Even though cable has been doing its best to kill of the concept for years now, the broadcast networks still treat the fall as the start of the TV season. They’ve dipped their toes in the waters of debuting big name series in the spring and summer, but for the most part, if they think you’re something big, you’re taking your bow in September. And while I think abandoning the concept of the TV season allows for a much less crowded schedule which gives shows a chance to breathe and find an audience, there’s still something exciting about seeing “NEW” after everything in the TV listings. It’s the same little rush that you get in the summer movie season, even though summer movies premiere all year long now.
As we roll into the back half of October, the new shows have pretty firmly planted their flags and given us an idea of who they are. And while I haven’t sampled everything there is to see, there are five shows that have pulled me in and have me for the long haul. Or at least the first season. Which hopefully won’t be their only season. Here they are, in order of preference.
Speechless (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30)
It’s a pretty big step for a network show to give the role of a character with cerebral palsy to an actor who actually has cerebral palsy. Usually, this is where some name actor gets a guaranteed Emmy nomination for playing the brave, inspiring person in the wheelchair. But Micah Fowler has been killing it as J.J., and Minnie Driver getting to once again show off her comedic chops is always a plus. There are times I wonder if I like this show because I feel like I’m supposed to, but that’s on me, not the show; it never beats us over the head with, “Look, he’s in a wheelchair and he’s just like us!” J.J.’s just a character who happens to be in a wheelchair, with life and agency and wants and needs all his own. He’s a part of the show, not just a gimmick.
Designated Survivor (ABC, Wednesdays at 10:00)
Speaking of gimmicks, blowing up 99% of the government sure is one hell of a plot hook. It’s what gave the first hour of Designated Survivor its compelling watchability. After a brief moment where I thought we were going to flash back to hours before the tragedy and spend the entire pilot building back up to it, the premiere instead snapped right back to the present and dove in with both feet. And while subsequent episodes have lost a little bit of the immediacy of the pilot — something that’s inevitable with any story that has such a seismic event as its kickoff — they’re doing enough interesting things with the aftermath that the show is an effective Tom Clancy-esque popcorn thriller. There’s zero depth here, as much as the show wants to remind us how precious our government is, and the detours into family drama are coming across a little clumsily. But you’re not watching this kind of show for astute political commentary or heartwarming family moments. You’re watching for the President of the United States arresting the governor of Michigan for treason.
Timeless (NBC, Mondays at 10)
Yet another popcorn show, and a charmingly entertaining one at that. And, like Designated Survivor, one that didn’t waste its first hour playing “getting to know you.” Less than ten minutes in and our cast was already in the time machine and back chasing the Hindenburg. They’ve avoided the trap of being super-reverent towards our past, especially by not being afraid to point out just how bad things can be for Malcolm Barrett’s Rufus Carlin as a black man in some of these eras. They do need to begin clearing up a little bit about rogue time traveler Garcia Flynn’s plans though; so far, there seems to be no connection between blowing up the Hindenburg a day later, killing everybody John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy had planned to kill, and stealing an atomic bomb from 1960’s Nevada other than those are the things he did this week. Plus they’re really hinting that his motives aren’t entirely sinister. I’m all for some subtlety and for building suspense, but keep things too hidden and you risk viewers getting impatient. Still, this is light, breezy sci-fi fun with a cast that all know exactly what kind of show they’re in.
The Good Place (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30)
Who knew that a comedy on NBC’s former Must See TV night could end up being a fascinating examination of cosmology, philosophy and ethics? From the get-go, The Good Place had me asking questions, and in a good way. Why are all the artists apparently in “the Bad Place”? How can a supposedly perfect afterlife have made a mistake by letting Eleanor in? Was it deliberate? Or is this “good place” not all that good after all? Is it even the afterlife? The show has done a fantastic job slowly revealing more and more aspects of this world it has created, while still being a funny fish out of water comedy with a totally winning lead performance by Kristen Bell. For a good while, this was the most thought-provoking show on television. Until October 2nd, that is.
Westworld (HBO, Sundays at 9)
Hands down the undisputed king of the current season. Take the questions raised by The Good Place and ratchet them up to 100 and you’ve just begun to scratch the surface of the brilliance of Westworld. The shows are companion pieces of a sort, one looking at how we come to be and why we’re here, the other at how we end and what’s after. But Westworld intends to dig a whole lot deeper into its questions. Which isn’t to say its an overly cerebral intellectual exercise; it’s more a philosophical jigsaw puzzle that’s constantly rearranging its pieces. Everything still fits, but the picture keeps changing. It’s thrilling, adult science fiction of the sort that’s rarely done outside of print, and with the foundation being laid here, HBO can breathe a little easier about Game of Thrones coming to an end.
That’s four hours of damn solid television to look forward to every week. For the hours that aren’t currently filled with work, sleep, football and board games, that is.