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Nathan Fillion is a rookie cop, Black-ish is back, and more from the week in fall TV

ABC and Netflix saved some of the fall’s strongest new shows for late in the game.

The Kids Are Alright, black-ish, The Rookie, Wanderlust
The Kids Are Alright, black-ish, The Rookie, and Wanderlust all involve characters staring in disbelief for one reason or another.
ABC, ABC, ABC, Netflix

Sometimes, TV networks hold back their biggest nights until the fall season has calmed down a bit, the better to have more time to promote them. So it is this year with ABC’s Tuesday night lineup, which pins all its hopes on the Roseanne spinoff The Conners.

We have thoughts on The Conners elsewhere, but below you’ll find thoughts on the network’s brand new nostalgia comedy The Kids Are Alright, its new cop drama (and Nathan Fillion vehicle) The Rookie, and the premiere of Black-ish season five, a.k.a. the series’ return after a weirdly tumultuous fourth season. (Also returning is Splitting Up Together, but we don’t have time to watch everything.)

Finally, we also have thoughts on Netflix’s new Toni Collette series Wanderlust, which has already aired in the United Kingdom. So if you’re from the UK, this will be a retrospective for you. How lucky!

Few of these shows are great, and as critics, we often have limited information on whether they’ll get better. (It’s rare to unprecedented for broadcast networks, especially, to send out many episodes for review beyond the first couple.) But there’s something in all of these shows worth checking out, especially if you’re a particular fan of their genres.

(A note: We’ve only given ratings to shows where we feel we’ve seen enough episodes to judge how successful they will be in the long term. This week, that’s Wanderlust, of which we’ve seen the entire first season.)

The Kids Are Alright is alright. (It was right there. What did you expect?)

On its surface, ABC’s The Kids Are Alright — think The Wonder Years, but set in the ’70s and amid a huge Irish Catholic family living in Los Angeles — doesn’t seem to be breaking any new ground. But not every show needs to break new ground to be a success.

Where The Kids Are Alright sets viewers at ease is in its execution. The pilot has some clunky exposition and forced jokes (a reference to “phony news” might make you groan a bit). But that’s also forgivable in a show that has 10 major characters to introduce, eight of them the family sons, differentiated mainly by their age. When it comes to being able to explain all of these characters in a word or two, The Kids Are Alright succeeds considerably, despite only having 22 minutes to pull off the task.

ABC’s kid-casting department has always been the best in television, but the network has outdone itself here, with every one of these boys, who range in age from a tiny baby to a seminary student, expertly chosen both to fill their role and to feel like they fit together as a family. In particular, Jack Gore, who plays Timmy, the would-be entertainer whose adult memories provide the show’s narration (thanks to creator/showrunner Tim Doyle), is a surprisingly strong center for the show, despite his young age.

The show also boasts strong work from Michael Cudlitz and Mary McCormack as the boys’ parents, who express a kind of exhausted, off-brand dignity. And its ’70s milieu provides a tension between old ways and new that feels of the moment.

This is still very much A Sitcom Pilot, with all the “Oh, hey, I’m going to tell you about our relationship to each other, because we need to get in some exposition” lines that implies. But the casting works, and the writing underscores the bonds among these characters in a way that makes them feel like a real family. It’s not all the way there yet — but it’s at least alright. —Todd VanDerWerff

The Kids Are Alright debuts Tuesday, October 16, at 8:30 pm Eastern. It bears no relation to the film or song of the same name.

Black-ish has entered the elder statesman period of the family sitcom life cycle

The fourth season of ABC’s wonderful comedy Black-ish roiled with an unusual amount of tension. First, the network pulled a completed episode (dealing with the country’s recent political unrest) from the schedule, then announced it would never be aired. Then a late-season series of episodes putting the show’s central marriage in danger drew mixed critical responses.

And finally, the series’ creator and mastermind, Kenya Barris, exited his deal with ABC Studios in favor of setting up shop at Netflix. He will continue to be involved in Black-ish as long as it’s on the air, but he has taken a step back from the show and will otherwise be working for an entirely separate media company.

Add to this all of the typical problems of a family sitcom entering its fifth season — the kids are getting older (and thus less cute), the family dynamics are played out, and it’s hard to figure out how to keep the older kids involved in the story when they might normally be off at college — and you have a recipe for a show that could easily spin its wheels, racking up more episodes for a syndication order but slowly declining during its last few years on the air.

Judging by the first two episodes of season five, however, the show, while more tired than it’s ever felt, is still one of TV’s best family comedies, mixing the sort of lighthearted family stories that are the center of this subgenre with more thoughtful and probing explorations of black life in America.

Episode one, “Gap Year,” investigates why black men who are born into wealth are more likely to fall into poverty than white men born into wealth. Episode two, “Don’t You Be My Neighbor,” takes on the wave of calls to the police complaining about black people doing pretty much anything, like having a block party or hanging out in a Starbucks. The new episodes also lean into the aging of the child cast, doing some fascinating things with the now-teenage Diane in particular.

