In 2017, we dubbed the fall season the worst in recent memory, thanks to its stunningly boring array of unoriginal, undistinguished shows, led by a broadcast network lineup that didn’t bother doing anything new or even interesting.
In 2018, we declared the fall TV season over and done with, thanks to the growth of streaming and another round of the broadcast networks all but crying uncle in the face of streaming and cable.
And, sure, the fall TV season is still kind of a mirage. There will be more shows debuting in September and October than there were in August, but it’s not as if anybody sits out the summer anymore. Fall TV is now more a matter of degree than anything else, particularly on streaming and cable, which spread their shows’ debuts all across the calendar.
So the quality of any individual “fall TV season” often rests on how good the broadcast networks’ new programs are. (“Fall premiere week” is diminished from its heights, but it still begins reliably with every fourth Monday in September, and the broadcast networks throw a ton of shows into its maw.) And in 2019, for the first time ... all decade ... it feels like all five broadcast networks are genuinely trying to make television that’s new and exciting. Pair that feeling with strong entries from cable and streaming networks and you have the best fall TV season of the 2010s.
There are more good shows up ahead than the ones we’ve listed below, but these are our 15 top picks out of those premiering in September and October. (There are even more new shows slated for November and December, including several we haven’t even seen that will air on brand new streaming services like Disney+ and AppleTV+, so check back in with us then.)
Series are listed in order of debut.
Couples Therapy (Showtime)
What it is: This documentary series takes viewers inside the offices of Orna Guralnik, a real psychologist, who helps talk couples through issues they’re facing. The show follows four couples, but no one of them dominates the proceedings, and their issues are all serious but in very different ways. Everything from two people with different timetables for having children, to dealing with the traumatic past one partner can bring into a new relationship, is on the table, and the series features a diverse cast of couples, including the relationship of a trans woman and a cis woman. And it’s incredibly compelling, despite being, effectively, a bunch of conversations, thanks to the filmmaking team behind the acclaimed documentary Weiner.
Why we’re hyped: We’ve only seen three episodes (of nine total), but we’re all-in, thanks to a structure that allows viewers to see the couples in therapy with Guralnik and on their own. The show even offers little glimpses into the good doctor’s life here and there. It’s intimate, but never so intimate you feel like you’re intruding.
Why we’re cautious: It’s very, very difficult to build satisfying narratives around talk therapy, because talk therapy doesn’t follow any neat paths or come to regularly scheduled climaxes. Will nine episodes be enough to give a full sense of these couples and their issues — or a full sense of Guralnik?
When it airs: Couples Therapy debuted September 6 on Showtime. New episodes air Fridays at 10 pm Eastern, though if you are a Showtime subscriber, you can watch the entirety of season one on the network’s streaming apps. —Emily VanDerWerff
What it is: A miniseries adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article about the hunt for a serial rapist, Unbelievable is infuriating, but in a very intentional way. Its first episode depicts a young Washington woman who is raped in her own home by a man she does not know, then shows how her town’s police force systematically works to get her to recant her story. Later episodes shift perspective to follow the cops in Colorado who linked several similar cases to realize they had one predator in common.
Why we’re hyped: Throughout its first four episodes, Unbelievable is a strong example of how to do true crime well. The characters feel real, the performances are grounded, and the presentation of the central crime is never salacious. That’s to be expected, with a creative team that includes writers Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Michael Chabon (many novels, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), and Ayelet Waldman (many novels, including Love and Other Impossible Pursuits), as well as director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right).
Why we’re cautious: Unbelievable doesn’t try to mitigate the horrible events that take place in it, which will not be for everyone. The viewer discretion warning at the start of each episode is well-heeded. Similarly, for a show about a young woman whose report of her rape isn’t initially believed — that title? Really?
When it airs: All eight episodes of the miniseries debut September 13 on Netflix. —EV
Undone (Amazon Prime Video)
What it is: From Tornante Studios, the animation outfit behind BoJack Horseman, as well as BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and BoJack writer Kate Purdy, Undone is the first entirely rotoscoped series in TV history — meaning that the performances of its actors are filmed live on a set, then animated based on the footage. (The adult swim series Dream Corp LLC previously used rotoscoping but parts of that series are in live action.) The process creates an uncanny space between reality and pure imagination, with shaky, wavering visuals perfectly suited to a story about a young woman (Rosa Salazar) who is recruited by the ghost of her father (Bob Odenkirk) to change the past and fix the future. Or is she? Everything that’s happening might be only in her head.
