As fall TV enters October after a very busy September premiere week, you’d be mistaken for thinking it’s stopped to catch its breath.
But you’d be — well, not wrong, exactly. Things have gotten slower. But there’s still tons of stuff debuting, and we’ve been consuming all of it, the better to let you know what might best distract you from the chaos of life today.
This week, we’ve got two brand-new CBS sitcoms, both featuring lead actors of color, The Neighborhood and Happy Together (that’s unusual for a network that has had diversity problems in the past). Then there’s NBC’s new Amy Poehler-produced I Feel Bad, and Hulu’s brand new horror anthology Into the Dark, which will release one new episode per month, themed around a holiday that falls during that month. (Fittingly, the first three episodes are Halloween-, Thanksgiving-, and Christmas-themed.) And finally, the week comes to a rousing conclusion with a new HBO special from the inestimable comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.
Few of these shows are great, and as critics, we often have limited information on whether they’ll get better. (It’s rare to impossible 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 long-term. For right now that’s just the Conchords special, where we’ve, uh, seen the entire special and can assure you it’s good.)
Both of CBS’s new Monday-night sitcoms boast tremendous casts. But only one has staying power.
Based solely on the pilots of CBS’s new sitcoms The Neighborhood and Happy Together, many progressive young viewers might be more drawn to The Neighborhood. Its gentrification-driven premise — a white family from the Midwest moves into a historically black neighborhood in Los Angeles — holds promise for talking about social issues, while the crackerjack cast (led by Cedric the Entertainer and New Girl’s Max Greenfield) will presumably keep the laughs coming in between the weightier stuff.
Yet in the four episodes CBS made available to critics, The Neighborhood disappointingly doubles down on jokes about how crazy the differences between white and black people are, and even if the cast members are trying their hardest (and they are!), it’s all but impossible to improve upon jokes based on such a tired premise. And that’s before you get to some of the more questionable ideas contained therein.
That’s why Happy Together, which airs right after The Neighborhood, could prove so instructive. It, too, has a great cast, but its pilot is actively bad because the show’s premise barely provides enough fodder for a single half-hour episode, let alone an entire series: A married couple in their 30s (Damon Wayans, Jr. and Amber Stevens West) end up living with a major pop star (Felix Mallard), who employs the husband as his accountant. (It’s very loosely inspired by producer Ben Winston’s brief time with real pop star Harry Styles as his housemate.)
But once you get past the pilot and into the two additional episodes CBS made available for review, Happy Together shows a refreshing willingness to just leap past the awkward premise and do the thing it was born to do: Let funny people hang out together and give Wayans the chance to perform some brilliant slapstick gags.
Happy Together isn’t going to change your life, but its goofy, low-conflict stories about attractive people doing fun things together remind me just a bit of Wayans’s late, lamented sitcom Happy Endings. It’s not on Happy Endings’ level yet, but the idea that it could get there isn’t all that implausible. —Todd VanDerWerff
The Neighborhood airs Mondays at 8 pm Eastern on CBS, and Happy Together airs at 8:30 pm Eastern. The pilots of both shows are available on CBS’s website and CBS All Access, but you can really just skip straight to Happy Together episode two, which airs Monday, October 8.
I Feel Bad isn’t a good show just yet, but it has the potential to become a unique twist on the typical family sitcom
NBC’s new comedy I Feel Bad has plenty going for it — including Amy Poehler’s backing as executive producer, a multiracial family at its center, and Sarayu Blue’s (Blockers, No Tomorrow) long-overdue turn in a leading role — so it feels bad to root against it. But I Feel Bad, at least in its first three episodes, is … well, maybe not bad, but also not good just yet.
Broadly speaking, the single-camera comedy format sounds like a perfect fit for a show about an Indian-American mom trying to have it all. But it unfortunately flattens the show’s most interesting element — the fact that Blue’s character Emet is a first-generation immigrant who must negotiate cultural differences with her white husband (Paul Adelstein) and their mixed-race children, while maintaining her relationship with her mother and father (Madhur Jaffrey and Brian George). At the end of the day, I Feel Bad either needs sharper jokes, or to get a little more serious.
Additionally, the idea of career women “having it all” has been widely explored in film and TV, both before and after 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon memorably yelled, “I can have it all!” in the middle of an airport security line, in defiance of being forced to choose between love and a sandwich. And I Feel Bad doesn’t yet promise to revitalize the topic: The show’s writing is thin, as if it has only just discovered that particular conversation about female identity.
In part, this lack of focus isn’t surprising — Blue’s role was not originally written as Indian-American, so the show has clearly undergone some reworking since she was cast. But it either hasn’t been reworked enough, or it’s been subsequently sanitized in a way that seems to question what still is or isn’t considered “normal” on network TV in 2018. —Karen Han
I Feel Bad airs on Thursdays at 9:30 pm Eastern on NBC.
Into the Dark is a roll of the dice, but worth tuning into once a month
The anthology format has long been making a comeback, with season-long stories like American Horror Story and more episodic offerings like Black Mirror becoming more common. And yet Hulu’s Into the Dark is singular in its plans to debut one episode every month, with each standalone installment of the Blumhouse-produced horror series revolving around a holiday that falls during the month in which it’s released.
