Hank Stuever (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Better shows! That’s what we’ve been crying out for during so many seasons of network and cable agony. Have our pleas at last been heard?
Well, don’t get too excited, but there is measurable improvement in this fall’s shows. (After last year’s miserable crop, this season had nowhere to go but up.) Mediocrity still shows its forgettable face, but even the flat stuff this season at least has some contours.
Here are my quick reviews and premiere dates for 26 new comedies and dramas. Top picks include the CBS drama “Madam Secretary” and the Amazon comedy “Transparent” but steer clear of CBS’s dreadful new dramas “Stalker” and “Scorpion.”
– “Madam Secretary”
Sunday, Sept. 21, 8:30 p.m., CBS
Tea Leoni stars as Elizabeth McCord, a University of Virginia professor and former intelligence analyst picked to be the nation’s new secretary of state. (POTUS was her boss years ago at the CIA.)
Clearly channeling the Twitter-famous “Hillz” of Barack Obama’s first term, McCord turns out to be an outspoken and no-nonsense diplomat: When she’s not secretly negotiating the release of two American college kids held hostage in Syria, she’s remembering the names of all 10 wives of the king of Swaziland or timing her new hairdo to distract media attention from a meddlesome New York Times scoop. “Madam Secretary” isn’t going to win any plausibility awards (which is fine, since television doesn’t dole out any plausibility awards), but it has a firm enough grip on reality that it won’t send discerning viewers’ eyeballs rolling up into their craniums.
A particularly taut and well-structured pilot episode lays out McCord’s essential struggles, while Leoni delivers a calm, cool and wry performance. Besides jetting around the world to put out fires, McCord has made an enemy of the president’s chief of staff (Zeljko Ivanek) and fears some larger conspiracy may have led to her predecessor’s tragic death. She also worries that she doesn’t spend enough time with her kids (including a son with adorably anarchist politics) and that her hot hubby (Tim Daly as Henry McCord, a Georgetown religion professor) is losing interest in sex: “Is it my masculine energy?” she asks him, noting that it’s been a whole three or four days since their last romp. “I know some men are turned off by women in positions of power.”
He assures her that her position most certainly turns him on. I’m suitably aroused, too, going so far as to add “Madam Secretary” to my crammed Sunday-night DVR queue — if only as an excellent appetizer for “The Good Wife,” which follows it. Grade: A-minus
Begins streaming on Amazon on Friday, Sept. 26
You’ll know within five minutes (maybe less) if this deliciously morose 10-episode dramedy is your kind of thing, and if it’s not … well, I’m sorry to see you go, because “Transparent” is the best streaming-network pilot since Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” It’s also the first real sign that Amazon (which, yes, happens to share an owner with The Washington Post) could well become a formidable presence on television’s future landscape.
Written and directed by Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under,” “The United States of Tara”), “Transparent” revolves around Maura (“Arrested Development’s” Jeffrey Tambor), a transitioning woman who is ready to come out to her three grown children, who still think of her as their father.
“Transparent” isn’t playing any of this for big laughs and instead mines the absurdities and indignities of real life in a comic tone that seems to hit the right spot these days. It’s also a very L.A. kind of show in that everyone has rather First-World L.A. problems: Maura’s eldest daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker), is a harried mom obsessed with a former lover; son Josh (Jay Duplass) is a neurotic and immature record producer; and younger daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) is a chronically underemployed writer and half-hearted libertine. All three are just the sort of people you’d conjure up if you were writing a premium half-hour TV pilot about a vaguely unhappy family, but they are also instantly recognizable as 21st-century narcissists. “They’re so selfish,” Maura tells her transgender support group. “I don’t see how it is that I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.” Grade: A-minus
Monday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m., Fox
Producer/writer Bruno Heller (“Rome,” “The Mentalist”) and his cast have come up with a good-looking, intelligent Batman prequel that might entertain even the most superhero-fatigued viewers among us. The pilot is visually and narratively tight — and a little too serious, as all comic-book-related projects tend to be. “Gotham” does make good use of the DC Comics universe’s worst-kept secret: Batman is never as interesting as the people around him, so why have him around at all?
Thus we dial back a couple of decades for a procedural drama strewn with treats for observant Batnerds, where rookie detective James Gordon (“Southland’s” Ben McKenzie) is partnered with a grizzled veteran, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), who introduces Gordon to the worst aspects of the city’s endemic corruption — including a crime syndicate run by Fish Mooney, played by a delightfully wicked Jada Pinkett Smith.
