Fall TV Preview, Part 2: All the New Dramas

Everything I said last week, about this being a generally weak and uninspiring fall for new network comedies? Well, that goes double for dramas. In the literally threes of years since I became a full-time TV critic, I’ve never seen such a dispiriting crop. Even with the necessary caveat that it’s impossible to judge the long-term potential of a series from the pilot episode, it’s clear that what we have here is, in the immortal words of Alvy Singer, a whole bunch of dead sharks. It’s a weird time for the network drama, to be sure: Outmaneuvered by cable and undercut by cratering ratings, these shows have to be very good, very noisy, or very procedural to have any hope of surviving. So is it any wonder the Big Four are playing it so safe? Yes, there are occasional flashes of inspiration, a few fleeting nibbles of comfort food. But out of the 12 pilots dissected below, I’m not sure a single one has me excited to watch a second episode. But maybe you’ll disagree. After all, in Iceland, rotten shark meat is considered a delicacy.

WATCH IT

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GOTHAM (Fox)
Mondays, 9 p.m.
Premieres September 22

How many times will we, as a culture, watch Thomas and Martha Wayne die? We’ve seen the scene play out so many times by now, it’s practically gospel: the dark alley, the clutched pearls, the two gunshots, the kneeling, screaming kid. For those of us who grew up in the dark ages — a.k.a. watching reruns of this — that the Dark Knight’s origin story has become our generation’s Prometheus myth will never cease to astonish.

Still, being ubiquitous isn’t the same as being welcome. Watching the Waynes drop in the opening moments of Gotham, I felt my expectations tumble right along with them, no matter my confidence in Bruno Heller’s (The Mentalist, Rome) showrunning abilities, or the impressive luster of the assembled cast. From that point on, it was impossible to watch Gotham without feeling the dreaded yoke of continuity, the crippling, one-sided tango of fan anticipation. In its first moments, Gotham seems far more interested in placating than in innovating. Hey, there’s young Catwoman! Why, that’s a youthful Riddler! “It’s Batman before Batman!” trumpet the ads. But what that really means is that Fox is asking us to invest in a familiar story that hasn’t even started yet — and likely won’t for many years.

I’ll have more to say about this on Monday. In the meantime, know that even though I have reservations as large as Schumacher-era codpieces about the whole thing, Gotham is the most promising of this extremely weak crop of pilots. Ben McKenzie, as Detective Jim “Soon to Be Commissioner” Gordon, is a strong uncaped crusader. Donal Logue, as his corrupt partner Harvey Bullock, is even better. Jada Pinkett Smith is surprisingly appealing as an underworld boss, and there are welcome supporting turns from John Doman (Rawls from The Wire) as Carmine Falcone and the sniveling Robin Taylor as the guy fated to become the Penguin. There’s a scene three quarters of the way through the first hour in which McKenzie and Logue find themselves swinging upside down in a meat locker, and it’s possible to glimpse the Grand Guignol cop show Heller is imagining, and it’s not at all bad. The truth is, I don’t care about origin stories. I want stories, full stop. Heller appears able to tell them. Whether a skittish network and our franchise-obsessed society will allow him to do it remains to be seen.

HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER (ABC)1
Thursdays, 10 p.m.
Premieres September 25

So far, in her long and extremely lucrative career, Shonda Rhimes has made both operating rooms and the Oval Office sexy. Is it any wonder that, for her next trick, she’s turned to that noted hotbed of kink, the American law school? How to Get Away With Murder takes a flimsy, potentially dowdy skeleton — swaggering criminal-law professor uses her attractive students to help her win real-life cases — and dresses it in a leopard miniskirt and fuck-me pumps. I’m still not sure if there’s any meat on those bones, but goddamn if it doesn’t look good.

Yes, Murder is set not in the dull backwater most of us know as reality, but rather deep in the lurid, blood-pumping heart of Shondaland. Trust me, it helps to know that going in. As we learned from the president-screwing, bomb-throwing, Twitter-inflaming frenzy of Scandal, it’s certainly possible to scour Rhimes’s shows for plausibility, but it’s not all that much fun. Better to relax and, like any witness being cross-examined by Viola Davis’s steely Professor Annalise Keating, allow yourself to be expertly led. In fact, Davis is so good here, it forgives nearly everything else: the overheated courtroom high jinks (“Your honor, the witness is COLOR-BLIND!”), the chipper blandness of central naïf Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch), the complete lack of interest in anything resembling higher education. Aja Naomi King and Karla Souza do nice work as ambitious students. The pilot comes packed with a flash-forward that manages to suggest an unholy union of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Weekend at Bernie’s. How to Get Away With Murder isn’t for me. But I have a feeling it will be just fine for millions of people.

