It’s that time of year again, in which I watch all of the network TV pilots and write capsule reviews, and I’ve got to admit: I went into this one not expecting much. I enjoy this annual review-a-thon as an exercise and, occasionally, even as a way to find good TV to watch. But man, it’s a rough-looking crop this year.
In 2015, I reviewed the pilots of 19 shows and ended up watching two for the whole season. One of them was canceled, and when I think about a TV landscape that greenlights, say, “Kevin Can Wait” but can’t support “The Grinder,” I want to gather my homemade DVD copies of “Trophy Wife” and hurl them, shuriken-style, at the folder of blackmail material that kept “Two and a Half Men” on the air for… *type type type* 12 seasons HOW DID THAT EVEN HAPPEN.
Anyway, between a general state of disillusionment with the current network landscape and a pretty unpromising selection of trailers – combined with the networks’ apparent decision to premiere all of their good stuff in the spring – I was feeling rather sour about the current slate of pilots. Was I right to feel that way? (At least sometimes, yes.) As always, all shows will be judged on my scale of recommendations: Watch it, Try it, Skip it, and Avoid it. All times are eastern.
Oh, and this post covers the first half of the first week of premieres. This is a strange premiere season, so a lot of the shows got front-loaded into this week with very little to nothing appearing in some subsequent weeks. I’ll continue to post as more shows premiere.
Kevin Can Wait
Comedy, CBS, 8:30 p.m. Monday
One-sentence summary: Kevin James (I don’t remember what his character’s name is, but c’mon: it’s Kevin James) is a recently retired cop who must balance his retirement with a part-time job to support his kids, including his eldest (Taylor Spreitler) and her boyfriend (Ryan Cartwright), who have moved back home.
I never watched “King of Queens,” but apparently that’s what this is going for, which makes sense in a TV environment that’s currently obsessed with mediocre remakes. There really isn’t a lot to say about “Kevin Can Wait” – you either like Kevin James or you don’t, and you either like laugh tracked sitcoms about fat, insensitive dudes and their hot, long-suffering wives or you don’t, and I don’t.
If there’s one thing notable about “Kevin Can Wait,” it’s its aggressive mediocrity. I’ve seen trailers for “Man with a Plan” and “The Great Indoors,” and while their leads are more talented than Kevin James, the shows those leads are in look appreciably worse. “Kevin Can Wait” is merely trodding the out-of-touch, wannabe macho dad path that’s so well worn it’s practically a canyon by now. It’s the quintessential CBS show, in some ways: five minutes in, and you know exactly what you’re going to get for the duration. I haven’t even described the plot, and I don’t need to; a look at the summary fills in the blanks on what the show will be.
It’s not aggressively bad. I even laughed at a couple of clever non sequiturs. But it’s the television equivalent of eating cold, unflavored oatmeal: Why would you do that?
My rec: Skip it.
The Good Place
Comedy, NBC, 10 p.m. Monday (it moved to 8:30 p.m. Thursday for its regular time slot)
One-sentence summary: Misanthrope Eleanor (Kristen Bell) dies after being hit by a truck and mistakenly ends up in “The Good Place,” a pantheistic paradise which she tries to fit into in order to escape being sent to Hell.
Anything by Michael Schur (“Parks and Rec,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” much of the better parts of “The Office”) gets a long leash for me, but it’s telling that I only had to mention Kristen Bell’s character in the summary. Schur’s comedies are at their best when they’re featuring a crackling ensemble, and the pilots of “Parks” and “Brooklyn” both portrayed a cast that already had definition. The individual actors in “The Good Place” are all pleasant enough – Ted Danson as an angel-esque being named Michael and William Jackson Harper as Eleanor’s soulmate Chidi get the most camera time after Bell in the pilot – but their chemistry is nothing extraordinary, and the jokes are more funny in a smirky way than in a “Make sure you’re not eating anything while Andre Braugher speaks because Captain Holt is the funniest TV character going” way.