My only worry is that the first episode runs too greedily through its character reserves, not only introducing the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents, but adding in prototypical iterations of Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) and Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), who will, of course, become the Catwoman, the Penguin and the Riddler. “Gotham” respectfully riffs on the DC canon, but it’s a whole lot better when it experiments with — and even subverts — the oft-trod territory of Batworld. Grade: B-plus
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 9:30 p.m., ABC
Anthony Anderson produces and stars in this well-intentioned if rudimentary send-up of what it’s like(-ish) to be black and upper-class. Anderson plays Andre “Dre” Johnson, a newly promoted ad executive who is perturbed by the “urban division” title appended to his nameplate — meaning the CEO has asked him to “keep it real.” (Translation: Bring in the black demographic.)
At home, Andre becomes agitated by his family’s blithe acceptance of the whiteness all around them: His pediatric-surgeon wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), chides him for his overreactions, but his father, “Pops” (Laurence Fishburne), agrees that there’s an identity crisis at play in this household, particularly when the family sits down to a dinner of baked “fried” chicken. His four children seem unimpressed that Barack Obama is the first black president. Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) goes by “Andy” at his private school and longs for a bar mitzvah.
And so the rock has rolled all the way back to the bottom of the hill, in the form of jokes about fried chicken, grape soda and “Roots.” But if this summer’s events in Ferguson, Mo., have taught us anything, it’s that the subject of race is still being interpreted on a remedial level by many. Depending on how far it’s willing to press and poke at the issues it raises, “Black-ish” displays a welcoming sense of humor that might be illuminating in the present context. Grade: B-plus
– “Survivor’s Remorse “
Saturday, Oct. 4, 9 p.m., Starz
Created by writer/actor Mike O’Malley, this profane yet thoroughly charming dramedy stars Jessie T. Usher as Cam Calloway, a talented NBA player lured to Atlanta by a nine-figure contract — a serious upgrade from his rookie salary in Memphis.
Like so many pro athletes, he burns through his money by buying expensive condos and cars while providing the luxe life for his mother (Tichina Arnold), sister (Erica Ash) and uncle (Mike Epps) despite the advice of his manager and cousin, Reggie (RonReaco Lee), who begs Cam to get a grip on his spending. The family also has some immediate — and humorous — lessons to learn about increased media scrutiny.
Somewhat reminiscent of “Entourage,” “Survivor’s Remorse” is less about what happens on the court than what happens in the everyday life of a celebrity in over his head. Cam feels guilty about all the friends and neighbors from his childhood who still live in poverty, even as his greedy family urges him to let go of the past and revel in the present. The cast is terrific, and some of the lines are screamingly funny, but there’s also an empathetic, moral undercurrent to the story — the usual cautionary tale about having all your dreams come true. Grade: B-plus
Friday, Oct. 10, 8:30 p.m., ABC
Comedian Cristela Alonzo stars in this by-the-book sitcom as a Latina in Dallas who has moved into her sister’s house while she works her way through law school. She needs the free rent because she’s just taken an internship at a big firm headed by a tough-talking pard’ner (Sam McMurray) who is fond of cracking jokes about immigrants.
Whether at home or at work, Cristela gives as good as she gets. (“If you were my wife, I’d put poison in your coffee,” snarls her brother-in-law, played by Carlos Ponce. “If you were my husband, I’d drink it,” Cristela gamely replies.)
In concept, right down to the main character’s guilt-dispensing mother (Terri Hoyos), “Cristela” resembles past attempts to graft multiculturalism onto the vanilla-fied vapidness of the American sitcom format. But “Cristela” wins the day with its easygoing attitude and superbly smooth cast. Alonzo has a bite to her wit that is reminiscent of the earliest, best days of “Roseanne.” Grade: B-plus
– “The Affair”
Sunday, Oct. 12, 10 p.m., Showtime
Showtime’s latest is an unsettling but darkly sexy drama about a New York novelist and public-school teacher (“The Wire’s” Dominic West as Noah) who has an affair with a local waitress (“Luther’s” Ruth Wilson as Allison) while on a family vacation at his in-laws’ Hamptons spread.