CONSTANTINE (NBC)
Fridays, 10 p.m.
Premieres October 24

Another day, another DC comics adaptation. But at least this one doesn’t wear a mask. Constantine is adapted from the long-running Vertigo series Hellblazer, and it asks you, in the most polite terms imaginable, to please use whatever unholy flames you have at your disposal to scorch the memory of the awful, 2005 film version from your brain. Where that misguided flick attempted to take the very best things about the character of John Constantine — his Britishness, his smirking wit in the face of all manner of demons — and stone them to death with Keanu Reeves’s cheekbones, this new series gets the basics more or less right.

We meet our new Constantine, played with brummy showmanship by Welsh actor Matt Ryan, while he’s undergoing voluntary electroshock therapy at a U.K. mental hospital — the better to forget the terrible things he’s seen and done. Constantine, you see, is a self-described “petty dabbler” in the dark arts — he’s a sarcastic exorcist, basically — and though he professes to want out, murderous hellbeasts keep dragging him back in. Because this is a network TV show, Constantine is no longer a chain-smoker and his trademark trench-coat-and-tie combo is worryingly clean. (Call it Heckblazer.) Also, in the pilot, John’s business takes him straight to Atlanta, the tax-friendliest of haunted cities. But director Neil Marshall (you might remember him from such TV episodes as “Blackwater”) doesn’t skimp on the creepiness: a nightmare vision of a ghost train, a dead body skittering around the inside of an ambulance like a spider, Jeremy Davies doing Jeremy Davies things. Questions abound, many of them related to some major post-pilot rejiggering. (Earlier in the summer, showrunner and Dark Knight screenwriter David S. Goyer announced they’d be scrapping costar Lucy Griffiths and replacing her with an as-yet-unseen companion, to be played by Angélica Celaya.) One of the biggest: Wouldn’t this all be so much better on cable? Still, there are far worse ways to waste away a Friday night.

WAIT FOR IT

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GRACEPOINT (Fox)
Thursdays, 9 p.m.
Premieres October 2

Look, I don’t know. It’s true that there are millions of Americans who never watched Broadchurch, the gripping murder-in-a-small-town British series from which Gracepoint is slavishly adapted. And perhaps it’s possible that a large number of them would prefer to hear star David Tennant (Doctor Who) recite many of the same lines in a flat American accent, or that it’s simply easier for them to watch a pallid, 10-week retelling of a singular phenomenon rather than seek out the phenomenon itself. I suppose there are people in the world who think karaoke versions of their favorite songs are just as satisfying as the originals, too.

For these reasons, I don’t have it in me to banish this high-profile miniseries to the bottom of this column’s WTF section. I like the gumption that inspired Fox’s then-boss Kevin Reilly to snatch up the rights to Broadchurch, get creator Chris Chibnall involved, and hire In Treatment smarties Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman to do the heavy lifting — the very same gumption that soon got Reilly fired. British crime series are on another level right now — please watch The Honorable Woman and Happy Valley if you aren’t already — and any exposure to this kind of sharp, limited (in length, not imagination) storytelling can be only a good thing, both for American audiences and the industry as a whole. With its lofty aims and strong cast (including Anna Gunn, Michael Peña, Nick Nolte, and Jacki Weaver), Gracepoint’s heart is in the right place, even if its brain most certainly isn’t.

The first few episodes are such rote copies of the original that it almost beggars belief: A young boy, Danny, is found dead on the beach. A big-city detective with a sketchy past clashes with his new partner, a family woman with deep local ties. Everyone in town is a suspect. Secrets, invariably, come to light. It worked fine the first time, but here it all feels like a chore. Both Tennant and Gunn are fine actors but wildly miscast here. (Why Tennant is doing this — other than, you know, buckets of cash and the chance to grab American fame — is beyond me. It’s like Jimmy Page sitting in with Dread Zeppelin.) Gracepoint is utterly devoid of the atmosphere and emotion that made the original so compelling. Without them, Broadchurch’s weaknesses (I liked it, didn’t love it) — its dependence on red herrings, its slow, inevitable dispensing of potential killers — are more fully on display. Around Episode 7, when Gracepoint does begin to stray from the original’s blueprint, the way it does so is so ham-fistedly American that it’s more frustrating than anything else. So far Fox has been mum about whether the the guilty party will be the same in Gracepoint as it was in Broadchurch. Without spoiling anything, I hope it is: The ending was the very best part of the show! They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result. That’s probably as good as any explanation for why Fox played it so safe and yet appears to have gotten it so wrong.

