Rachel Bellwoar on Fall TV’s top five new shows…
Due to how pilots are spaced out this fall, figuring out to the right time to launch a top five list gets complicated. Wait too long and you fall behind on shows that have started airing as early as August. Submit too early and newcomers like this week’s Chance on Hulu and Dirk Gently on BBC America, don’t get a, well, chance. Then there’s personal handicaps, like lack of a Netflix subscription, that force any commentary on shows like Luke Cage to be left to a later date.
So. what is this list saying? It’s saying, out of an extensive pool of new network, basic cable, and Amazon titles, these five are the best and most worthy of your commitment this season. As a title, it’s a mouthful, but if you’ve seen how large the premiere pool is this year, even considering these limitations it’s not one without merit.
Queen Sugar (OWN)
How Many Episodes In: 7
Leading the fall crop in late August, watching Queen Sugar’s pilot was a study of dread, waiting for the inevitable Godfather moment to come while hoping it never would. No, I don’t mean anyone swims with the fishes. The Godfather scene that has always traumatized me is when the Don has a heart attack in front of his grandson. On Queen Sugar, Blue’s grandfather has a stroke at Blue’s birthday party, leaving behind a sugar cane farm that his three children try to run it in his stead.
Celebrating a full slate of female directors, starting with show creator, Ava Duvernay, you can see the fruit of this decision in moments like Blue blowing out the candles on his cake coming across as menacing instead of cheerful. The show is deeply relevant in its currency, whether in Nova (Rutina Wesley) breaking a story about how black youths in the area are being tried on raised charges, or eldest sister, Charlie (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), facing scandal when her basketball star husband is charged with rape. Youngest brother, Ralph-Angel’s (Kofi Siriboe), decisions can be enraging, but overall Queen Sugar is beautiful to look at and powerful to watch, especially any scene including Tina Lifford’s Aunt Vi.
How Many Episodes In: 4
ABC continues its winning network crusade to provide half hour time slots to families that have never been the center of comedies before with Speechless, about the parents and siblings of a teenager with CP. What makes this story so well-suited for comedy is that it places the entire Dimeo clan in the spotlight. JJ’s CP isn’t a special topic, nor is it how the Dimeo’s define themselves. It’s an ingrained part of their everyday lives, where being aware of whether a building has ramps comes automatically. That other people can go through life unaware of these details is the problem. When it comes to advocating for her son, Maya (Minnie Driver) can’t, and doesn’t, let what other people think of her stop her, and I love how the show draws attention to how much family’s with special needs have to fight to bring about change. All three young actors—Micah Fowler as the sly humored JJ, Mason Cook as the neuroses-plagued Ray, and Kyla Kenedy as the confident Dylan—are phenomenal, while John Ross Bowie’s Jimmy provides balance as the unsung, laidback dad who picks up loose ends.
This Is Us (NBC)
How Many Episodes In: 3
The pilot’s closing twist has become public knowledge but, in order to avoid spoilers, let’s instead direct praise to the way This Is Us has handled telling emotionally resonant stories without causing eyes rolls. Given how unpopular its message—that people are mostly good—has grown as of late, the show either had to make a strong counter-argument or suffer being torn apart for false sugarcoating. In the end the title is the only thing that’s a little much. Making positivity feel as real as pessimism, This Is Us is a show the world needs right now and while comparisons have been made to fellow family drama, Parenthood, they don’t feel quite accurate. After a few seasons the Braverman clan got on my last nerves for their adherence to obligation—acting kumbaya-y for appearance’s sake and hosting big family dinners while bickering on the side. Everyone on This Is Us communicates and, while that doesn’t come without disagreements, there’s a reciprocal ‘listening to what the other person says’ that makes you want to invest in their relationships. Coming off of his Emmy win for American Crime Story, Sterling K. Brown stands out as a son reunited with his birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), while Gilmore Girls-vet, Milo Ventimiglia, is endearing as a new father of three.
How Many Episodes In: 4
In terms of originality, Pitch wins hands down this fall, as an imagined story about Major League Baseball’s first female player, Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury). Having spent practically all her life training for this moment, it doesn’t get much easier at the top, as Ginny struggles to win over her team, earn fans’ respect, and meet new responsibilities, as a role model for young girls. This is all stuff she’s had to deal with before but never under such scrutiny. Saved by the Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar does a great dramatic turn as Ginny’s ally and the team’s inspiring speech maker, veteran catcher, Mike Lawson. Also worthy of commendation is how the show handles side characters. Teammate, Blip, and his wife, Evelyn, aren’t relegated to being Ginny’s friends but have their own scenes as a family. Having gone into Pitch knowing about as much about baseball as football watching Friday Night Lights, learning new terms has been a much bigger perk than expected, especially during episode three’s rules for a beanball game.
How Many Episodes In: all 8 available with Amazon Prime
The opposite of Pitch, Goliath‘s enjoyabilty comes not from originality and new faces, but a proven show model made special by the will of the people involved. From creator David E. Kelly (Ally McBeal, Picket Fences), Goliath builds around Billy McBride, a washed up, once great lawyer, who isn’t actively seeking a comeback. One gets offered to him anyway in the form of a big job against his old firm. He signs on because he believes in the case, not because he’s out for revenge, but after a series of targeted stunts meant to keep him quiet fail, he is ready to take them down. Billy Bob Thornton is Billy and there’s no doubt that this is his vehicle, with McBride a completely likable mess who gains your confidence immediately, but the show sports a strong female supporting cast as well, including Maria Bello, Molly Parker, and Nina Arianda.
Honorable Mentions: Frequency (CW) and Timeless (NBC)
Both time travel shows with the guts to leave history changed, Timeless uses a classic time machine to prevent major events, like the Hindenburg, from being altered. Failures to do so ripple into the present. Frequency‘s focus is entirely personal, as Raimy (Peyton List) works to prevent her dad (Riley Smith), Frank’s, murder twenty years later. Father-daughter relationships are a trend this fall (see every show on this list, except Timeless) but theirs is definitely my favorite, as they use Frank’s old ham radio to communicate from parallel time lines in 1996 and 2016.
Another aspect both shows share is a concept that seems difficult to sustain. If Timeless‘ trio continue to hop to new events each week, in hopes of stopping Goran Višnjić’s great, if cryptic, villain, Flynn, the present day is going to become more and more unrecognizable, while Raimy’s desire to have the best of both time lines (thanks to her interference her dad doesn’t die in 1996 but other people she cares about do) seems doomed to get garbled and repetitive. Neither show is letting the future intimidate them into stalling in the present. Thanks to great characters, they have wiggle room, too. Should either plot get a little convoluted, there’s a good chance of still caring about what happens to the people caught in them.
What are your favourite shows of the new season? Let us know in the comments below…