JOHN DOYLE’S FALL TV PREVIEW
From a gripping Vietnam War documentary to Star Trek, the season’s small-screen lineup is ready to give viewers an ideal dose of escapism, John Doyle writes, joined by strong returning summer shows of last year and a provocative slew of new material
The concept of “new fall TV” is not what it used to be. And that’s a good thing.
There’s fun to be had in the next quarter, but it’s not the only period that matters. Long promised by networks beleaguered by the boilerplate plan of fall, midseason and summer TV schedules, the shift to allyear TV is emphatically here, being forced upon networks by streaming services and, well, technology that allows viewers to access TV series at any old time.
This calendar year, it’s not fall that is so intense – network, cable and streaming services launched their strongest new material between January and April. And some of last year’s strong summer series are returning, not in summer, but this fall. The old calendar has gone awry.
What it all means is about 20 new fall series from the U.S. networks and some major productions from streaming services, such as Netflix, and local Canadian TV, will amount to a strange array of comforts and pleasures. With a few provocations thrown in. There is much more to TV these days than what mainstream broadcasters offer in the September-to-November period and that is the industry’s curse and blessing – it’s a blessing because sometimes, scheduled escapism is just ideal for all viewers.
In terms of themes, there is, first, the strictly business matter of old shows being
revived. The restorations of Will & Grace, Roseanne, American Idol,
Dynasty and others are safe bets for audience attention and, while they offer an opportunity for relevant updating, that opportunity will probably be missed in some shows. The unease of networks in the matter of starkly new material is also evident in Young Sheldon, a spinoff from The Big Bang Theory that might well be charming but is too obviously calculating and critic-proof.
Looking for reflections of the American consciousness and mood is a fool’s errand this year – most of the content can be considered an evasion of the disruptions and divisiveness of the Trump era, with the exception of the bafflingly cryptofascist crime-drama Wisdom of the
Crowd coming to CBS. For many viewers, the highlight of the fall will not be the new series but the return of This is Us on NBC/CTV (Sept. 26) or
Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO/ HBO Canada (Oct. 1) or the second season of Stranger Things (Oct. 27) on Netflix. What’s new is a miscellany of the conventional and the convoluted, all fascinating in a weird and wonderful way.
TEN SHOWS THAT MATTER The Vietnam War (PBS, Sept. 17)
The blessedly different approach of Ken Burns to the documentary format is a matter of depth and breadth. The Vietnam War is 18 hours long in 10 parts. (His masterpiece, The Civil War, was 11 hours.) Such length is certainly required for the labyrinthine history behind the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and the quagmire the war became. Burns is also a seeker of truth, not a mere accumulator of impressions. What is striking about this series is that it is very much a cautionary tale – the truth is very hard to find and the number of people who told the truth, certainly to the American public, is tiny. After a decade in the making, Burns and his codirector, Lynn Novick, end up dwelling on a central question that is tricky to answer – why did the actual war go on and on when it was so obviously doomed? After a very strong opening, in which the context is given and international players profiled, the series begins to probe at the arrogance of military leaders and politicians. The archival footage is often stunning and sometimes soul destroying. Burns’s technique of combining visuals with spoken commentary is as strong as ever and here, it is the interviews with veterans (both American and Vietnamese), families who lost children in Vietnam and anti-war protesters, that create the raw bones of the story. The overriding emotion that emanates from it is despair; but how that despair came into being is the cautionary tale that is the whole point.
Star Trek: Discovery (CBS/CBS All Access, CraveTV Canada, Sept. 24)
CBS has been very coy about the content of the new iteration of the franchise, not releasing it to critics and largely silent on the content. That is either a marketing ploy or hesitation about its worth. No matter – the series going to soak up a lot of attention. It stars Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham, and the series is about the adventures of a new Starfleet crew living and working on board the USS Discovery, set a decade before Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were doing their thing. There is a war with the Klingons, apparently. Some good actors are involved, including Jason Isaacs and, since it was largely made in Toronto, some Canadians might turn up, too. Much of the advance speculation is about the treatment of religion and tolerance in the show – no matter the characters or special effects, the series must live up to the original’s portrait of, you know, peace and love.
Ten Days in the Valley CTV, Oct. 1) (ABC,
Created by Canadian Tassie Cameron, the 10-episode Ten Days is on every critic’s top-five list for this confounding new TV season. Kyra Sedgwick plays Jane Sadler, an overworked television producer/single mom in the middle of a fraught separation, whose personal life is shattered, and her already controversial police series is torpedoed, when her young daughter disappears. At first, the series has the air and style of a strong but conventional mystery but then it gets tangled, truly chilling and, indeed, thoughtful, as the two worlds – cop-show entertainment and motherhood – become horribly entangled. Sedgwick is truly excellent as an angry, distraught mother and TV showrunner who Cameron has described as “truth-telling documentarian in over her head.” It is the L.A. TV business as a minefield of disturbing personal relationship and dangerous professional obstacles. The Sedgwick character is its strong suit – this is a highly complex, driven woman with some ugly skeletons hidden away.