The first episode establishes, in a slightly “True Detective” fashion, that a devastating, yet-to-be-revealed event has occurred and that the major players are recalling what happened to a detective from a present-day perspective. Nobody remembers anything the same way, including the details of Noah and Allison’s meeting and first tryst. Maura Tierney (“ER”) co-stars as Noah’s wife; Joshua Jackson (“Fringe”) plays Allison’s emotionally unpredictable husband. And, because it’s a cable series about adults who are also parents, there are pouty teenagers and pouty-teenager subplots included in the package, whether you asked for them or not.
The pilot (the only episode made available to critics at press time) has some difficult scenes, including an act of marital rape (or something like it), yet the acting is strong and the story is compulsively intriguing. The first thing you want from “The Affair” is to see where it leads. Grade: B-plus
– “Jane the Virgin”
Monday, Oct. 13, 9 p.m., CW
Lectured all her life by her Catholic grandmother about saving her virginity for marriage, 23-year-old Jane Villaneuva (Gina Rodriguez) is the mistaken recipient of an artificial insemination treatment during a routine visit to her gynecologist, which leaves her pregnant with a stranger’s child. Dios mio, indeed.
The shocking — and incredibly litigious, yes? — news launches a half-dozen subplots in this heartfelt and humorous Americanized telenovela, which is loosely derived from a Venezuelan series. Abortion is frankly and openly discussed as one of Jane’s options — and the first option favored by her police-detective boyfriend, Michael (Brett Dier), who has respected Jane’s celibacy throughout their relationship. While weighing her decision, Jane learns surprising facts about both her grandmother (Ivonne Coll) and her nightclub-singer mother (Andrea Navedo), who was a teenager when she had Jane.
To make things more complicated, it turns out that Jane already knows the father of her baby, Rafael (Justin Baldoni), a Miami hotel magnate whose marriage is on the rocks. Although “Jane the Virgin” could easily devolve into a frenetic sendup of telenovela cheesiness, it is a remarkably sure-footed, enjoyable dramedy full of strong performances, particularly from Rodriguez. When TV critics wish aloud for diverse programming that transcends niche demographics or pandering, “Jane the Virgin” is, in some key ways, the kind of show we have in mind. Grade: B-plus
– “How to Get Away With Murder”
Thursday, Sept. 25, 10 p.m., ABC
Viewers are by now well acquainted with the sinfully enjoyable suspension of belief that comes with dramas bearing the Shonda Rhimes imprimatur, so it’s no surprise that “Middletown Law School” is no more or less crazy than the “Seattle Grace Hospital” seen in “Grey’s Anatomy” or the “White House” seen in “Scandal.”
Created by Rhimes’s show-factory foreman Pete Nowalk, “How to Get Away With Murder” is about five first-year law students vying for the capricious attention of their tough-as-nails criminal-law professor, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), who invites them to work alongside her as she represents a parade of (probably guilty) clients against whom the evidence is always stacked.
Three solid hours of Rhimes-style melodrama and pace (“Murder” follows “Scandal,” which follows “Grey’s”) might be stretching things too far, but even a schlock skeptic has to admire the ease with which “Murder” intuits its audience’s need for speed and surprises. That’s the draw. Davis is overqualified for the material, and, yet, like Kerry Washington before her, she brings an added dimension to the part of an intimidating yet vulnerable woman. Meanwhile, through the hammy uses of flash-forwarding, it’s barely any time at all before Annalise’s ambitious students are tasked with covering up their own homicidal tendencies. Grade: B
– “Marry Me”
Tuesday, Oct. 14, 9 p.m., NBC
The hilarious sensibility of creator David Caspe’s beloved but canceled “Happy Endings” on ABC transfers almost entirely to this exuberantly vapid comedy, which stars Caspe’s wife, Casey Wilson (“Happy Endings,” “Saturday Night Live”), as Annie, a 32-year-old woman who is in a manic dither over the fact that her boyfriend of six years, Jake (“Party Down’s” Ken Marino), still hasn’t proposed.
Even as Jake is down on one knee getting ready to pop the question in her apartment, Annie, with her back turned, launches into a logorrheic diatribe about the waiting game, her ovaries and all the many ways she despises their friends and family — who then emerge from their surprise hiding places in a parade of standard-issue sitcom characters: her black friend, her blond yoga friend, her gay dads, Jake’s widowed mother and Jake’s bearded best friend (who’s about as Zach Galifianakis as you can get without actually hiring Zach Galifianakis).
