilot episode, which is typically the only thing critics have to go on. But even if it doesn't guarantee a great series will follow, a pilot must at least trigger interest at a level to get viewers to return the second week. Here are 10 new series that might catch your fancy:
"Red Band Society" (Fox; premieres Sept. 17). A group of teenagers meet as patients in the pediatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital. Sure, a show that gathers kids to frolic, flirt and even face death sounds like "Glee" without the jazz hands. But what could have been an over-glossed rendering of life's gravest moments instead comes with heart and a dose of authenticity that ground the good times.
"Gotham" (Fox; Sept. 22). In an industry where nothing is a sure thing, fall's most-awaited show by the most-desirable demo would seem to be a sure thing. "Gotham" turns out to be not only an "origin series" about Batman but also a humdinger of a noir crime thriller. Rolling back the clock to when Bruce Wayne was a youngster and his alter ego was years from being conceived, the series lays the groundwork for the Batman myth while introducing not-yet-Commissioner James Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie) as a rookie cop.
"The Mysteries of Laura" (NBC; Sept. 24). Debra Messing stars as a brilliant, rules-breaking NYPD homicide detective and harried single mother whose estranged detective-husband becomes her boss (awkward!). Messing ("Will & Grace") has an indisputable gift for comedy. Here she's arresting as a brassy, disheveled cop in a series that clearly wants to match the light-comedy tone of the long-ago "Columbo." "Mysteries" has its cops-and-robbers element, but it's mostly helter-skelter fun.
"Black-ish" (ABC; Sept. 24). The versatile Anthony Anderson stars as Andre, a determined patriarch who sets out to restore (or is it establish?) a sense of cultural identity for his middle-class African-American family which, he worries, is ethnically unmoored. Andre's concern isn't shared by his biracial wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), or their four kids. But Andre frets about "keeping it real." This is a clever premise, whose black-centricity has plenty to say about the pros and cons of assimilation by any group. It's a lot of Deep Thoughts packed into a fluffy sitcom, but "black-ish" seems up to the challenge.
"How to Get Away With Murder" (ABC; Sept. 25). A legendary attorney is fearless in the courtroom representing society's worst criminals. Then she's fearless in the classroom as she drills a no-holds-barred philosophy of law into her students — and she selects a group of her top students to work at her law firm, where they fall under her spell as they help tackle her toughest cases. "Murder" promises to be twisty, wicked, dark and fun. And it stars Viola Davis, who brings life to a character of endless calculations and mystery.
"Manhattan Love Story" (ABC; Sept. 30). Girl meets guy in the Big Apple. She's new in town and full of romantic yearnings. He's a true Gothamite who lives the sporting life. And of course opposites attract. Meanwhile, the audience is privy to their innermost thoughts about dating and other pressing matters via the characters' voiceovers. This "Love Story," starring winsome Analeigh Tipton and wisecracking Jake McDorman, touches the heart and, more important, the funny bone.
"Bad Judge" (NBC; Oct. 2). Good judge, bad girl: That's the character Kate Walsh tackles on this new sitcom. Judge Rebecca Wright is unforgiving on the bench but an unapologetic party animal elsewhere. Walsh presides with little judicial restraint on a show you'll find guilty of selective raciness and plenty of laughs.
"The Flash" (CW, Oct. 7). A young man named Barry Allen awakens from a coma after being struck by lightning, only to find he has the power of superspeed. Ipso facto, he becomes a superhero. It's more complicated, of course, but what really matters is: This version of a comic-book stud feels refreshingly re-thought, and should satisfy fans, as well as those who have never found their way into the Flash ethos. It stars Grant Gustin ("Glee," "Arrow") who, in his grand unveiling as Barry's fleet-footed alter ego, eschews the familiar red long johns in favor of a different uniform. Message: This is a new brand of Flash.