Why we’re hyped: The Tornante team’s first two shows — BoJack and the sadly canceled Tuca and Bertie — were aces, and the two episodes we’ve seen of Undone boast a similarly creative and unusual look at characters you might not see elsewhere on TV. The visuals are beautiful, the storytelling is endlessly creative, and Rosa Salazar remains one of our most underappreciated young actresses.
Why we’re cautious: It’s tricky to say this without spoiling the show, but Undone is saying something about mental illness and how to treat it that is drawn from Purdy’s own life experiences, but which might turn off some viewers. One viewer’s thrilling exploration of alternative treatment methods might be another viewer’s irresponsible write-off of more traditional treatments.
When it airs: All eight episodes of season one debut September 13 on Amazon Prime Video. —EV
Country Music (PBS)
What it is: Famed documentarian Ken Burns’s latest is an eight-episode, 16-hour dissection of country music, from its roots in working-class black and rural white communities in the 19th century up through its huge boom in popularity in the 1990s. Burns and his collaborators have talked to seemingly every single major country musician who’s alive, and they portray the music as a window into some essential American self, one that helped a lot of people through some very hard times.
Why we’re hyped: It’s Ken Burns, but in a lighter, less weighty mood than we saw in his 2017 opus The Vietnam War. Across Country Music’s first two episodes, the show tackles serious topics — the Great Depression, for one — but through the lens of some truly amazing music. If you know nothing about country music, this is a great primer. And if you do know plenty, you’ll love seeing, say, Dolly Parton’s take on some of the great country musicians of yore.
Why we’re cautious: The intersection of race and any topic in American history is something Burns has struggled with in the past, and Country Music is particularly troubling in this regard. The music is portrayed as primarily an art form by and for poor white people, and Country Music is not as interested in the reasons for that conception as it probably should be. Also: It ends in 1996, right on the cusp of country’s growing presence on the pop charts.
When it airs: Country Music airs four episodes between Sunday, September 15, and Wednesday, September 18, then another four between Sunday, September 22, and Wednesday, September 25, on PBS. All eight episodes air at 8 pm Eastern in most markets, but you should check local listings. (It will also be streaming on PBS’s website and streaming app.) —EV
Prodigal Son (Fox)
What it is: Yet another procedural “with a twist!” This one is about a brilliant criminal psychologist, Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), who has an uncanny ability to know how killers think … because his father (Michael Sheen) was once a notorious serial killer. Malcolm, who has PTSD and suffers from night terrors, helps the NYPD solve crimes while also dealing with his imprisoned, murderous dad — known as “The Surgeon” because he worked as a cardiothoracic surgeon during his killing spree.
Why we’re hyped: There is really no such thing as an inventive crime procedural, but Prodigal Son is at least having loads of fun — and it does bill itself as “darkly comedic,” a tone that generally works throughout the pilot (the only episode we’ve seen so far). It’s a peculiar show that, surprisingly, made us laugh out loud more than once. It’s not going to be great, but it’s certainly going to be enjoyable. And again: Malcolm’s dad is called “The Surgeon,” and they say it approximately 500 times within the pilot, and surely each following episode, too.
Why we’re cautious: There’s so much about Prodigal Son that doesn’t work: Sometimes it’s impossible to tell which jokes are intentional and which aren’t. Macolm’s mother (Bellamy Young) and sister (Halston Sage) are too by-the-book. And it often appears as if the show’s writers told only Michael Sheen that the series is supposed to comedic. (This last flaw, however, might turn out to be a plus.)
When it airs: Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on Fox, starting September 23. —Pilot Viruet
What it is: This second spin-off of ABC’s Black-ish — after Grown-ish, which airs on ABC’s sister network Freeform — is a prequel focused on Rainbow Johnson and her two younger siblings as they coming of age as mixed-race children in the 1980s. After their hippie cult (ahem, commune) gets raided, the family moves to the suburbs, thrusting Rainbow into a new, unfamiliar world — and forcing her to reckon with race for the first time.