October’s debut episode naturally takes place on Halloween. It’s a bit of a disappointment; despite a strong leading performance from Tom Bateman as a killer for hire, the story trips into unsurprising twists and boring tropes.
But that’s where the anthology format kicks in to the show’s advantage: If one episode falters, it has no bearing on what comes next.
Episode two, set on Thanksgiving, is a blast, in no small part thanks to a wild performance from Dermot Mulroney. And though it won’t air until November, it establishes Into the Dark as unlike its anthology peers in how disparate it feels from the first episode. The two installments feel more like individual movies that would be programmed together in a double feature — indeed, each clocks in at almost 90 minutes — than parts of the same TV show.
As a result, Into the Dark is difficult to recommend as a whole, because any given episode could be a hit or a miss, and the two episodes sent out for review suggest that even the type of horror will vary from episode to episode. But as things stand, the strength of the second episode — on top of how remarkable the series feels as a throwback to old-school anthology shows like The Twilight Zone — is enough to give the series a chance (or several). —KH
Into the Dark premieres October 5 on Hulu, with a new episode every month.
The new Flight of the Conchords special is both a comeback special and greatest hits retrospective. It’s so much fun.
The Biggest Band in New Zealand has returned, and they’re as small and unassuming as ever.
Thirteen years after Flight of the Conchords made their HBO debut on One-Night Stand, and nine years after their eponymous series wrapped, the aggressively modest musical-comedy duo returns to the network with Live in London, which splits the difference between comeback special and greatest-hits retrospective.
The Conchords haven’t been entirely absent from the comedy scene in the intervening years, though the band has gone relatively low-profile as Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie have found individual career success. But outside of some light bobbles and false starts in Live in London, the pair’s musical and comedic chemistry is as sharp as ever.
Over their 20-year history together, Clement and McKenzie have honed the personas of “Bret” and “Jemaine” to a fine point, and fall easily back into their roles as deadpan naifs, even as they play in front of a sold-out crowd at London’s Eventim Apollo. (The special was recorded this past July as part of a UK arena tour.) It’s apparent from the tiny smiles and stifled chuckles that punctuate their bone-dry banter that the pair is happy to return to the world of the Conchords, and feed off the energy of an appreciative audience.
As such, the Conchords devote a good chunk of Live in London to their most well-known songs, but also make room for new or lesser-known tunes that tend to sprawl and spiral in delightful ways. “Father & Son” and the hyper-meta “The Seagull” are slow builds with satirical premises that become more apparent — and more hilarious — as the songs go on. The “Devil Went Down To Georgia” riff “Ballad of Stana” and “Summer of 1353 (Woo a Lady),” meanwhile, are classic Conchords absurdity, right down to a climactic recorder breakdown in the latter.
That recorder breakdown doubles as a reminder that, for all their silliness, McKenzie and Clement have always been talented multi-instrumentalists with a keen ear for genre- and era-specific sounds. And that is at the heart of what makes Live in London such a pleasure: Watching the Conchords bound between sounds, instruments, and comedic reference points as easily and amiably as they ever did offers an uncomplicated, comforting sort of joy that feels even more special today than it did a decade ago. —Genevieve Koski
Flight of the Conchords: Live in London premieres on HBO at 9 pm Eastern on Saturday, October 6. It will be available on HBO’s streaming platforms beginning Sunday, October 7.
- NBC’s Superstore (Thursday, 8 pm) returned Thursday, October 4, and if you’re not already watching this gem of a workplace sitcom, check out its intricately constructed season four premiere — which boasts a lovely twist at its end — to find out why you should be.
- ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat (Friday, 8 pm) and Speechless (Friday, 8:30 pm) return to once again show that the network’s family comedy game is so strong it can slide two of its very best shows in that category off to Friday nights in an attempt to relaunch its TGIF brand. If you’ve never seen Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu play Jessica Huang on Fresh Off the Boat, the sitcom that brought her to fame, you owe it to yourself to check out one of the decade’s best comedic performances. And Speechless continues to tell fresh, funny stories about a family where one of the kids has cerebral palsy.
- BBC America’s Doctor Who (Sunday, 1:45 pm Eastern/10:45 am Pacific) is celebrating the very first woman Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and a new showrunner (Chris Chibnall) with a premiere that will air live on both sides of the Atlantic, so those pesky Brits aren’t several hours ahead of all of us here in the US. But don’t worry — if you’d rather wait to watch in primetime, it will be rebroadcast throughout the day, including at 6 pm, 8 pm, and 10 pm. (We’ve seen it and can’t say much beyond — it’s really good!)
- Finally, AMC’s The Walking Dead (Sunday, 9 pm) is back for its ninth season, which is going to see some major cast turnover. (Don’t click that link if you don’t want to know!) Having to build toward some upcoming departures has given the series a slight sense of renewed purpose — though if you’ve already fallen off the Walking Dead wagon, that renewed purpose probably won’t be quite enough to get you back on.