Though I’m not in love with the idea of another sitcom in which a woman fixates on engagement rings and wedding planning, it’s impossible to resist the fluidly written, sharply performed quips and pop-culture references that are effortlessly strewn across “Marry Me’s” pilot episode (along with some f-bombs in the version shown to critics that I presume will get bleeped out). Give Caspe and company a big hand for making a dead-Princess Diana joke and an exploding-Challenger-space-shuttle joke in the same episode — and doing so with panache. Grade: B
– “State of Affairs”
Monday, Nov. 17, 10 p.m., NBC
Less like the approach CBS is taking with “Madam Secretary” and more like “Homeland” or “24,” this national security drama stars Katherine Heigl as Charleston “Charlie” Tucker, a top CIA analyst who delivers the morning intelligence briefing each day to President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard). The setup for “State of Affairs” flashes back three years to a visit to Kabul, when a terrorist ambush killed the president’s son, who was also Charlie’s fiance.
Charlie survived the attack and vowed to find and kill the mastermind behind it. During a private moment, Payton tells Charlie: “I’m not talking to the CIA analyst; I want to hear from the woman who loved my son enough to bind her life to his. The woman (who) was going to give me my grandchildren. I want to hear from her — what’s she going to do?”
Ludicrous, I know. But I also know that millions of espionage-inclined viewers accepted several years of just-as-nutty premises involving Jack Bauer, so I’d advise putting a lid on it long enough to figure out if this show works or not. The Claire Danes/Carrie Mathison comparisons are inevitable (especially when Heigl’s character numbs her grief with casual sex with strangers), but “State of Affairs” feels like an honest NBC upgrade. After all, it was only six months ago that the network was airing that dumb drama about the bus full of kidnapped VIP Washington teenagers. Viewers asked for something better; here it is. Grade: B
Monday, Sept. 22 (premiere); continues in its regular time slot on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 10 p.m., ABC
Ioan Gruffudd stars in this passably intriguing hour-long drama as Henry Morgan, a New York medical examiner who comes back to life every time he dies — and has been doing so for 200 years, which has left him with an obsessive desire to figure out why he can’t die. Flashbacks in the first episode clue viewers in on Henry’s past, including hints of his long-lost love and why he seems to be such a loyal friend to an antique shop owner named Abe (Judd Hirsch).
After Henry is killed in a horrific subway crash and returns to life (popping anew out of the East River), he proceeds to his office to innocently perform autopsies on the train conductor and passengers. Police detective Jo Martinez (Alana De La Garza) spots him in security footage taken just before the trains collided and begins to look into his background.
Soon enough you realize that “Forever” is a crime procedural with supernatural mysteries appended to it, as Gruffudd spouts his savant sleuthiness a la “Elementary’s” Jonny Lee Miller. And that’s perfectly fine; “Forever” isn’t the freshest new show this fall, but its classiness is appreciated. Grade: B-minus
Thursday, Oct. 2, 9 p.m., Fox
If you watched “Broadchurch” on BBC America last year, then it’s going to be almost impossible to cast your doubts off that cliff and fully enjoy Fox’s 10-episode American version of the moody, meticulously plotted mystery.
“Gracepoint” tells the same exact story (a whodunnit centered on the murder of a 12-year-old boy in a small, seaside town — this time in Northern California), sometimes down to the very same pauses in dialogue. All respect to David Tennant, but it’s bizarre to see him reprise his starring role in the original series with only a passable American accent. And while I have nothing but generous thoughts about “Breaking Bad’s” Anna Gunn, it’s too difficult to give her room to play this part without thinking about how much better the original Detective Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) was.
“Gracepoint’s” producers take solace in their belief that most Americans never watched “Broadchurch” and will therefore be taken with the same simplicity and emotional directness that made the original stand out. If you give it a few episodes, quite a lot of the “Broadchurch” sensibility indeed conveys and can be enjoyed all on its own, but the series still feels like a community-theater version of something better. Grade: B- minus
– “Bad Judge”
Thursday, Oct. 2, 9 p.m., NBC
Like most pilots, “Bad Judge” spreads it on a little thick at first when presenting its main character, criminal-court Judge Rebecca Wright (Kate Walsh of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice”), as a 40-something party girl: She wakes up hung over most mornings; she’s got an active sex life with various men, with her courthouse chambers sometimes the setting; she plays in a rock duo called Ladycock; she mouths off to her superiors and colleagues; and so on. It’s your classic Petra Pan complex, with Wright railing against authority even while she issues verdicts and sentences as an authority. Walsh tackles the role with a nice blend of despicable and likable.
