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4 TV shows to check out, from The Good Place to Lil Rel Howery’s new show

Plus: Murphy Brown is back, and God Friended Me isn’t as bad as “a show about God friending a guy on Facebook” sounds.

The Good Place, Murphy Brown, God Friended Me, REL
The Good Place, Murphy Brown, God Friended Me, and Rel are all worth checking out.

The second half of 2018’s fall TV premiere week brings with it a slew of comedies, new and old, as the afterlife dwellers of NBC’s The Good Place move on to a new location and scene stealer Lil Rel Howery finally gets his own sitcom with Fox’s Rel (which technically debuted a few weeks ago but moves to its regular time slot this week).

But the week’s biggest “new” series is Murphy Brown, the 1988 stalwart that has returned for its first season since 1998, with most of the original cast in tow. (It’s the 11th season of Murphy Brown overall.) Does Candice Bergen still have it? Do you even have to ask that question? (You saw Book Club, right? Good movie!)

Oh, and there’s also a show where God friends somebody on Facebook, and it’s nowhere near as bad as that sounds. Promise!

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, which for right now is just Murphy Brown and The Good Place. In the case of both shows, we’ve seen new unaired episodes in addition to prior seasons.)

“Good” isn’t good enough to describe The Good Place

Good news: The Good Place is back.

The NBC comedy is one of the best shows currently airing. It’s smart, it’s touching, it’s funny, it’s well-acted — and even in its third season, it’s firing on all cylinders.

Season three picks up where season two ended, with our heroes sent back to Earth to test out Michael’s (Ted Danson) theory that, given the opportunity, they would change their lives enough to make it into the Good Place.

Of course, saving the souls of everyone’s favorite humans — self-professed “trash bag” Eleanor (Kristen Bell), mortally indecisive Chidi (William Jackson Harper), navel-gazing socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jacksonville, Florida’s very own Jason (Manny Jacinto) — isn’t quite that easy. But it wouldn’t be The Good Place if it was.

From the start, showrunner Mike Schur has been perfecting the art of subverting expectations and throwing curveballs into the story at a rate that would cripple pretty much any other show. The new season doesn’t let up in that regard, as its twists and turns pull off a three-season hat trick.

That it works comes down to the fact that nothing on The Good Place is done for shock value; at the risk of sounding preachy, it’s all in service of a larger arc, as well as a reminder — whether you believe in the existence of a Good Place or not — to be good, even when it seems impossible. —Karen Han

The Good Place debuts Thursday at 8 pm Eastern on NBC. Don’t miss it, ya dink!

Murphy Brown returns with all the subtlety of an anti-Trump email forward. But maybe that’s your thing!

The first three episodes of the new season of Murphy Brown, which reunites liberal lion news anchor Murphy and most of her pals at a cable news morning show, aren’t very good. The jokes are mostly easy potshots at Donald Trump (would you believe that Murphy calls him “orange” in the first episode?!), and the live studio audience is so over-mic’ed that every little utterance they make sounds like wild laughter and applause.

In the 2018 revival, Murphy and her friends are hosting a sort of Fox & Friends for the type of left-leaning folks who watch Murphy Brown. And putting Murphy in the hollow confines of a morning show could be fun! But the new Murphy Brown doesn’t even try to explore these contradictions, or the sheer anachronism of the show’s existence in this era.

It instead exists in a world in which support for Trump is inexplicable and if the press just found the right words to speak, it might make him disappear; this is a show that takes every opportunity to harangue America, Republicans, and the press for not having the calm, collected wisdom of Murphy Brown.

And yet there’s something here. For as sitcom-silly as it is for Murphy to be dragged into a tweet war with the president in the season premiere, the heroine of this revival serves as a specific panacea to people old enough to remember Murphy Brown, peddling a kind of sitting-on-your-couch activism designed not to effect change but, instead, to make you feel less alone in these scary times.

And every so often, there’s a flash of the old show’s panache, or a line reading that Bergen knocks dead, or a flicker of terror at how bad things have gotten and how bad they could still get, and the show comes to life, for a moment at least. It’s not good, but it’s comforting. —Todd VanDerWerff

Murphy Brown season 11 debuts Thursday at 9:30 pm Eastern on CBS, with a special 35-minute episode. For much more on Murphy old and new, read our comprehensive explainer.

God Friended Me knows it’s a huge slab of cheese. That makes all the difference.