FOREVER (ABC)
Tuesdays, 10 p.m.
Premieres September 22 and 23

Watching network drama pilots is an exercise in lowering your expectations. Case in point: Forever, an hour that had me rolling my eyes in the beginning and then shrugging my shoulders with acceptance by the end. The story is both preposterous and “noisy” in the way development execs dig these days: Manhattan medical examiner Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) is a 19th-century doctor who can’t die. (Every time he’s killed, he wakes up, stark naked, in the East River.) Along with his lifelong pal Abe (a jolly Judd Hirsch) and NYPD detective Jo Martinez (Alana De La Garza), he solves crimes and investigates his own mysterious circumstance. Rinse, wash, repeat.

So it’s Sleepy Hollow meets Quincy, which isn’t altogether awful, as far as Frankensteined concepts go. (Gruffudd’s jaunty voice-over, chock-full of faux-wisdom about endings and beginnings, most definitely is.) The pilot is crammed with my newest TV pet peeve, something I call “Sherlocking.” It’s when our dashing protagonist cracks the code of a total stranger by making a series of ridiculous assumptions based on visual details — bruising on the ring finger, cheapness of a cell phone. In fact, the writing throughout is deeply, deeply suspect. How many drafts of a show about immortality does it take to come up with the line “You might not be able to die, but you haven’t lived for a very long time”? But here’s the thing: Forever owns its cheese and is refreshingly uncynical. The friendship between Gruffudd and Hirsch, once explained, is touching. The flirtation between Gruffudd and De La Garza is fine. Forever is a procedural with a dash of magic and a giant schmear of schmaltz. It’ll either be canceled in November or run for as long as its wildly optimistic title suggests. We’ll see.

MADAM SECRETARY (CBS)
Sundays, 8 p.m.
Premieres September 21

“You don’t just think outside the box — you don’t even know there is a box!” These are the words Madam Secretary creator Barbara Hall probably used to describe her lead character, a CIA analyst turned professor turned impromptu Secretary of State, in the initial pitch meeting with CBS brass. It may well have been the line that sold the idea in the room. What’s worrisome is that the sentence somehow ended up in the show as something said by a sitting U.S. president with more or less a straight face.

There’s a lot of this sort of dramatic CliffsNoting in the Madam Secretary pilot, but to be fair, there’s an awful lot of stuff to get through. When we first meet Téa Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord, she’s out of the game, living in rural Virginia with her husband, played by Tim Daly, America’s very own Benjamin Button. (“We’re parents, we’re teachers, we’re horse owners” is how they describe themselves in an apparent attempt to win over the working equestrian demographic.) But when the Secretary of State’s plane goes down under mysterious circumstances, our Liz is called to the White House to serve her old pal, President Keith Carradine. There’s a lot of horseshit on display, and I’m talking about after the McCords ditch the stables and move back to D.C.: Elizabeth backdoors the president on an important hostage negotiation, everything comes up roses, and she gets a fetching makeover in the process. But there’s also the sight of terrific character actors like Bebe Neuwirth and Zeljko Ivanek in key supporting roles and the overall sense that CBS knows what it has here and exactly what to do with it. (There’s a reason Madam Secretary is paired on Sunday nights with CBS’s other free-range treat, The Good Wife.) I actually think TV could use a new West Wing (check here for my still-plausible reboot idea!), but so far, it’s unclear if this is it. As another Secretary of State once said, it takes a village to raise a child. But it can take a whole lot more than that to make a decent TV show.

SCORPION (CBS)
Mondays, 9 p.m.
Premieres September 22

Do I ask too much from TV? Perhaps. But what I really want is simple: a weekly series based on one of my all-time favorite films: the 1992 caper flick Sneakers. Because I refuse to let this go, I was irrationally excited about Scorpion, a show with a premise that sounds awfully familiar. It’s about a ragtag group of highly specialized, deeply dysfunctional geniuses who are grudgingly roped into government service. Sure, none of them appeared to be blind, but, on paper at least, it seemed to be as close as I was likely to get to my dream show.