It’s all sex and booze jokes until the judge’s life is altered slightly by the sudden presence of an 8-year-old boy (Theodore Barnes) who looks to her for support, since she’s the one who put both of his parents in jail for drug dealing.
NBC’s summertime viewers have already been pummeled with countless commercials for “Bad Judge,” a practice that sometimes causes you to resent a show long before it premieres. It’s also not a good sign that showrunner Liz Brixius (“Nurse Jackie”) has already departed, but there’s a caustic wit to “Bad Judge” that, with a little help, might still rise above its more shallow laughs. Grade: B-minus
– “The Flash”
Tuesday, Oct. 7, 8 p.m., CW
Whoosh! There he goes in his flame-resistant long johns, another DC superhero getting the live-action treatment.
Grant Gustin stars as Barry Allen, a young super-sleuth who works for the Central City police department. Fascinated by particle physics, Barry is hit by a bolt of accelerated energy during a mishap at a local research facility called STAR Labs. As we’ve known since the Silver Age-era Flash first streaked across comic book pages in 1956, the accident means Barry can run faster than the eye can see. The head of STAR Labs (Tom Cavanagh) wants to keep Barry close and under observation, but Barry wants to put his powers to good use — especially since the same mishap that changed him also bestowed an array of superpowers on some of Central City’s criminally inclined inhabitants.
“The Flash” gives its protagonist a frantic to-do list: He’s lovelorn over Iris (Candice Patton), the daughter of his mentor and father-figure, Detective West (Jesse L. Martin); he’s determined to solve the mysterious murder of his mother years ago; he’s testing the limits of his powers; he’s holding down his day job; he’s hunting down a bank robber who can control the weather. Frankly, it’s all neither here nor there in an attempt to be everywhere. Barry takes off so fast that a viewer hardly gets a chance to know him — or care much about where he’s headed. Grade: C-plus
– “NCIS: New Orleans”
Tuesday, Sept. 23, 9 p.m., CBS
The title tells you all you need to know, as did a two-part episode of “NCIS” last spring that set up the plot and characters for this second spinoff of CBS’s popular crime drama — a ratings phenom that is impervious to almost anything a TV critic might have to say about it.
Scott Bakula stars as Special Agent Dwayne Pride, the cayenne-flavored sleuth in charge of the always busy NCIS unit in the Crescent City. Lucas Black co-stars as Agent Christopher LaSalle, and Zoe McLellan plays Agent Merri Brody, who just moved to New Orleans from up north. CCH Pounder plays Loretta Wade, a medical examiner who’s slightly odd (in the way that slightly odd “NCIS” characters who do the lab work are ever-so-slightly odd). The rest is pretty much gumbo from a can. Grade: C
Tuesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m., ABC
Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) is a self-absorbed, Louboutin-heeled sales rep at a pharmaceutical company who suffers a series of humiliations in front of co-workers and then asks a superior, Henry (John Cho), to help her upgrade her “personal brand” and become one of those better, well-rounded people she’s vaguely heard about.
If you haven’t caught on yet, it’s a “Pygmalion” update for the Instagram era. Henry’s antipathy toward Twitter, etc., mirrors a thousand op-ed screeds about narcissism and lost attention spans; thus, he starts Eliza off on the simplest expression of good manners, such as asking people “How are you?” or giving them the dignity of not texting while they reply. At first, “Selfie” feels like another occasion for Gen X (Cho is 42) to lecture the millennials (Gillan is 26).
It’s an uphill battle to keep Eliza attuned to the here-and-now instead of checking in with her 263,000 followers. “Selfie’s” addiction to topical techie satire tends to get in the way of Gillan and Cho’s attempts to convey an unlikely chemistry that might help the show rise above a concept that already feels like yesterday’s clicks. Grade: C
– “The Mysteries of Laura”
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 8 p.m., NBC
There’s a lot about this New York cop comedy/drama viewers will want to like, particularly when it comes to the gusto with which Debra Messing (“Smash,” “Will & Grace”) charges into the role of homicide detective Laura Diamond, a harried and soon-to-be-divorced mother of twin boys. It’s a treat to watch an actor such as Messing nail every scene.