White Famous (Showtime/ The Movie Network Oct. 15)
This deft, snarky and often hilarious comedy is about Floyd Mooney (Saturday Night Live alum Jay Pharoah), a young African-American comedian who is a fast-rising star. Various people have ideas about how to make him really, really famous. That is, “white-famous,” which means “like Obama or Tiger Woods.” Executive producer Jamie Foxx says it is based, in part, on his own experiences and he makes himself a central character in the early going. The show seems to manage to be lightweight and funny while taking a sharp satiric axe to a lot of showbiz clichés and lies about race.
Godless (Netflix, Nov. 22)
Not much can be seen in advance, but this is an intriguing series to anticipate. A seven-part western, it was created by Steven Soderbergh, who always tends to poke around in disturbing storytelling places. It stars Jeff Daniels as outlaw Frank Griffin, who, along with his posse, is seeking Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), a man who betrayed him. Turns out that while on the run, Roy has hidden out with hard-nosed widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, who was Lady Mary on Downton Abbey). Alice is herself a castaway of sorts eking out an existence in the near-derelict, isolated mining town of La Belle, N.M., a community that is almost entirely female. A murderous revenge-seeking gang against a mostly female community is unlikely to be orthodox in Soderbergh’s hands.
Alias Grace (CBC/Netflix; on CBC Sept. 25)
What writer Sarah Polley, director Mary Harron and star Sarah Gadon have done with Margaret Atwood’s novel is much more literary than the expansive adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale done for Hulu. A more comprehensive review will come later but for now, lets just say that Gadon is the engine that drives it and there is a stiffness to the six-part adaptation of the type that tends to bedevil a good deal of Canadian TV drama. Grace Marks is a convicted double murderess and the journey to the source of the crime and the matter of guilt or innocence is fraught with male perception of the female mind and ego.
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders (NBC, Global, Sept. 26)
This is what FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson has wrought – a network, limited-series drama about a high-profile murder trial, with a marquee star. Lyle and Erik Menendez were convicted in 1994 for the 1989 murders of their parents, Jose and Mary (Kitty) Menendez. The defence claimed the brothers’ actions were a reaction to the sexual and psychological abuse they suffered at the hands of their parents. Thanks to saturation coverage by tabloid TV at the time, the case was an in-yourface drama with a colourful cast of characters and what was presented was an alleged insight into the home-life perversity of the rich and comfortable. The great Edie Falco plays the Menendez brothers’ notorious defence lawyer, Leslie Abramson.
Will & Grace (NBC, Global, Sept. 28)
The creators of the show, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, have made it clear that the revived, limited-run sitcom will not be “entirely about issues.” It couldn’t be, if it is to be funny. But its revival is both a shrewd business decision by NBC and an opportunity to expand on the perception of all LGBTQ people, not just two white, middle-class gay men. No transgender person in the U.S. armed forces is going to have their dismissal revoked by a network sitcom, but what makes the series an enthralling possibility is its power to make the general population comfortable with the “other,” as the original did. Heck, Canadian carrier Global lists it as “topical.”
Bad Blood (City-TV stations, Sept. 21)
This six-part original series stars Anthony LaPaglia as Montreal mobster Vito Rizzuto and, while American actors get several leading roles, this is very much a Canadian drama. Based on the book Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War by Antonio Nicaso and Peter Edwards, it is – based on the evidence of the first hour – a very solid, gripping mob drama. It begins with deft establishment of Rizzuto’s firm grip on all manner of crime in Montreal and then begins to chronicle the bloody and hair-raising disintegration of his mob after he was indicted and imprisoned in the United States. Then, of course, it deals with the calamitous revenge that Rizzuto attempted. At six episodes, it is likely too short to subtly convey the full depth of the story, but it certainly is high-grade crime drama that gives some good Canadian actors – including Angela Asher, Maxim Roy, Tony Nappo and Brett Donahue – material to sink their teeth into.
The Gifted (Fox, CTV, Oct. 2)
A Marvel-universe show, this fantasy-drama is infinitely better than expected. The gist is this – when young Andy Strucker (Percy Hynes White) and his sister Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) are outed as mutant creatures with powers, the kids and their parents go on the run from a menacing government agent and his team. Thus, they enter a hidden “mutant network” and superheroes old and young are part of it. Unlike most series derived from the Marvel comic-book universe, this one has genuine heart and emotional heft and is a sharp thriller, if the pilot is any indication. Stephen Moyer (from True Blood) is great as the dad and young Canadian Percy Hynes White is outstanding.
Bad Blood tells the story of Montreal mobster Vito Rizzuto in six parts, and has the potential to be a gripping mob drama if its first hour is any indication.
The deft, snarky and frequently hilarious White Famous, a Jamie Foxx-produced comedy scheduled to debut Oct. 15, stars Jay Pharoah as a young comedian whose star is quickly rising.