Unfortunately, Scorpion is no Sneakers; it’s much more flat-footed. Based on the trials and (it appears) deeply lucrative tribulations of real-life megamind Walter O’Brien, the show takes itself far too seriously to be much fun. What’s worse is the casting. As O’Brien, a hacker with an IQ of 197, former Dothraki Elyes Gabel is ill at ease and uncharismatic; his handpicked team of electronic (Jadyn Wong) and behavioral (Eddie Kaye Thomas) experts aren’t much better. I suppose Robert Patrick is serviceably steely as the Homeland Security guy tasked with keeping his free-spirited charges in line. (Patrick’s character’s name is “Cabe Gallo.” I don’t need an IQ of 197 to tell you that can’t possibly be real.) But the show too quickly falls into an unappealing rhythm. What do the smartest people in the world do to avert a global catastrophe? Well, mostly they bang on laptops, crack wise, and shout about probability. (Oh, they also Sherlock. A lot.) Good thing former Idol Katharine McPhee is around as a kindhearted waitress who, unlike Walter, knows how to talk to people. Her character, Paige, is the least intelligent person on the show, but also the only one who seems to make any sense. (She’s also got a potential genius of a son whose connection to Walter & Co. provides the series with its modicum of heart.) I’m willing to give Scorpion a few more weeks to find its (many) legs. But this still feels to me like a wasted opportunity. Not going to lie: It stings.

NCIS: NEW ORLEANS (CBS)
Tuesdays, 9 p.m.
Premieres September 23

So, to be clear, CBS is now offering a combined 66 hours a year of dedicated Naval crime-solving, suggesting a universe where becoming a petty officer on desk duty is far more dangerous than a Sunday stroll in Damascus. That’s fine, I guess, and people sure do seem to love it. (The existing NCIS-es are among TV’s most popular shows.) But for those of us who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting these jolly, landlocked crime-solvers, a show like NCIS: New Orleans can seem incredibly strange. Could there really be this many Navy-related homicides in a single city? And isn’t it a little odd to be so focused on them when actual, real-life New Orleans has a legitimately concerning murder problem of its own?

Let’s be honest here: I’m not going to watch NCIS: New Orleans again, nor will I begrudge the millions of people who will. What I would like to do is pay actual money for the chance to watch David Simon watch it. As the man whose reverence for the Crescent City made Treme one of the noblest, if most frustrating, television shows of all time, I imagine he’d have some thoughts on star Scott Bakula (as “Dwayne Pride”) bragging about his gumbo within the first three minutes. Or the way Dwayne’s jazzbo pal “Papa,” upon learning of the death of his son Calvin, gravely intones, “Only two things I ever loved in this life: Calvin and jazz.” Or how none of the supporting characters, not even humble shrimp fishermen, have appropriate accents. Or how Dwayne, in the process of investigating Calvin’s murder, approaches a “gangbanger” (his word, not mine) named Swag and tells him to open his mouth so Dwayne can check out his teeth. I’m not saying NCIS: New Orleans is racist. I’m saying it’s weirdly tone-deaf and dumb. It takes a lot of gall to turn one of America’s best cities into window dressing. But, in fairness, it’s also likely to make a lot of money.

WTF?!?

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RED BAND SOCIETY (Fox)
Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
Premieres September 17

The pitch is obvious and straight down the middle: Glee meets The Fault in Our Stars. And even if you remove the cynical Hollywood glare from your Warby Parkers (could dying kids be any more in right now?), it doesn’t look half bad. Unlike all of its network peers, Fox has admirably refused to give up on shows about younger people. And mortality is something that really unites the otherwise disparate demos, you know?

So it brings me no pleasure to report that Red Band Society’s pilot is quite a bit more than half bad. Adapted from a Catalan series, it tells the story of a gang of plucky teenagers, in various degrees of ill health, who all live together in a Los Angeles pediatric ward. Their ailments are heartbreaking: Leo’s (Charlie Rowe) has cost him his hair and his leg; Dash (Brian “Astro” Bradley) needs new lungs; Emma (Ciara Bravo) has an eating disorder. Charlie (Griffin Gluck) has it worst of all: He’s in a coma and no one knows he can hear them, let alone that he’s narrating a TV show about their situations. Into this mix arrives Kara, a bitchy cheerleader with a bum ticker and disastrous characterization who captures everything that’s wrong with Red Band. The first five seconds of her introduction are littered with so much invented slang — “niplash,” “manstruating” — that for a moment I worried that the Pitch Perfect 2 shooting script had become sentient and was making a play for global domination.