But the pilot is woefully lacking the nuance and inventive wit that would help make “The Mysteries of Laura” more worthy of her talents. Throughout, the audience is pounded with already-told jokes about the work-life balance, made all the more cornball by the fact that Laura’s sons misbehave in overblown ways made to appear psychotic instead of adorably rambunctious. She’s desperate to get them into a good pre-K program (they’ve been expelled from the one they were in), but first she has to solve a whodunnit that — except for its angle involving a stolen smartphone prototype — feels ripped off from the most average episode of “Murder, She Wrote.”
It’s hard to imagine that busy parents will find solace in sparing a precious, post-bedtime hour watching Laura dash around the house in her Spanx and dose her sons with cough syrup to get them to calm down. The show itself could use a swig, too. Grade: C-minus
– “Manhattan Love Story”
Tuesday, Sept. 30, 8:30 p.m., ABC
Imagine a 90-minute rom-com that’s been put into a blender and turned into a 22-minute smoothie. Innocent young thing Dana (Analeigh Tipton, who played the babysitter in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) leaves her small town (um, Atlanta) for a grunt-level editing job at a New York publishing house. Dana’s know-it-all college friend (Jade Catta-Preta) sets her up on a date with handsome Peter (Jake McDorman, recently seen as a mistreated boyfriend on “Shameless”), who behaves like an arrogant jerk.
Five minutes into their dinner, Dana flees the restaurant in tears and Peter spends the rest of the series — however long this series might last — trying to convince her that he’s not such a bad guy.
All of this occurs against the backdrop of the make-believe New York of the mind and is aimed mainly at simple folk who understand romance only through the broad strokes of gender stereotypes. (He stares at every woman’s boobs! She’s addicted to purses!) They’re both adorable enough that you’ll feel just the slightest twinge of remorse as you kick them to the curb. Grade: C-minus
– “A to Z “
Thursday, Oct. 2, 9:30 p.m., NBC
Like a favorite blankie, television writers stubbornly cling to the idea that there is comedy gold in the premise of the young, white millennial couple who meet cute against the backdrop of secure employment (he works for an online dating site; she’s a trial attorney), spacious housing and, of course, snarky one-liners from a bearded best friend and a sassy-gal roommate.
This time, the mysteries of matchmaking are reduced to data: The pilot features an omniscient narrator (the voice of Katey Sagal) who presents Andrew (“Mad Men’s” nipple-slicing copywriter Ben Feldman) and Zelda (“How I Met Your Mother’s” doomed mother, Cristin Milioti) as a case study of how to find love in a distracted era. The narrator promises to recount each step of the precise “eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour” that Andrew and Zelda will spend dating.
Eight-plus months? I wouldn’t count on the show lasting that long. The cast is adequately charming (if completely cliche), and the show is perky and occasionally sharp, but “A to Z” is also a prime example of the sort of perfectly acceptable yet thoroughly mediocre fall TV show that’s all too easy to ignore. Grade: C-minus
Sunday, Oct. 5, 9:30 p.m., Fox
If a certain sketch or character made you laugh in recent seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” then the chances are good that 32-year-old writer John Mulaney had something to do with it. He’s also an endearingly funny stand-up comedian.
It’s therefore disappointing to watch his attempt at creating and starring in his own eponymous sitcom march right into the glue trap of forced humor. Rather than draw mostly on Mulaney’s strengths as a jaded, Catholic-raised Chicago smartass, the premise instead centers itself on the more trite setting of entry-level show business, where Mulaney plays an aspiring comedian trapped in a job as an assistant to Lou Cannon (Martin Short), the host of a celebrity game show.
Fellow “SNL” alum Nasim Pedrad and comedian Seaton Smith play Mulaney’s wacky roommates; Elliott Gould sashays in as a painfully stereotyped gay neighbor across the hall; and, yes, there’s one more ubiquitous bearded-best-friend (Zack Pearlman) to add to our list. Although there are a few snarky laughs in the pilot, they can’t compete with the uncomfortable feeling that “Mulaney,” bless his heart, isn’t ready for prime time. Grade: C-minus
– “Red Band Society”
Wednesdays at 9 on Fox (premiered Sept. 17)
Forget yellow bracelets; now it’s red hospital bands. All the cool kids are dying. This well-meaning but too-treacly drama is about a group of adolescents who are permanent patients in an unfathomably tony pediatric hospital wing, where they cope with cancer, cystic fibrosis, anorexia, heart disease and, most significantly, the throes of adolescence. Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) stars as the stern-yet-sympathetic nurse who keeps them in line; Dave Annable (“Brothers & Sisters”) plays the surgeon trying to save their lives.