With a still-gelling cast, a couple of lackluster effects sequences and a lot of focus on explaining the rules of The Good Place in the pilot (apparently one gets in by getting a high positive karma score in life by accomplishing actions such as “remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns”), the hour-long double episode that makes up the show’s debut feels a little overlong and boring. I’m happy to give Schur more of a chance to make me a believer, but this was one of the debuts that I was most excited to watch this fall, and it left me a little cold.
My rec: Try it for Schur’s sake.
Drama, CBS, 9 p.m. Tuesday
One-sentence summary: Dr. Jason Bull (1 million barfs) (Michael Weatherly) is a psychologist –and a House-esque douche bag – who processes jurors’ nonverbal communication to anticipate how they’ll vote, and what a lawyer needs to say to sway them.
This is one of the smarmiest and self-satisfied dramas I’ve seen in my history of watching these pilots – the kind of show that has one character tell Bull that he can’t do something impossible and then expects you to be amazed when Bull pulls it off. That’s not surprising or cool, “Bull” writers! Of course he’s going to do the thing you wrote for him to do! You wrote it!
The pilot concerns Bull being called in to help defend a spoiled teen socialite (think Justin Bieber if he came from money) charged with murder. Bull is not only able to read jurors so well that he can imagine them telling him their opinions mid-argument, but he has so many resources that his staff includes a Vogue fashion designer who can make the defendant look more palatable and a former Homeland Security official who can hack into jurors’ social media accounts to provide more clues to their votes (apparently, once you’ve worked for DHS once, you have access to PRISM forever). At the heart of turning the jury in not-Bieber’s favor is Bull’s ability to get inside the head of typical folksy down-home midwest American juror Bess Johnson. On “Bull,” the only thing more ridiculous than his ability to predict people’s actions without ever speaking to them is everyone’s stupid name.
Oh, and the episode ends with Bull using the power of meaningful glances to determine the real killer, at which point her home is raided by several squad cars worth of police despite a shred of physical evidence or anything linking her to the crime other than his hunch. %^&# off, “Bull.”
My rec: Avoid it.
This Is Us
Drama, NBC, 10 p.m. Tuesday
One-sentence summary: Four people who turn 36 on the same day experience events that change the course of their lives, and they’re linked in an unexpected (and spoilery) way.
One disadvantage that I have due to my lack of advance screeners for these shows is that by the time I want to compare one weepy, sentimental family drama to another, everyone else has done it first. For “This Is Us,” however, it’s easy to see why so many critics are referring to it as the spiritual successor to “Parenthood,” from its family connections to its somewhat maudlin, emotionally overcharged story arcs.
I’ve seen a few episodes of “Parenthood,” but I could never get into it, even though it is technically a well made show. “This Is Us” looks to be shaping up the same way. It’s a matter of personal taste, but shows like this are bummers; even their positive moments are tinged with regret or loss. That makes sense, of course: sadness is the emotional fuel for these kinds of soft music tearjerkers. But if I want to feel sad, I’m not going to commiserate with Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore over the stillbirth of one of their triplets. I’ll just watch the news for, like, two seconds.
There are good performances here from all of the main cast, particularly Chrissy Metz as an obese woman who’s depressed about the way her weight has hijacked her life and Sterling K. Brown as a man rediscovering his biological father. If you like dramas about people who learn how to soldier on through life’s heartbreak, maybe you’ll like this, too, but it is decidedly not my jam.
My rec: If my description sounds like you’d like it, then why not try it?
Drama (I guess?), Fox, 8 p.m. Wednesday
One-sentence summary: It’s a remake of “Lethal Weapon,” so there’s all the “Lethal Weapon” stuff, except they can’t use the one line from the movie that everyone knows because it’s on network TV.
I’ve never seen “Lethal Weapon” the movie, but I think most people understand the basic premise: buddy cops, one reckless and one loose cannon, one black and one white, “getting too old…” etc. Instead of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Riggs and Murtaugh are played by Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans, who… actually have pretty good chemistry, surprisingly?
