A dozen new fall TV shows to watch
It’s not going to be a particularly tranquil fall for TV connoisseurs, as the major players march further into a streaming war. As if you had the time or additional money, both Disney and Apple are set to unleash their streaming services; the plus signs in their logos will appear as minus signs in your bank account.
Disney+ tempts us with a Star Wars series called The Mandalorian. Apple TV+ has got Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell acting out backstage network drama in The Morning Show. Your mentally exhausted TV critic has yet to see an episode of either – he’s still puzzling out HBO’s Watchmen.
The biggest surprise I noticed this season is a comparatively strong lineup from the broadcast networks (remember them?) and good ol’ PBS. I can’t remember the last time that one-third of my list of fall TV picks could be watched on the traditional networks.
This gripping eight-episode series, from Susannah Grant (Party of Five) and novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, is based on investigative reporting from ProPublica and the Marshall Project. It’s about a string of serial rapes (triggers galore), yet the writing and execution are refreshingly empathetic toward victims, procedure and justice. Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) stars as Detective Karen Duvall, who learns that a rape she’s investigating has similarities to a case one town over, handled by Detective Grace Rasmussen, played by Toni Collette (United States of Tara). Working together leads them to an older, closed case, in which the victim (Kaitlyn Dever) was pressured into recanting her statement about being attacked.
Remember all those copycat network dramas in the Lost years, which would take a spooky occurrence and string it along with unlimited twists and conspiracies until abrupt cancellation? Emergence’s producers swear they’re not doing that, and a better-than-usual pilot seems promising: Fargo’s Allison Tolman stars as small-town Long Island police chief Jo Evans, who finds a frightened child (Alexa Skye Swinton) at what appears to be a plane crash on the beach. When a shifty couple claims to be the girl’s parents, something feels wrong. Tolman’s performance is the best reason to keep watching – I hope her character can solve it soon. Network TV watchers are a lot more impatient than they used to be.
Set in Portland, Oregon, and based on a graphic novel, this crime drama is one of the more raucous and edgier network pilots I’ve seen in years. Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) stars as ex-Marine Dex Parios, a free spirit struggling to find steady work while caring for her intellectually disabled brother, Ansel (Cole Sibus), and coping with psychological grief (she lost her one true love in combat) and symptoms of PTSD. Turns out she finds her purpose in brutal work as a private investigator, where she takes on thugs and clients alike with sharpwitted skill. Stumptown’s intro plays like fast-and-furious popcorn cinema; if it can keep up that pace, it’s worth a longer ride.
Who makes better, more relevant TV than Robert and Michelle King? Their dramas include The Good Wife, The Good Fight and the prescient 2016 political/horror satire BrainDead. Now they turn to the demonic with Evil, a satisfyingly scary drama about a seminarian (Luke Cage’s Mike Colter) and his techie assistant (Aasif Mandvi) who investigate possession cases for the Vatican. They persuade a highly skeptical criminal psychologist (Katja Herbers) to help them sort the possessed from the merely insane. Evil isn’t afraid to get gruesome, but the Kings are always mindful of the topical twist, namely that true evil thrives in online chat rooms. As one character observes, the worst of us are now connected to each other.
Ryan Murphy (along with cocreators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan) makes his Netflix debut with this Wes Anderson-like, onepercenter dramedy about Payton Hobart (Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt), a teenager obsessed with becoming U.S. president. His ambitions currently rest on two hurdles: getting into Harvard, which he insists on doing without his parents (Bob Balaban and Gwyneth Paltrow) buying his way in; and winning the student council presidency at his fancy private school, where his campaign advisers calculate his every move, including his choice of a cancer-stricken running mate, Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), who lives with her controlling, greedy grandmother (Jessica Lange). It’s a hoot, but just know that Murphy’s biggest adversaries – tone control and plot discipline – have come along for the ride.
Each episode takes a different Modern Love column from the New York Times archive and turning it into an even more facile story of the many ways it is possible to find love, so long as you believe (and live) in New York. Gross. (But also, great?) The first few episodes feature Cristin Milioti as a single woman with an overprotective doorman; Catherine Keener as a magazine writer who teaches a young tech-bro (Dev Patel) about romantic fate; and Anne Hathaway as a singing and dancing manic-depressive. Is this a recommendation or a warning? Yes!