It’s hard to imagine something more tone deaf to the realities of sickness and suffering, but here, in the wake of “The Fault in Our Stars” and other doses of teen weepies, “Red Band Society” thrives on the same ballad-drenched idea that 500 mg of platitude and hollow uplift cures all.
And did I mention that the show is narrated by a boy in a coma? Grade D-plus
– “The McCarthys”
Thursday, Oct. 30, 9:30 p.m., CBS
Like too many sitcom-makers these days, creator Brian Gallivan bases this quickly forgettable series on his upbringing as the athletics-averse gay sibling in a Boston household full of loudmouthed sports nuts.
Judging from the pilot, that’s really about all “The McCarthys” has to offer — a close-knit household that can’t stop razzin’ one another in Beantown accents. Tyler Ritter (son of the late sitcom legend John Ritter) stars as Ronny McCarthy, a 29-year-old man who accepts a job offer in Providence, hoping to get away from the smothering closeness of his family, who tolerate his homosexuality mostly by ignoring it or clumsily trying to set him up.
Ronny’s father, Arthur (Jack McGee), the local high school’s longtime varsity basketball coach, persuades his son to stay by offering him the newly open position of assistant coach — a spot Ronny’s two jock brothers (Joey McIntyre and Jimmy Dunn) were each hoping to get. I guess that means Ronny’s staying, but to be honest, I zoned out from there. Grade: D
Monday, Sept. 22, 9 p.m., CBS
Elyes Gabel stars as Walter O’Brien, possibly the world’s smartest hacker, who is lured back into Homeland Security work by his former mentor (Robert Patrick). Joining Walter are his friends and fellow misfits — a hipster behavioral specialist, a female mechanics wiz and an obsessive-compulsive numbers guy — as well as “Smash’s” Katharine McPhee as Paige, a single mom to an introverted genius boy.
The first episode involves a hacking attack on the air-traffic control system over Los Angeles. A lot of running around and ludicrous technobabble ends up with Walter and Paige in a Ferrari traveling down a runway at 200 mph, trying to get a pilot to hand them an Ethernet cable to restore necessary software. It’s a show about geniuses that gets stupider and stupider until it explodes. Grade: F
Wednesday, Oct. 1, 10 p.m., CBS
Creator Kevin Williamson (of the “Scream” movie franchise and Fox’s “The Following”) brings more of his indifferent brutality to this procedural about a division of the LAPD (headed by “Nikita’s” Maggie Q as Lt. Beth Davis) that investigates crimes of stalking and harassment. Dylan McDermott (“Hostages,” “American Horror Story”) co-stars as Jack Larsen, a New York homicide detective who has moved to Los Angeles so that, when he’s not crime-solving, he can stalk his former lover. Come to find that Davis has her own unsettling history with stalking (and being stalked). The message here is that stalking is messy and prevalent, especially in the social-network era.
“Stalker” is unsparing with both its grisliness and its deeply negative regard for human nature. Within the first minute, a woman has been doused in gasoline by her masked stalker and set on fire. When cross-examined by TV critics this summer about whether or not prime-time viewers need or want to see this much more violence, Williamson grew snippy and defensive.”Change the channel,” he said.
Happy to oblige — especially since “Stalker” doesn’t give viewers any good reason to stick around. Grade: F
Friday, Oct. 24, 10 p.m., NBC
Based on the DC comic book “Hellblazer,” this action/paranormal drama is about the deeply complicated occult expert John Constantine (Matt Ryan), who is burdened to a life of hunting demons, knowing that his soul is already condemned to hell. The series is supposed to be a more faithful adaptation of the comic than the 2005 Keanu Reeves movie of the same name.
As Constantine, Ryan is a motormouth, tracking down a frightened young woman to tell her how the demons of hell are all around us and only she can stop them. Come to find that the producers didn’t like her character, so she’s out and some other female character is coming in. A not-very-nice angel (“Lost’s” Harold Perrineau) shows up to both torment and assist Constantine and his Yellow Cab-driving sidekick (Charles Halford).
The pilot that was shown to critics over the summer felt very much like a work in progress that needed a whole lot more work. As best I can tell, “Constantine” is mainly just a ghoulish exercise in one character explaining what’s what to everyone else. It felt more like watching a Comic-Con panel than a TV show. Grade: Incomplete