Why we’re hyped: When Black-ish is good, it’s really good, so we have the same hopes for Mixed-ish. Rainbow is arguably the most fascinating member of the Johnson family, and the Black-ish episode focused on her biracial identity is a series high. Mixed-ish has the potential to really showcase what it’s like to be biracial and feel lost in the world, and if it does so with the same pathos and humor as Black-ish, it could be something special. Also: ABC’s kids casting is spot-on.
Why we’re cautious: Black-ish’s other spinoff, Grown-ish, has yet to find itself and flounders more than it flourishes — it’s easy to imagine Mixed-ish facing the same fate. The pilot episode (the only one that ABC made available for review) is, well, a mixed bag: Though it shows a lot of promise, it has an unfortunate habit of making everything too literal and cut-and-dried, rather than trusting its audience.
When it airs: Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on ABC, starting September 24. — PV
What it is: Through one lens, Emergence is a family drama about a divorced couple, the kid who’s torn between them, and the loving but crotchety grandfather who just wants everybody to be happy. Through another, it’s yet another network TV show hinting at a grand conspiracy and a strange mystery, one whose answers will surely frustrate whatever small number of viewers stick around to learn them. The strange mystery in this case centers on a little girl with odd powers who seemingly appears out of nowhere, and the sheriff and single mom (Fargo’s Allison Tolman!) who takes her in and tries to protect her from the shadowy forces trying to capture the kid.
Why we’re hyped: You know ... there have been so many shows like this since the glory days of Lost, and all of them have failed. But Emergence is better-executed than most, with a strong family drama core, a couple of intriguing clues to the central mystery, and a genuinely unsettling closing sequence to the pilot (the only episode ABC has sent out to critics). Executive producers Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters (Reaper, Agent Carter) deserve a breakout hit, if nothing else — as does Tolman.
Why we’re cautious: See above, in re: “all of them have failed.” Even if Emergence grows into its best self (it’s not there yet), is anybody going to watch?
When it airs: Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on ABC, beginning September 24. You can watch the first nine minutes of the pilot on ABC’s website right now. —EV
What it is: A good, old-fashioned private eye show, just like they used to make in the glory days of network television. Based on the graphic novels by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth, Stumptown has assembled an impressive cast. Cobie Smulders of How I Met Your Mother and Marvel movies fame steps into the lead role as Dex Parios, an unconventional detective who struggles with PTSD. And Jake Johnson (New Girl, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse) and Michael Ealy (Think Like a Man, Being Mary Jane) are in the mix as her two prospects in a love triangle. All three are great at spitting out hard-boiled dialogue, and the case they investigate in the pilot (the only episode ABC screened for critics) is enjoyably scruffy.
Why we’re hyped: A case-of-the-week show might not set your heart aflutter in 2019, but Stumptown’s pilot is so well-executed that we have every reason to hope creator and showrunner Jason Richman will find a way to bring the same energy week after week. Plus, the show’s Portland, Oregon, setting — complete with inclusion of the city’s Native American population — sets the series apart from a million cop shows set in New York or Los Angeles.
Why we’re cautious: We’ve only seen one episode. Coming up with interesting mysteries for characters to solve week after week after week is a difficult task for even the best detective shows. Whether this one can leap over that hurdle will be key to its success or failure.
When it airs: Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on ABC, starting September 25. —EV
The Unicorn (CBS)
What it is: A CBS single-camera comedy about Wade (Walton Goggins), a recently widowed father of two daughters, who jumps back into the dating world with the encouragement of his friends. The show is simultaneously a peek at the world of middle-aged dating (an underexplored topic in some ways), a sitcom about close and supportive friends in adulthood, and a look at restarting your life after a tragedy.
Why we’re hyped: Walton Goggins and Michaela Watson (who plays one of Wade’s close friends) are both fantastic in everything they do, so it’s especially exciting to see them play off each other on The Unicorn. Also, based on the one episode we’ve seen so far, the show is poised to appeal to fans of tear-jerky comedies like One Day At A Time — it aims to balance heart with laughs.