Not like the classic 1980s comic series and definitely not like the limp 2009 movie adaptation, this thematic workover from Damon Lindelof (Lost and The Leftovers) is a puzzling yet mesmerizing alternate reality tale, set in Oklahoma, USA, where Robert Redford is the president and police officers wear masks for their own protection against a terrorist threat from a rising group of masked white supremacists. Quite dramatically, the whole thing opens with the 1921 massacre of black citizens in Tulsa. In other words, even the first episode is a lot to sort out. At a pilot screening for critics this summer, it was no surprise that the standout performance came from Emmy and Oscar winner Regina King. I’ll follow her just about anywhere, even here.
Tom Perrotta has mastered the spot-on modern suburban novel, providing plenty of material for other film and TV adaptations. This time Perrotta is in charge of this engagingly wry and perfectly detailed seven-episode series based on his 2017 novel about a single mother, Eve Fletcher (Kathryn Hahn of Transparent and I Love Dick), who tries new things after dropping off her deplorably selfish son, Brendan (Jackson White), for his first semester of college. While Brendan discovers that he’s not as popular or cool as he used to be as a high school jock, Eve takes advantage of her empty nest to watch online porn, enroll in a writing class and discover a new side of herself. Good for her!
Critics haven’t actually seen it yet, but you have to hand it to Disney for launching its subscription service by putting Netflix and everyone else on notice with the equivalent of a warning shot from the Death Star. Trailers promise something along the lines of a souped-up Star Wars Western, set after the fall of the Galactic Empire and in such a remote part of the galaxy that we’ll never have to hear the word Skywalker. Pedro Pascal (Narcos, Game of Thrones) stars in the title role as a lone bounty hunter; the rest of the cast includes Nick Nolte, Giancarlo Esposito, Gina Carano and, yes, Werner Herzog. If you have a lifelong Star Wars jones, you’ve already cleared your calendar. If not, well, may some other force be with you.
Jordan Weiss’s dramedy stars Kat Dennings (2 Broke Girls) as Jules, who, after being dumped by her longtime boyfriend, finds herself on a metaphorical bus driven by a cat lady, destined for a depot where recently dumped women are supposed to reunite with their BFFs. It’s here Jules realizes she lost all her girlfriends and must start over with those who wrote her off long ago, including Madison (Brenda Song) and Stella (Shay Mitchell). Dollface is best when it cleverly snarks between the real and the hallucinatory, commenting on gender tropes and other observed behaviors, such as shrieking hello at brunches or enduring the bizarre story conferences at the Goop-like website (Woom) where Jules works as a designer. It’s not a slam so much as an enjoyably cynical social study.
College Behind Bars
This four-part documentary from Lynn Novick (The Vietnam War) closely portrays the inmates in New York’s state prison system who are lucky enough to be accepted to the Bard Prison Initiative, an intensive curriculum sponsored by the private college. Despite evidence that higher education access greatly reduces recidivism, many such programs vanished because of the 1994 crime bill. Bard quietly and impressively immerses these students in the classics, higher math and foreign languages. Conservatives tend to squirm at the process (comparing it to “free college” for the undeserving), but as one of BPI’s students points out: It’s called the Department of Corrections. What could be more corrective – redemptive, even – than the broadening of one’s intellect?
Work in Progress
I fell immediately for Abby McEnany, the dyspeptic, Fran Lebowitz-esque star of this dark comedy (which McEnany cocreated with Tim Mason) about a self-loathing, 45-year-old lesbian in Chicago who gives her life 180 days to improve or else she will end it. The first episode includes an encounter worth catching, as Abby spies former Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney in a restaurant and is compelled to tell Sweeney how her life was ruined by people cruelly comparing her to Sweeney’s gender ambiguous Pat sketches in the 1990s. Sweeney’s reaction is priceless, and McEnany is a newly discovered treasure.
Clockwise from top left: Watchmen, Unbelievable, The Politician and College Behind Bars.