This is the worst fall for new TV shows in the decade I’ve been a professional TV critic. And it’s hard to find one much worse in all the years I’ve been cognizant of “new fall TV” as a concept, since the late ’80s.
The comedies didn’t make me laugh. The dramas made me roll my eyes. Even with the boom in platforms making new TV, there’s but one show I’d recommend wholeheartedly and a smattering of others that made me say, “There could be something there if they work out the kinks.” The vast, vast majority of the new shows — whether on broadcast or cable or streaming — are just plain bad.
Now, to be sure, there are some heavily anticipated shows I have yet to see. Star Trek: Discovery, for instance, hasn’t sent out screeners to critics. (That CBS All Access is playing so coy with the show isn’t a great sign, but with a major project like this, it’s entirely possible the post-production process is taking longer than usual.) But I’ve still seen the vast majority of new series — and they’re bad.
So when people ask me what new shows they should watch, it takes but a few seconds to say, “Hey, The Deuce is good!” But if they’re not fans of David Simon or James Franco, or if they don’t have HBO, well … ABC’s The Mayor is pretty charming. Fox’s Ghosted has a good enough cast that I guess it should pull itself together eventually. CBS’s S.W.A.T. is certainly ambitious for a remake of an old TV show, even if it’s not all there yet…
Did I mention this fall TV season is bad? It’s really bad. Here’s how it got that way.
Problem 1: the TV industry is moving away from the fall as its time for big debuts
As I wrote earlier this year, the TV industry has increasingly been launching its best programs in January and April, leaving the fall TV season a bit of a wasteland — even though it’s still technically the time of year when the most new shows debut, thanks to the five major broadcast networks debuting most of their series in the September-to-October corridor.
There are reasons for the slow shift to the beginning of the calendar. For starters, the decline of most programs’ ratings has left the cold winter months among the few when viewership tends to be relatively stable, with a large pool of potential viewers to lure to a new show. This period very roughly corresponds to the weeks when daylight savings time means it gets darker sooner, but the year-end holidays get in the way of launching anything in November (which would be the earliest time to do so). That leaves January, which has become a sort of second September in terms of the sheer glut of shows launching.
But the spring has also become enticing to networks that want to enter the Emmy race, because it’s the latest time to launch a prestige series and still qualify for the industry’s most prestigious awards. (I explained why this is the case here.) Thus, April has become TV’s equivalent of the movie industry’s awards season (with a few Netflix holdovers launching in May and some early birds launching in March).
This also reflects TV’s increasing move toward smaller episode orders, where even big hit broadcast network shows like NBC’s This Is Us make 18 episodes in a season, as opposed to the 22 or 24 that would have been typical even five years ago. A 13- or 10-episode show is much easier to launch at a time other than September, when you don’t have to worry about the various fall and year-end holidays depressing viewership eventually. So if you don’t have to launch in September, against so many other shows, why would you?
But as the mention of This Is Us should suggest, good, or at least popular, shows are still being launched during the fall TV season. And that’s a big part of our next problem.
Problem 2: last fall was one of the better fall TV seasons in a while
I’m not going to claim the 2016 fall TV season was an all-time great one, but there were still a lot of good-to-very-good shows that launched in a state where they were already very close to their best selves. On NBC alone, both This Is Us and The Good Place were instantly self-assured, while over on ABC, Speechless was one of those family comedies that gelled almost immediately.
If you wanted to expand that number to include cable shows, HBO had Insecure, while FX had both Atlanta and Better Things. On the streaming front, Netflix offered The Crown, while Amazon had One Mississippi and Fleabag. And I’m leaving out tons of shows, some of which lived up to their promise and some of which faded from the limelight. Just go look at Vox’s ranking of new TV shows from 2016 to see how many of them ended up being worthwhile.
The logical conclusion would be that such a strong fall — which included a massive breakout hit in This Is Us and couple of pretty solid cable hits in Atlanta and OWN’s Queen Sugar — would lead to more strong TV. Strength begets strength, right?