Why we’re cautious: For one, it’s on CBS which doesn’t exactly have the best track record for producing solid, creative comedies (look no further than last year’s duds The Neighborhood and Happy Together). There is nothing actively bad in the pilot, but our overall takeaway was indifference, and a wish that they’d approach the dating aspects differently. There’s only so many times we can watch a grown man fumble with a dating profile and a bad date.
When it airs: Thursdays at 8:30 pm Eastern on CBS, starting September 26. —PV
What it is: Executive produced by Mike Schur (The Good Place, Parks and Recreation) and co-created by Kal Penn, Sunnyside is gunning for 2019’s Timeliest Comedy award. Penn also stars on this sitcom, as a disgraced NYC councilman named Garrett who switches gears when he begins helping a group of undocumented immigrants become American citizens by teaching them civics.
Why we’re hyped: Sunnyside has a cool premise with an optimistic hook, priming to earn the “feel-good comedy” marker. The show’s pilot has some distinct and welcome Community vibes — Penn is essentially tutoring a ragtag group of diverse folks — and there’s loads of potential for the show to comfortably settle into an ensemble comedy. Also, it features two standout performances in Diana-Maria Riva, most recently seen in Dead to Me, and Joel Kim Booster, a comedian and writer on Netflix’s Big Mouth.
Why we’re cautious: Going solely off Sunnyside’s pilot, the only episode NBC sent out to critics, many of the jokes are too obvious and don’t quite land; while the cast delivers killer line-readings, the lines themselves need more work. The characters don’t yet feel any more developed than their two-sentence descriptors, and it’s hard to picture where it’ll go in the future.
When it airs: Thursdays at 9:30 pm Eastern on NBC, starting September 26. —PV
What it is: Robert and Michelle King, creators of The Good Wife and The Good Fight, leave the courtroom behind for ... a supernatural crime-solving spin on The X-Files? Dana Scull... err, Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers, of The Leftovers and Westworld) is intensely skeptical about demonic possession and other paranormal phenomena. But when she ends up paired with a cool priest (Mike Colter, a.k.a. Luke Cage himself), she finds herself dragged deeper and deeper into creepy tales of things that go bump in the night. Ostensibly, Evil is about the nature of evil and aims to offer a poppy take on the way we interpret that question in our modern era, but ... c’mon. It’s about demons.
Why we’re hyped: The cast is terrific — in addition to Herbers and Colter, Evil stars Lost and Person of Interest’s Michael Emerson, who knows his way around a genre series — and the Kings are clearly having fun mucking around in horror. And the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, as illustrated by the demon who wanders around Kristen’s bedroom while she’s sleeping (or so she thinks) and asks her true-or-false questions, one of the wildest devices for pilot exposition we’ve seen in quite some time.
Why we’re cautious: The whole show is pretty ridiculous, and its insistence that its demonic tales have something to do with the way we live today is very silly. But honestly, if ever there were an era that was ripe for a religious hokum-inflected spin on Mulder and Scully, it’s 2019, so even if Evil turns out to be incredibly awful, we might keep watching.
When it airs: Thursdays at 10 pm Eastern on CBS, starting September 26. —EV
The Politician (Netflix)
What it is: With a title like The Politician, you might expect Ryan Murphy’s first big show at his new Netflix home (which is actually one of the last shows he produced under his old deal with Fox Studios, but airing on Netflix) to offer the iconoclastic TV showrunner’s take on the political drama. But one look at the show’s trailer reveals that this show is far more like the movie Election than the Vox.com kind.
Starring Broadway hero Ben Platt (Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen) and a cast of all-stars (Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange?!), the series charts a young man’s run for student body president at his high school. And once you realize that Murphy co-created The Politician with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan — the same two guys he created Glee with — everything falls into place.
Why we’re hyped: Admittedly, the hype here is a little more conceptual than for some of the other shows on this list. Should The Politician continue beyond the two seasons Netflix has already ordered, each season will tackle the protagonist’s run for a new office, presumably all the way up to the presidency, likely switching genres and tones. Call it American Ryan Murphy Story. Like Glee, the tone of The Politician is all over the place. But also like Glee, there are moments of stark, surprising sincerity that cut through the noise.