If you like Black-ish, then, you’ll be more than fine with these new episodes. The show has lost a step, sure, but it’s a lost step due not to turmoil but rather age. Few shows can make it to 100 episodes — the line Black-ish will cross later this fall — without being a little less surprising and audacious. Now an elder statesman, Black-ish seems more than happy to step into a more distinguished phase of its life. —TV

black-ish returns Tuesday, October 16, at 9 pm Eastern on ABC.

The Rookie is a star vehicle that sneakily plays by ensemble drama rules

Give Nathan Fillion this: When it came time to choose his return to television, the Castle star didn’t latch onto any of the presumably dozens of star vehicles thrown at him. Instead, he grabbed hold of a show that seems like a star vehicle — in that it’s named after his character — but boasts a surprisingly robust ensemble. That makes The Rookie one of the fall’s best new dramas. (A low bar to clear, admittedly.)

Fillion plays the rookie of the title, John Nolan, a man in his 40s who, after stopping a bank robbery, decides to move to Los Angeles from his little Pennsylvania town and join the LAPD. Now, most of this decision-making occurs offscreen, which leads to the first five minutes of the show’s pilot feeling hilariously abrupt. The focus veers wildly from John feeling like his life has had no meaning or adventure to him stopping the robbery to him at his first day on the job with the LAPD. You’d be forgiven for turning off the pilot in these moments.

But credit where it’s due: The Rookie is interested in exploring more rookie cops beyond John. In particular, the show adds to its mix of brand new cops Melissa O’Neil as Lucy, a hyper-competent young woman with something to prove, and Titus Makin as Jackson, the son of a cop who’s kind of coasted into the job. Then it pairs all of these rookies with more experienced training officers looking to advance their own careers, which provides a fun blend of motivations and character dynamics.

There’s plenty of stuff in The Rookie that doesn’t work. It doesn’t really try to do anything new with the cop show format, and there’s one big twist around the episode’s midpoint that made me sigh in irritation.

But in a world of cop shows still wedded to the closed-off, more procedural nature of shows like Law & Order and CSI, it’s kind of fun to have a series more interested in building out a large ensemble of characters, where the cases are secondary to the characters bouncing off each other. And in Fillion, the show has a star who’s refreshingly free of vanity (mostly), willing to portray himself as an over-the-hill guy huffing his way through his first days on the job. —TV

The Rookie debuts Tuesday, October 16, at 10 pm Eastern on ABC.

Wanderlust can be a little too literal-minded, but it’s honest where it counts

There are so many moving parts to Wanderlust that it can be hard to keep track of its narrative flurry — but in a show about the ins, outs, ups, and downs of relationships, that may be inevitable. But aside from the realization that catalyzes the events of the series, the story is maybe the flimsiest part of the whole series anyway.

For any other show, that might be a death knell, but it doesn’t matter so much for Wanderlust. The show’s earnest approach to relationships and sex — there’s no shying away from the awkwardness of any of it — is appealing enough to counteract the way the plot falls into a much more typical (and disappointing) pattern.

The crux of the series, written by Nick Payne and premiering on Netflix in the US, is Joy (Toni Collette) and Alan’s (Steven Mackintosh) mutual decision to have sex with other people. They’ll remain married — they still love each other, and their family — but their sex life has stalled, and this may just be the change they need.

It’s a bold beginning, given that any kind of infidelity or polyamory tends to be either exoticized or damned in media portrayals, and Wanderlust manages not to present it that way by focusing on the emotional strings tying these people together.

That strength comes through in the patients Joy sees in her day-to-day work as a therapist, who provide micro versions of the crises and changes that the main cast go through. (Andy Nyman and Robin Weaver are particularly great as a couple coming in for counseling.) But of course it’s down to Collette and Mackintosh to hold down the fort.

As proven earlier this year in Hereditary (just the most recent of many examples), Collette is capable of anything. And Mackintosh — whom you may remember from Luther or as any number of weirdos, corporate stooges, and yes men from the past handful of years — is finally allowed to put his prodigious charm to use. They keep things moving, literally and figuratively, even as the story starts to flag and veer in the most predictable directions.

The other relationships in the series are treated with similar tenderness toward experiences ranging from young love to exploring one’s sexuality to dealing with an age gap. It’s all treated with an eye toward honesty rather than shock value, and ultimately is what makes the show worth watching. —Karen Han

All six episodes of Wanderlust debut on Netflix on Friday, October 19.

There’s also ...

  • ABC’s The Conners (Tuesday at 8) is surprisingly good for something hastily cobbled together from the ashes of the Roseanne revival. You can read more of our thoughts on the spinoff here.
  • Two streaming docuseries return for their second seasons on Friday — Netflix’s Making a Murderer and Amazon’s Lore. We’ll have more on the former later in the week, but making 10 episodes out of the handful of new developments in the Steven Avery case since season one aired turns out to be a tall order. The latter remains agreeably spooky, if a little unsure how to bridge the gap between the podcast that inspired it and its TV self.
  • Two new TV movie/miniseries projects of note that debut this weekend: HBO’s My Dinner With Hervé (Saturday at 9 pm) casts Peter Dinklage in the role of Fantasy Island star Hervé Villechaize (he of “The plane! The plane!”). Meanwhile, PBS launches a five-episode adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel The Woman in White (Sunday at 9 pm) that looks to be a lavish take on a terrific Victorian mystery.