Shocking as it may seem in the age of tepid TV remakes of dormant movie properties, “Lethal Weapon” actually goes down surprisingly smooth. Sure, the plot of the pilot flees your brain almost immediately after you finish the episode (A guy maybe steals some drugs, so a gang kills him and kidnaps his kid?), and one gets the impression that Crawford’s “suicidal-because-his-wife-died” Riggs will always be a drag compared to his “kills-some-bank-robbers-after-buying-them-pizza” Riggs, but most of the show is silly fun, and the relationship between Crawford and Wayans feels natural, if not necessarily plausible. It’s boilerplate in a lot of ways – there’s your requisite car chase, your requisite moment of bonding and your requisite jokes while in danger – but boilerplate can be fun sometimes.
Will I keep watching this? Probably not, though if Damon Wayans Jr. could have somehow been slotted into the role instead of his dad, I may have reconsidered. Still, I wasn’t waiting for the hour to end, as I often am with cop or legal dramas, and that’s not nothing in my book.
My rec: Try it.
Comedy, ABC, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
One-sentence summary: A pushy mom (Minnie Driver) moves her misanthropic but good-hearted family to a new neighborhood, home of a school where her teen with cerebral palsy (Micah Fowler) will have a full-time aide.
Between Dr. Bull, Eleanor and the entire family on “Speechless,” 2016 pilot season is shaping up to be the fall of the jerks. That’s not to say misanthropy can’t be funny – just ask “Arrested Development” – but your meanness has to be clever, and your characters have to be charismatic or otherwise alluring enough that the viewer will still want to spend time with them. There are a few good jokes in “Speechless’s” pilot, but by the time it ended, I couldn’t wait to never see these people again.
I know that’s the point, in a way – to its credit, one of “Speechless’s” main goals is thumbing its nose at the idea that all families of disabled or disadvantaged children are besainted Norman Rockwell paintings. But rather than make all of the characters awful enough to be really funny, “Speechless” settled on “just bad enough to be annoying.” Granted, this step was probably taken to keep the family somewhat relatable, but now, instead of a tyrant queen, Driver is simply a helicopter mom who is slightly more open than most about how little she cares for those outside her family. Like “This Is Us,” I have ample opportunity to see that kind of thing elsewhere than my TV. Just take me to a youth soccer game.
Ultimately, “Speechless” falls prey to the same problems of shows like “Bad Judge” before it: transgressive comedy and network respectability rarely are easy bedfellows, and trying to achieve both leaves both aspects underserved.
My rec: Skip it.
Drama, ABC, 10 p.m. Wednesday
One-sentence summary: In a premise pulled quite literally from a Tom Clancy novel (read the end of “Debt of Honor”), the president, vice president, cabinet and congressional leadership are all killed during a terrorist attack – except for embattled Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), who is now the new president.
The problem with every show since 1999 that purports to be about the real drama of Washington D.C. is that “The West Wing” already did it, and whether you like Aaron Sorkin or think he’s condescending mouth diarrhea Patient Zero, it’s hard to argue that “The West Wing” went off the air long enough ago for it not to still be considered the definitive take on the nobility of national public service. “Designated Survivor” tries to spice up the formula by wooing Sutherland’s “24” fandom with some good, old-fashioned terrorism, but this is still the story of A Good Man Trying To Do The Right Thing In Troubled Times, and if that story is set in Washington, I can’t help but wonder how much better it would be if Allison Janney was there.
Sutherland comports himself well – in glasses, he looks like Harrison Ford during his middle age action film period. Despite shows that have come before it, “Designated Survivor” does a good job of getting viewers on board with the stakes without losing the human elements of the players at the center of the conflict, particularly Sutherland and a presidential speechwriter played by Kal Penn. However, by the time I finished the episode, I was preemptively worn out by the twists and turns promised in the pilot.
I like a complicated show as much as the next person, but the sudden status change, policy acrobatics and investigation into the terrorist attack seems like enough show for me. Learning that Kirkman’s son (Tanner Buchanan) is secretly a drug dealer or that Kirkman will also need to fend off a coup in coming episodes is too much, and crafting separate stories for an FBI agent at the site of the State of the Union bombing and for one of Kirkman’s aides steals focus from Sutherland, whose journey is by far the most interesting. Still, I liked it more than “Madam Secretary.”
My rec: You can go ahead and try it, but I likely won’t be back.