Over the next six weeks, TV networks and streaming services will debut dozens of new shows in the rapidly antiquating tradition we call the fall premiere season. Nielsen — the company that calculates TV ratings — sets the dates for the TV season, and so long as it’s the number one game in town for determining who’s watching what, the networks will play along. That will change someday, but not in 2014, so here we are. Fortunately, this is a solid fall, much better than the last couple of years. Here are my seven shows to watch and three to avoid at all costs.
Why: This new Showtime drama does things with TV storytelling I've never seen done quite this well before. To say more than that would be to spoil what makes it so special, but I like the way that this starts in a fairly typical place — unhappy marriages, beautiful and affluent white people, a seemingly never-ending beach holiday — and gradually reels off its axis. Plus, it has a wonderful command of tone, perfectly blending wickedly dark humor into its mix without losing its central seriousness. There's a cast full of ringers — including Dominic West, Maura Tierney, and Josh Jackson — but the show's success stems from two women in particular: actress Ruth Wilson, who turns her character into a walking wound, and writer Sarah Treem, a playwright who co-created with In Treatment creator Hagai Levi and perfectly balances the show's many elements.
Airing: Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern on Showtime
Begins: October 12
Why: The stories of transgender people have been dancing around the edges of some great TV shows over the past couple of years, from Orange Is the New Black's Sophia to Glee's Unique. But Amazon's brilliant new Transparent builds its story around a trans woman for the first time in television history. The show's central character is Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, in an Emmy-worthy performance), a woman who's spent most of her life living as Mort. Now, as she enters her 70s, she's beginning her transition, which causes ripples throughout her family, particularly with her three children. But the show is about more than just Maura's journey. In creator Jill Soloway's vision, her transition leaves everyone in the show's universe questioning what it means to pursue happiness.
Airing: All episodes will be available on Amazon Prime streaming as of Friday, September 26
Begins: September 26
Why: Is there room for anything new in the family comedy? ABC is hoping it can find new veins of humor by turning toward elements of the vast, diverse American population that don't pop up on television all that often. Black-ish, the season's best new comedy, does just that by examining what happens to a black family's racial identity when the parents have money and the kids go to majority-white private schools in affluent neighborhoods. The situations are boilerplate family sitcom fodder, but the show's rich sense of character, thanks to an insightful script by Kenya Barris, carries it through. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Laurence Fishburne leading the cast.
Airing: Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC (right after Modern Family)
Begins: September 24
Red Band Society
Why: On its face, a show about teenagers living in a hospital ward while fighting life-threatening conditions would seem hopelessly maudlin or an attempt to cash in on the success of The Fault in Our Stars — or both. And there are certainly moments when Red Band falls toward the overly sentimental side of things. It's also got a serious problem with being twee, including a coma-bound narrator who makes sure to explain everything that's happening on screen to us, just in case we somehow didn't get it. (We never need his help.) Yet these are the sorts of pilot problems that are easy for a show to shake off, and what's good in Red Band is really good. Whenever it steps back and simply lets its characters hang out or talk about their lives, there's nothing else like it out there, and it's got a terrific ensemble cast, led by Octavia Spencer.
Airing: Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Jane the Virgin
Why: American television tried the "Americanized telenovela" thing with Ugly Betty, a pretty good show that collapsed under the weight of its own plotting remarkably quickly. But compared to Jane the Virgin, Ugly Betty was a pale copycat. Jane quickly nails down its tone — essentially goofy, but with a hefty dose of earnestness — and it immediately sets about deciding not how to Americanize a telenovela but, rather, how to set a telenovela in the United States. Writer Jennie Snyder Urman loosely based this on a Venezuelan series, and she has a great eye for good gags and moments when the show's utterly bizarre central premise — a virgin is accidentally inseminated — needs to be mocked just a bit. But new shows fail or thrive based on how much viewers can relate to the main character, and Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is one of the best of the fall. The show gets bonus points for casual diversity. Much of it is in Spanish, and it boasts religious conservative values without making a big deal of them.
Airing: Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern on The CW
Begins: October 13
Why: All three major network comic book shows debuting this fall are pretty good — another is just below, and Constantine on NBC isn't bad either. But Gotham is the unlikely cream of the crop. It has issues with trying too hard to remind you at all turns that it's set in the Batman universe, and its attempts at hard-boiled dialogue are often far too cute. But the show also has a surprisingly gorgeous visual aesthetic, all primary colors streaking through darkness, and a beautifully wrought partnership between cops Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) and James Gordon (Ben McKenzie). Yes, this is a prequel, and it could end up having prequel problems. But it succeeds by remembering the main character is the city in the title, not Bruce Wayne.
Airing: Mondays at 8 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Why: Most superhero shows seem drawn from the bleak visual template of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. And that's fine. It works for shows like Arrow and Gotham, particularly when they take place in a heightened reality, rather than an outright science-fiction one. But that wouldn't work for The Flash, which involves a man gaining the power of super-speed, and to the show's credit, it recognizes that what it needs to be is corny, briskly paced, and cheekily endearing. This is not a show for people who have trouble with characters who might believably say "aw shucks!" or "golly!" It is a show for anyone who's been waiting for a superhero hour that's pure adrenaline and fun, rather than gloom.
Airing: Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern on The CW
Begins: October 7
Watch these (in rough order of preference)
Why: Stalker is one of the worst new shows in years, so bad that every other show on TV should thank it for existing, because they look just a little better in comparison. From the pen of Kevin Williamson (who's been very good on Vampire Diaries and very bad on The Following), the show is set inside a Los Angeles Police Department unit dedicated to tracking down stalkers. It also appears to be set in an alternate reality where stalking is something the police take incredibly seriously all of the time, to the degree that when a stalking case crosses over into homicide, the stalking unit still seems to be the primary one responsible for solving that homicide. Even worse: the show attempts to make stalking seem sort of edgy and sexy and cool, and it occasionally doubles as a how-to manual for the crime. Ick.
Airing: Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Begins: October 1
The Mysteries of Laura
Why: This new cop series seems agreeably baffled by the notion that a woman could raise children and hold down a job, a plotline that TV mostly grew out of somewhere around the days of Cagney & Lacey. To its credit, Mysteries of Laura seems to realize this is a non-starter in a country where so many mothers are in the workforce. To its detriment, it attempts to get around the problem by making everybody in its universe a complete psychopath. Why does Laura have such trouble being a cop and a mom? Because she's just the worst, that's why. And that goes for everyone else around her. NBC keeps trying to build shows around Debra Messing, but it doesn't seem to understand any of what made her appealing on Will & Grace. This is just another Messing mess.
Airing: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Begins: Tonight, at a special time (10 p.m. Eastern, after America's Got Talent)
Manhattan Love Story
Why: Most of the worst shows of the fall rely on incredibly reductive stereotypes; Manhattan Love Story might have the most reductive of them all. By reducing men to creatures only interested in boobs and women to beings only interested in purses, the show does no favors to either of its otherwise charming lead actors, and there are long stretches of the show where nobody is talking to anybody, and we're, instead, listening in on their thoughts in endless, grating voiceover narration. The wonderful Analeigh Tipton might trick you into thinking there's something worth watching here, but mostly, this is a mess, unconcerned with how humans really behave and stuck with over-the-top wackiness that grows grating quickly.
Airing: Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Begins: September 30
Avoid these (in rough order of awfulness)