Monday, October 18, 2021
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Fall TV: Reviews of new shows

🕐 12 min read

Earlier this year, in one of my more chin-scratching moods, I wrote a long essay wondering if we might have left the Golden Age of TV and settled into something more like a Silver Age, in which most new shows – whether they’re on old-school commercial networks or come as original output from streaming providers – are all “pretty good,” or at least reaching a certain base level. In the Silver Age, there’s plenty of quality writing, acting and heightened production values, but how much of it is really, truly can’t-miss TV?

This fall’s new shows hold true to that premise: In reviewing new series here as I do each year, I find myself doling out just one A (to CBS’ “Supergirl”) and only one F (to ABC’s “Blood & Oil”), followed by a whole lot of B’s. These are not inflated B’s reflecting some lenient curve – they’re honest B’s. Creators and writers are coming up with shows that are ably filling some niche, checking off some box. Nothing too dazzling, but nothing that says “Death of TV.”

There’s plenty of talk already about the death of TV. This is a good fall season to keep enjoying it while it lasts, in an ever-increasing number of shows, in whichever format you prefer.

– CBS’ ‘Supergirl’: Look, up in the sky – and for once it’s not a guy

As a tweenage Kryptonian, Kara Zor-El was sent in a follow-up rocket to babysit her infant cousin Kal-El. Her ship got waylaid in a time warp; by the time she lands on Earth, her cousin has surpassed her and grown into the world-revered Superman. He places her with a kindly adoptive pair of scientist parents.

Now a young woman, Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) lives in National City and works as the awkward, put-upon assistant of a demanding, “Devil Wears Prada”-style media magnate, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Like all 20-somethings, Kara wonders if she’s making the most out of her potential. After she rescues a burning jetliner, it’s becomes clear that she ought to follow in cousin Kal’s contrails; soon enough, she dons a red cape and encounters her first fearsome enemy, one of many alien criminals who’ve escaped the same time warp that once imprisoned her.

“Supergirl,” which is co-produced by prolific show runner Greg Berlanti (“Arrow,””The Flash,””The Mysteries of Laura”), is a cheerful and spot-on adaptation, skillfully accomplishing the difficult task of making a corny comic-book story seem not only believable but also welcoming to those who’ve tired (or never enjoyed) the genre. Benoist couldn’t be more suited to the part, which, like playing Superman, requires just as much (if not more) skill at playing the adorkable alter ego. In Kara’s case, that line is blurrier – she’s sometimes at her strongest while in the office. In fact, the only time she backs down is while protesting her boss’s sexist impulse to give National City’s new heroine the name Supergirl instead of Superwoman. (For my money, she surrenders that fight too easily.)

Throughout the recent explosion of superhero everything, fans have ached to see someone bring forth a noble reboot of Wonder Woman. Perhaps we were holding out for the wrong heroine. Let’s hear it for Supergirl!

SUPERGIRL

A-minus

Premiere date: Monday, Oct. 26

Time: 8:30 on CBS

– Fox’s ‘The Grinder’: Come for the Rob Lowe, stay for the Fred Savage

With Rob Lowe’s dramatic acting career long ago rescued by his self-effacing comic chops, his handsome mug is pretty much welcome to any sitcom attempt. In Fox’s “The Grinder,” Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, the middle-aged star of a successful “Law & Order”-type procedural called “The Grinder.” On TV, the Grinder is one of those attorneys who bends the rules and never fails to save the day in the final seconds.

But now that “The Grinder” has reached its finale, Dean finds himself adrift. Visiting his family in Boise, where his father (William Devane) and younger brother Stewart (Fred Savage) have made careers as attorneys (the kind with actual law degrees), Dean has a sudden inspiration: He should move home and practice law. Tagging along on a eviction case with Stewart, Dean declares with “Grinder”-like gravitas to his brother’s star-struck clients: “Right now, this case is all about apartments, the rent. But what it should be about is character.”

We’re used to seeing Lowe ham it up as a stud whose vanity knows no bounds – and it’s still funny. But “The Grinder’s” secret weapon is the return of Savage (since “The Wonder Years,” he’s mostly worked behind the camera as a director), who runs away with the pilot episode, giving probably the best network comedy performance in this fall’s crop.

Stewart’s anxiety about living in his brother’s considerable shadow – compounded by the fact that even his wife, Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), once dated Dean – turns out to be a more interesting thread than the notion of a TV star moving back home. Either way, the writing is breezy and the cast seems to be having fun – so I rest my case.