Why we’re cautious: We’ve only seen the first three episodes (out of 10 in season one), but, again, the tone is all over the place. For every moment that works, there’s one that really, really doesn’t, and The Politician’s idea of political commentary is probably best summed up by its opening credits, which suggest the central character is a literal empty suit. If that’s all the show has to say about American politics ... well, we’ve heard that before.
When it airs: All 10 episodes of season one debut September 27 on Netflix. —EV
Raising Dion (Netflix)
What it is: Alisha Wainwright (Shadow Hunters) stars as Nicole, a widow who already struggles with being a single parent to Dion (Ja’Siah Young) — only to have everything get harder when she discovers her son just happens to be a budding superhero. Shortly after the death of his father Mark (Michael B. Jordan, appearing in flashbacks and also an executive producer on the series), Dion starts exhibiting mysterious powers, including telekinesis. Soon, the mother and son are drawn into a mystery surrounding the origins of Dion’s powers and the truth behind Mark’s death.
Why we’re hyped: We’ve been intrigued by Raising Dion, which is based on a comic by Dennis Liu, since the project was announced back in 2017 — so it’s exciting to see the show finally come to fruition. The show offers a new take on the superhero genre: It’s told from a mother’s perspective as she tries to reconcile her protective instincts with letting Dion explore and strengthen his powers. Based on the five episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s breezy, warm, visually cool, and features the most adorable performance from newcomer Ja’Siah Young.
Why we’re cautious: As with all superhero narratives, it’s difficult to make origin stories feel fresh, and Raising Dion sometimes falls into too-predictable machinations. There are also moments when it comes off too cutesy, so it may be too sweet for some people’s taste.
When it airs: All nine episodes of season one debut October 4 on Netflix. —PV
Modern Love (Amazon Prime Video)
What it is: The beloved New York Times column, which recounts a tremendously varied set of stories about, um, modern love, has been adapted into an irresistibly enjoyable TV series, filled with big name actors — Anne Hathaway! Tina Fey! Dev Patel! — who drop in for one episode at a time to transform individual couples’ true stories into something swooning, romantic, and bittersweet. Plus, the series’ showrunner is Once director John Carney, who’s great at capturing the swoon of love. Amazon only made three episodes available to critics, but they suggest this series could use the anthology format (where every episode tells a single story) to create some of TV’s next great love stories.
Why we’re hyped: The Times’ Modern Love column is a must-read week after week, and combining the stories it relates with top Hollywood talent is a no-brainer. It’s exciting to imagine many, many seasons covering some of the column’s most memorable installments.
Why we’re cautious: Every so often, the three episodes we screened got a little too precious, which is sometimes a necessary evil with romance. And anthology series are inherently hit and miss. So far, Modern Love is more hit than miss, but that ratio is easy to shift.
When it airs: All eight episodes of season one debut October 18 on Amazon Prime Video. —EV
What it is: Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof adapts Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s landmark 1986 superhero deconstruction, but with a twist: Watchmen isn’t a straight adaptation of the comic, but rather a sequel that attempts to do for current political and social issues what the original comic did for ‘80s Cold War paranoia and fears of rising right-wing nationalism. Lindelof is reunited with both Leftovers star Regina King, who plays an Oklahoma police officer living in a world of superheroic vigilante justice, and Don Johnson (the star of Nash Bridges, where Lindelof was a staff writer), who plays her boss.
Why we’re hyped: We’ve only seen Watchmen’s pilot so far, but it’s a dark, hypnotic take on the comic’s ideas, shot through with an urgency about the times in which we live. It’s the kind of show you can watch and appreciate whether you’re a huge fan of the source comic or have never even heard of it. It has all the makings of the next great TV drama.
Why we’re cautious: Watchmen’s pilot tosses a lot of balls in the air, not least of which is an opening prologue set during a very real, historical atrocity committed against black Americans. There’s so much potential for things to go very, very wrong.
When it airs: HBO, Sundays at 9 pm Eastern, starting October 20. —EV
Correction: Undone is the first entirely rotoscoped series in American TV history, but it’s not the first to use rotoscoping in general. We’ve corrected the error.