"Jane the Virgin" (CW, Oct. 13). The one-line description of this series seems like a cruelty joke: Jane Villanueva, an effervescent young Miami woman with her eyes trained on the future and her knees clamped virtuously together, is mistakenly impregnated with a specimen meant for someone else. And to add a further twist, the specimen came from the owner of the luxury hotel that employs Jane as a waitress. The wonder of this series is that it feels fully plausible, authentic and delightful, unfolding in a multicultural world with the irresistible Gina Rodriguez in the title role. Time will tell if its grand ambitions outstrip its ability to deliver, but in the short term, it succeeds in the thing a TV series rarely does: It keeps you guessing what will happen next.
"Marry Me" (NBC, Oct. 14). Jake and Annie are a modern version of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Annie is flighty. Jake is settled and eternally amused by Annie's zaniness. Except that, unlike George and Gracie, Jake and Annie aren't yet married, or even engaged — just dating for six-years-and-counting, with Annie more than ready for Jake to pop the question. On this slender premise hang the ample comic gifts of co-stars Ken Marino and Casey Wilson, not to mention those of series creator David Caspe, whose fast-paced, clever style was first displayed in his hilarious sitcom "Happy Endings," in which Wilson, now his real-life bride, starred.
The bottom five
While the new broadcast season will bring many potential delights, a handful of fall entries fall far short. Fair warning from a critic looking out for you:
"Stalker" (CBS, premieres Oct. 1). Violence Porn packaged as crime drama. Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott co-star in what's billed as a "psychological thriller" about the Threat Assessment Unit of the LAPD. The cases that this pair of detectives investigates include voyeurism, cyber harassment and romantic fixation, which, of course, only fetishizes such depravity-of-the-week as each episode goes through the motions of condemning it. Item: The first episode begins with a screaming woman burned alive in her car by her stalker. Series creator Kevin Williamson has responded to criticism by saying if viewers think "Stalker" crosses the line, they should "change the channel." Exactly. Before the show starts.
"A to Z" (NBC, Oct. 2). Girl meets guy. Tedium results. A rom-com whose stars (Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman) are stuck in a gimmicky format: a "comprehensive account" of their nearly nine-month dating relationship, as we are told at the top of the show, "from A to Z." Together, they spell "lack of chemistry."
"Mulaney" (Fox, Oct. 5). It's a comedy starring stand-up comic John Mulaney as a stand-up comic named John. Clearly, this show is just dying to be the next "Seinfeld." But problems block the way: "Seinfeld" was done, for all times, a quarter-century ago; Mulaney is no Jerry Seinfeld; there's no Larry David mojo. Plus "Mulaney" isn't funny.
"Cristela" (ABC, Oct. 10). Standup comic Cristela Alonzo stars in a family sitcom based on her life and Mexican-American heritage. She's working multiple jobs as she plods through law school and resides in a dizzy household with her sister, brother-in-law, their two kids and her mother. Zingers fly and stereotypes rule. You've seen it all before. Why begin again?
"State of Affairs" (NBC, Nov. 17). The good news for this new drama: It isn't likely to be the first fall series to be canceled. With its belated premiere date, at least one other dud should have fallen by the wayside by the time it arrives. In other hands, the basic idea might have made a good show. A daily briefing paper is prepared for the president listing the most urgent security issues as judged by a group of CIA analysts. But on "State of Affairs," that all-important team is led by "Grey's Anatomy" expat Katherine Heigl who, to make matters even more laughable, reports for work at 2 a.m. after having drunkenly bedded a guy she met at a bar just a few hours earlier. As president, the fine actress Alfre Woodard is stuck with leading the country while not succumbing to this dramatic poppycock. It's a losing proposition. Count "State of Affairs" among the fall's funniest new comedies, however unintentionally and short-lived.