THE GRINDER

B-plus

Premiere date: Tuesday, Sept. 29

Time: 8:30 on Fox

– CBS’ ‘Life in Pieces’: A family like so many others, but funny all the same

If NBC’s “Parenthood” had chosen the half-hour comedy track instead of morphing into a weepy (but certainly beloved) one-hour drama, the results would have probably looked like CBS’s appealing “Life in Pieces,” a humorous bit of quick portraiture on three adult siblings, Greg, Heather and Matt (Colin Hanks; “Breaking Bad’s” Betsy Brandt; and “The Newsroom’s” Thomas Sadoski), and their retired parents, John and Joan (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest), along with attendant spouses, children and exes.

“Modern Family” also comes to mind (minus the mockumentary-style asides), with single-camera pacing and overall vibe. In the first episode, we don’t get a whole lot of explanation of who these people are, which doesn’t matter, because they are by now familiar staples of nearly all Hollywood depictions of families: They are white, nebulously well off (but not rich) and blessed with bantering skills that only a roomful of talented writers could provide. Their problems all are mostly of the First World variety: Heather’s little girl, Sophia (Giselle Eisenberg), grapples with news from her older sister that there is no Santa Claus, while Greg consoles his wife, Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones), about the condition of her vagina after giving birth to their baby daughter.

“Life in Pieces” is a good swerve from CBS’s allegiance to the Chuck Lorre-style multi-camera sitcom, and the cast is a sturdy gang of seasoned pros (it’s particularly pleasing to see Wiest in a comedy). And though they’ve probably got nothing new to tell us about family dynamics, sentimental moments and delicate rites of passage, they seem like nice people to have around for a few laughs.

LIFE IN PIECES

B-plus

Premiere date: Monday, Sept. 21

Time: 8:30 on CBS

– CBS’ ‘Limitless’: Dude takes a pill and becomes a crime-solving know-it-all

Let’s not give the movie industry too many wild ideas: Not every forgotten action thriller would or could translate to a TV series pilot as well as “Limitless” (based on a came-and-went 2011 flick starring Bradley Cooper). Something about this show just works from the crisply polished start, using a premise that is squarely within one of CBS’s favorite wheelhouses – the edgy hero who is gifted with extraordinary mental powers that he or she directs to the purpose of solving crime. (See “The Mentalist,” “Unforgettable,” “Elementary” and so on.)

Here, that super-sleuth would be Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), a frustrated New York musician who is approaching 30 and still hasn’t figured out what to do with his life. While slogging through a temp filing job at a big brokerage firm, Brian’s old friend Eli slips him a miracle pill and the world opens wide: His brain is now operating at 100 percent, enabling him to remember everything he’s ever seen or read.

But the effects wear off after 12 hours. Brian’s source turns up dead, and now FBI agent Rebecca Harris (“Dexter’s” Jennifer Carpenter) is pursuing him for murder. Brian eventually gets the lowdown about the pill and an antidote for its nasty side-effects from Cooper’s film character (the actor is also a co-producer on the series). McDorman, who was seen last season on ABC’s romantic comedy flop “Manhattan Love Story,” makes for an engaging, believable slacker-protagonist. Tentatively allied with Harris, Brian can now further explore life as a know-it-all — a dream come true for any millennial.

I can hear you asking: Won’t it just kind of become the same thing over and over? Of course it will. And since when has that ever been an issue for CBS (or its viewers)?

LIMITLESS

B-plus

Premiere date: Tuesday, Sept. 22

Time: 10 on CBS

– Amazon’s ‘Man in the High Castle’: An addictive thriller set in a Nazified U.S.

Based on a Philip K. Dick story and probably the most absorbing drama pilot on the fall slate, Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” sets off on a fascinating — if depressing — premise: It’s 1962 and the United States is under the control of its World War II conquerors. Everything west of the Rockies has been renamed the Japanese Pacific States; east of there, it’s called the Greater Nazi Reich. Germany invented the H-bomb and destroyed Washington, D.C., in 1945, bringing about a U.S. surrender. Since then, a tentative — and fascist — peace has settled over the land.