On paper, the premise of God Friended Me sounds so very, very stupid. Miles, an atheist played by the effortlessly charming Brandon Micheal Hall, hosts a podcast where he dunks on believers. And then one day, he receives a Facebook friend request from “God.” He accepts the friend request, and God suggests other friends, who turn out to be part of a massive puzzle that could only be assembled by someone omniscient.

Does Miles start believing in God as a result? Nah. To God Friended Me’s credit, the show lets Miles think that what’s happening to him involves either the actual God ... or such a sophisticated artificial intelligence that it seems like God but is, instead, just really good at predicting what people are going to do. (Shades of the late, lamented Person of Interest!)

Miles spends a lot of the pilot trying to figure out who “God” is, like he’s not in a TV show where it will take him 100 episodes or more to solve the mystery (and where he will almost certainly learn that “God” is actually God or, like, a conglomerate of psychic rabbis). But somehow, God Friended Me has a good shot at wearing down your (very reasonable) defenses.

Hall earns my earlier descriptor of “effortlessly charming,” bearing even more of the load than he did on ABC’s one-season-and-done comedy The Mayor. And the series has surrounded him with equally likable supporting players, including Violett Beane as a journalist who joins his cause, and Joe Morton as his — dramatic irony!!! — minister father?!

If God Friended Me were at all cynical about its premise, it would be unbearable. Instead, it’s earnest and cheesy and a little stupid, which turns out to be the right approach. When the puzzle pieces snap into place, it works, the viewer’s cynicism be damned, because it’s silly in the way that a golden retriever licking your face is silly — you eventually just kind of give in and laugh about it. —TV

God Friended Me debuts Sunday, September 30, at 8:30 pm Eastern on CBS. If you grew up in the Protestant Church, try singing the title to the tune of “Love Lifted Me.” You will never be able to stop. You’re welcome.

Rel is fun, but you may be better off tuning in later in the season

The mileage you get out of Rel will likely depend on how much you like its namesake, Lil Rel Howery. On the bright side, objectively speaking, Howery has charm to spare, and after supporting turns in Get Out and Insecure, it’s nice to see him as a leading man. Rel’s creators, Josh Rabinowitz and Kevin Barnett (The Carmichael Show), also seem to be keenly aware of their star’s strengths, as the show’s pilot opens with a monologue that depends entirely on how well Howery can sell a scene where he’s essentially talking to himself.

That said, Howery is stuck doing most of the heavy lifting. Rel is based on Howery’s own life — his character is named Lil Rel and, like Howery, is divorced with two children and from the West Side of Chicago — but the specifics and depths that such a correlation ought to provide aren’t quite there. At least, not in the pilot.

Though Rel occasionally plays a little too hard into its multi-camera comedy format (audience laughs are a difficult thing to master; if a show relies on them too much, they become annoying rather than helpful), there’s clearly potential for growth. The natural rapport between Howery and the rest of the cast, including Jessica Moore as Lil Rel’s longtime friend, Jordan L. Jones as his brother, and Sinbad as his father, is great, even if they’re aiming wider with their jokes than Howery, who seems to have something a little more substantive in mind as far as the long game is concerned.

Which is all to say, if you’re a fan of Howery’s work, Rel is worth tuning in to. The series has the potential to become something special — just a little further into the season. —KH

REL airs Sundays at 9:30 pm Eastern on Fox.

And also...

  • Last Man Standing (Friday, 8 pm) returns after a year off the air, with some cast changes and a new network — it used to be on ABC; now it’s on Fox. Tim Allen is still front and center, though. We’ll post more comprehensive thoughts soon, but if you liked Last Man Standing in its first go-round, you will probably like its return episodes.
  • Last Man Standing’s Fox debut is followed by The Cool Kids (Friday, 8:30 pm), which gathers a lot of great actors (David Alan Grier! Martin Mull! Vicki Lawrence! Leslie Jordan!) only to strand them in a bland story about retirement home shenanigans. With a cast this good and a co-creator like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, there’s a world in which The Cool Kids evolves rapidly into something truly funny. It’s probably just not this world.
  • Also, NBC’s Saturday Night Live (Saturday, 11:30 pm Eastern/8:30 pm Pacific) is back this weekend and live coast to coast. Obviously, we haven’t seen it, but the series’ season premieres are often among the best episodes of the season. This one is hosted by Adam Driver with musical guest Kanye West. Keep an eye out for the debut of new cast member Ego Nwodim.

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