Network premiere dates
Sept. 10: "Hell's Kitchen" (8 p.m., Fox)
Sept. 14: "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" (8 p.m., PBS)
Sept. 15: "Dancing With The Stars" (8 p.m., ABC)
Sept. 16: "New Girl" (9 p.m., Fox), "The Mindy Project" (9:30 p.m., Fox)
Sept. 17: "Red Band Society"
(9 p.m., Fox)
Sept. 21: "Madam Secretary" (8 p.m., CBS), "The Good Wife" (9 p.m., CBS)
Sept. 22: "The Big Bang Theory" (8 p.m., CBS), "The Voice" (8 p.m., NBC), "Gotham" (8 p.m., Fox), "Sleepy Hollow" (9 p.m., Fox), "Scorpion" (9 p.m., CBS), "The Blacklist" (10 p.m., NBC)
Sept. 23: "NCIS" (8 p.m., CBS), "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (9 p.m., ABC), "NCIS: New Orleans" (9 p.m., CBS), "Chicago Fire" (10 p.m., NBC), "Person of Interest" (10 p.m., CBS), "Forever" (10 p.m., ABC)
Sept. 24: "The Middle" (8 p.m., ABC), "Survivor" (8 p.m., CBS), "The Mysteries of Laura" (8 p.m., NBC), "The Goldbergs" (8:30 p.m., ABC), "Law and Order: SVU" (9 p.m., NBC), "Modern Family" (9 p.m., ABC), "Black-ish" (9:30 p.m., ABC), "Chicago P.D." (10 p.m., NBC), "Nashville" (10 p.m., ABC)
Sept. 25: "Bones" (8 p.m., Fox), "Grey's Anatomy" (8 p.m., ABC), "Scandal" (9 p.m., ABC), "Parenthood" (10 p.m., NBC), "How to Get Away With Murder" (10 p.m., ABC)
Sept. 26: "The Amazing Race" (8 p.m., CBS), "Shark Tank" (8 p.m., ABC), "Hawaii Five-0" (9 p.m., CBS), "Dateline" (9 p.m., NBC), "20/20" (10 p.m., ABC), "Blue Bloods" (10 p.m., CBS)
Sept. 27: "48 Hours" (10 p.m., CBS)
Sept. 28: "The Simpsons" (8 p.m., Fox), "Once Upon a Time" (8 p.m., ABC), "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" (8:30 p.m., Fox), "Resurrection" (9 p.m., ABC), "Family Guy" (9 p.m., Fox), "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (10 p.m., CBS), "Revenge" (10 p.m., ABC)
Sept. 29: "Mom" (8:30 p.m., CBS), "NCIS: Los Angeles" (10 p.m., CBS), "Castle" (10 p.m., ABC)
Sept. 30: "Selfie" (8 p.m., ABC), "Manhattan Love Story" (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Oct. 1: "Criminal Minds" (9 p.m., CBS), "Stalker" (10 p.m., CBS)
Oct. 2: "The Vampire Diaries" (8 p.m., CW), "Bad Judge" (9 p.m., NBC), "A To Z" (9:30 p.m., NBC), "Gracepoint" (9 p.m., Fox), "Reign" (9 p.m., CW)
Oct. 3: "Last Man Standing" (8 p.m., ABC)
Oct. 5: "Bob's Burgers" (7:30 p.m., Fox), "Mulaney" (9:30 p.m., Fox)
Oct. 6: "The Originals" (8 p.m., CW)
Oct. 7: "The Flash" (8 p.m., CW), "Supernatural" (9 p.m., CW)
Oct. 8: "Arrow" (8 p.m., CW),
Oct. 10: "Cristela" (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Oct. 13: "Jane the Virgin" (9 p.m., CW)
Oct. 14: "Marry Me" (9 p.m., NBC), "About a Boy" (9:30 p.m., NBC)
Oct. 17: "America's Next Top Model" (9 p.m., CW)
Oct. 22: "The 100" (9 p.m., CW)
Oct. 24: "Grimm" (9 p.m., NBC), "Constantine" (10 p.m., NBC)
Oct. 27: "2 Broke Girls" (8 p.m., CBS)
Oct. 30: "The Millers" (8:30 p.m., CBS), "Two and a Half Men" (9 p.m., CBS), "The McCarthys" (9:30 p.m., CBS), "Elementary" (10 p.m., CBS)
Nov. 17: "State of Affairs" (10 p.m., NBC)
Contra Costa Times
This latest fall crop is an occasion for handicapping the good and the misfires.
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