On opposite coasts, two young Americans fall into a resistance scheme: Professing that he wants his country back, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) agrees to drive a moving van filled with secret cargo from New York to Canon City, Colorado, which now sits in the neutral zone between German and Japanese territories. In San Francisco, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) impulsively boards a bus to Canon City to keep an appointment meant for her now-murdered stepsister. Both Joe and Juliana are in possession of outlawed newsreels — directed by the mysterious Man in the High Castle — that purport to show that the United States was victorious in the war.

Although the writing and storytelling in the first episode (which Amazon first shared with its Prime customers earlier this year) come off a little clumsily, overall it’s a strong launch for an espionage series. “The Man in the High Castle” is also expertly and realistically imagined — shot in drab and dour hues that reveal a nation and a society in a dejected condition. It’s also an interesting metaphor to consider in the present day, as a leading, bellicose presidential candidate keeps promising to restore America to a former glory. That’s what Joe said, too.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

B-plus

Premiere date: Friday, Nov. 20

Amazon streaming

– PBS’ ‘Home Fires’: A war story that’s sweet as jam, but strongly feminist, too

What could be sweeter — and more in PBS “Masterpiece’s” sweet spot — than a six-part miniseries about a group of resolute women in rural Cheshire County, England, who, at the outset of World War II, decide to pick blackberries and make jam for the patriotic cause? This series is spoonful after spoonful of splendid jahm.

As with the efficiently sunny PBS hit “Call the Midwife” (the only known antidote to TV’s Golden Age of relentlessly violent antiheroes), “Home Fires” knows precisely how much tragedy and personal crises its characters (and viewers) can bear. Bad things happen (there’s a war on, after all), but with nowhere near the degree of travesty you see on other shows. There are subplots of unrequited love, criminal behavior, infidelity, terminal illness, deep grief and profound fear — all of it seeming quaint and quite dear. People are awful to one another, but never too awful — except in the case of the frustrated writer (Mark Bazeley) who verbally and physically abuses his wife (Claire Rushbrook). And don’t worry too much about that because “Home Fires” is the kind of show that guarantees he’ll soon get his.

Samantha Bond (Lady Rosamund of “Downton Abbey”) leads the large cast as Frances Barden, head of the local chapter of the Women’s Institute (sort of like the Junior League), who faces off with her stuffy rival (Francesca Annis) to convert the chapter from a ladies’ lunch club to a rolled-up-sleeves battalion of do-gooders ready to plant victory gardens, raise money for ambulances and build a village bomb shelter.

Created by Simon Block and based on historian Julie Summers’s book, “Jambusters,” “Home Fires” is noticeably cheesy in parts (feel free to enhance your fun by supplying arch commentary to the dialogue), but it’s easily absorbing. Also, for those paying close attention, the series is a contextually and satisfyingly feminist take on war.

HOME FIRES

B-plus

Premiere date: Sunday, Oct. 4

Time: 8 on PBS

– CBS’ ‘Angel From Hell’: Skip the wings, this angel will have the taquitos

CBS’ idea of what a guardian angel is sure isn’t what it once was back in the Roma Downey and Della Reese days. In this dryly humored and cuckoo half-hour comedy, “Glee’s” Jane Lynch gets to spread her sardonic wings as Amy, a flask-swigging guardian angel who needs to prove herself worthy of the title.

Breaking whatever wall stands between humans and angels, Amy reaches out to the soul she’s supposed to be protecting, a dermatologist named Allison (Maggie Lawson) who is still grieving the death of her mother a year or so back (“412 days,” Amy notes).

Coming across as a possibly deranged street magician, Amy is no one’s idea of a heavenly presence, but her seeming prescience convinces Allison that her boyfriend is cheating on her and that her workaholism is a form of overcompensation and a need to always please others. Amy is also good for laughs: “Would it cheer you up to know there’s a taquito behind your ear?” she asks, producing (and munching on) said snack.

This is another one of those pilot episodes where it’s not easy to tell how quickly the fun will fizz out. Unlike George Burns in the old “Oh, God!” movies, Amy is visible to everyone around her — not only Allison, but also Allison’s father (Kevin Pollak) and brother (Kyle Bornheimer), so at least one of the usual ethereal-being comedy conventions doesn’t really apply. What remains is a watchable and weird story (thanks mainly to Lynch, whose gifts for line-delivery verge on the divine) about an intuitive new friend showing up just when she’s most needed.

ANGEL FROM HELL

B

Premiere date: Thursday, Nov. 5

Time: 9:30 on CBS

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