That’s not quite how it works in the TV industry. Typically, a good fall season is followed by a lousy one — or even two or three lousy ones. The best shows tend to attract many of the best people, which means a minor talent vacuum opens up after a really great fall season. This doesn’t mean good shows can’t be produced in an off-year, but it’s so hard to make a good TV show in the first place, and so hard to assemble just the right collection of writers, actors, directors, and technical personnel. Having that talent gap can make assembling that right team just a little bit harder — which can be the difference between a good show and a below average one.
But there’s one big problem that overrides everything else, and I’m talking around it a little bit. So let’s dive right in.
Problem 3: the broadcast networks increasingly struggle to play to their own strengths
I am not, as a rule, someone who is down on the broadcast networks. I am not a huge This Is Us fan, but it’s precisely the kind of show that works best on broadcast — big and warm and appealing. It feels just a bit like a TV show that wants to give you a hug, and that’s what the best broadcast shows, going all the way back to I Love Lucy, have always offered: a warm, welcoming place to check out every week, with characters you can’t help but love.
Yes, that even applies to something like CSI, which might have featured horrible murders but also a dryly witty team of crime solvers who made sure, on a weekly basis, that justice would be served. With a few notable exceptions (the original Twin Peaks and horror anthologies like The Twilight Zone being the most obvious ones), broadcast network TV shows are about situations where the status quo is threatened here and there but always, gracefully reasserts itself. Make a show like this well enough, and the reassertion of the status quo can feel beautiful somehow.
But broadcast networks increasingly struggle to play to that strength, especially in the peak TV era. The problem is less evident in broadcast comedy, probably because we watch sitcoms specifically to see our favorite characters react to the threat of change with wisecracks, before everything goes back to the way it always was at episode’s end. That’s why shows like Black-ish (ABC), Fresh Off the Boat (ABC), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Superstore (NBC), and so many others remain not just watchable but essential.
But broadcast dramas? There are only a handful really worth keeping up with. And when you look at this fall’s dramas, in particular, they’re an unrelenting assault of bland, same-y crime dramas, which have a case of the week, without any thought as to why we might want to watch this particular group of characters solve a case every week. In particular, this feels all the more jarring after This Is Us, which didn’t prompt a new run of family dramas. Instead, the networks continue to try to reinvent the Law & Order wheel, with a couple of small exceptions.
There are some good reasons to do this. Nail the network workplace drama, and you might run for 15 to 20 years (as we’ve seen with everything from, yes, Law & Order to Grey’s Anatomy). But network dramas are just as reliant on good character writing as network comedies are, and the networks increasingly seem like they just … don’t … get that.
There are three shows this fall that, for me, scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel, and they’re all dramas. The first, ABC’s Inhumans, is just incompetently done on every level, with bad writing that fails to offer the most basic element of any superhero story (tell us what everybody’s powers are!). The second, Fox’s The Orville, is a bafflingly misconceived Star Trek rip-off that seems to exist only because Seth MacFarlane has made 20th Century Fox billions of dollars. The last — and worst — is CBS’s Wisdom of the Crowd, which more or less argues that crime would cease to be a thing if we just got rid of privacy rights.
At first blush, these shows don’t have a ton in common. But look a little closer, and you’ll realize that they all approach their material from a “concept first” standpoint, rather than a character first one.
Superhero struggles, Star Trek-ish tales, and computers solving crimes don’t immediately suggest character dynamics and interplay in the way a family drama like This Is Us, or even an ensemble workplace drama like Grey’s Anatomy, does. They, instead, suggest an industry running scared from its own shadow, increasingly reliant on programs that will look great on promotional billboards.
Or, put another way, 20 years ago, the whole industry would have chased family drama clones off a cliff, trying to catch a contact high off of This Is Us. Now, broadcast TV can’t even do that right. It’s all glumly gritty dramas, all the way down.