It’s enough to make one wonder if adapter Margaret Nagle has ever spent time with actual teenagers. Disease isn’t what’s limiting these fast-talking, flirty quirkbots. It’s a distinct lack of imagination. (And it makes one feel for the mighty Octavia Spencer, biding her time as the best thing here. She deserves to be playing with grown-ups.) “Everyone thinks that when you go to a hospital, life stops,” Charlie intones near episode’s end. “But it’s just the opposite. Life starts.” OK. But when should we schedule the gagging?

STALKER (CBS)
Wednesdays, 10 p.m.
Premieres October 1

Stalker was created by Kevin Williamson, the former Scream king who now makes his living on TV peddling cynical horror. Williamson’s The Following is one of the grossest shows in recent memory, a slickly produced cyanide pellet of a series that suggests serial killing is (1) prevalent, (2) interesting, and (3) impossibly romantic. On Stalker, he turns his fearmongering to the very real topics of sexual predators, domestic violence, and, as you may have gleaned from the show’s title, stalkers. One might think the subject matter would give Williamson pause — that the lack of fright masks or Edgar Allen Poe quotes might inspire him to take a breath and perhaps bring to bear a heretofore undiscovered modicum of dignity, seriousness, or reserve. You might, but then you watch the first five minutes of Stalker, in which a beautiful young woman is lit on fire and burned alive in her SUV. And then you remember who and what we’re dealing with.

Stalker attempts to class itself up with smart-sounding gobbledygook about how “we have too much access to each other” these days and a torrent of po-faced clinical speak (“I believe the semen has yet to be identified” — do let us know!), but nothing can hide the show’s dead, dead soul. Stalker takes a compelling, disturbing subject and turns it into something dumb and sensationalist. It asks us to fear for the young women being doused in gasoline by the pilot’s villains, a pair of game-playing misogyny monsters, but doesn’t hesitate to linger on their screaming, helpless faces or the lacy bras they wear underneath their highly flammable clothes. Dylan McDermott, who must have pissed off someone at CBS to go from Hostages straight into this, plays a roguish Manhattan transplant new to the LAPD’s “Threat Assessment Unit.” The surprisingly strong Maggie Q plays his boss. They furrow their brows while picking through the bedside tables of victims and kneeing creepy college students in the crotch, but the serious act doesn’t fool anyone. They’re leering, just like everyone else. Shut it down.

STATE OF AFFAIRS (NBC)
Mondays, 10 p.m.
Premieres November 17

A month or so ago, on the Hollywood Prospectus podcast, my buddy Chris Ryan and I described SundanceTV’s brilliant The Honorable Woman as “slow-food Homeland.” If that’s the case, please consider State of Affairs as the junk version. Katherine Heigl returns to television as Charleston Tucker (sure), a former CIA field agent (OK), who lost her fiancé to a firefight in Afghanistan (as you do). Since that day, Charleston has left the field and is now the person in charge of preparing the president’s daily briefing — that leather-bound book detailing all the threats facing the most powerful person in the world on a given Tuesday. Oh, that president? As played by the regal Alfre Woodard, she’s the mother of Charleston’s dead fiancé. Awkward!

State of Affairs was made by Joe Carnahan, one of the minds behind The Blacklist, so it should come as no surprise that the show treats subtext the way James Spader treats scenery. “I’m a platypus,” Charleston declares to her therapist early in the pilot. “Total slob in my personal life, total sniper in my professional one.” The problem here is that Heigl is implausible as either. She’s a fine TV actress, and her jaunty professionalism is actually quite welcome. But she’s too tightly wound to be believable as a sport-fucking, tequila-pounding Carrie Mathison or a protocol-flouting, jihadist-hunting … Carrie Mathison. Instead, she remains Katherine Heigl, a rom-com star stuck in a CENTCOM world.

By far the most aggravating thing about State of Affairs is its insistence on acronyming everything to sound more authentic. When did we, as a country, sign off on using “POTUS” this much? The State pilot adds “PITA” (Pain In The Ass) to the mix, too. I’d like to suggest one more: GTFO.

THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA (NBC)
Wednesdays, 8 p.m.
Premieres September 17

The first new series of the 2014-15 TV season has the distinction of being the worst. The Mysteries of Laura is a disasterpiece of the first order, a show so colossally wrongheaded, so cringe-inducingly terrible that one almost has to see it to believe it. Debra Messing stars as Laura, a woman who struggles with the near-impossible task of having a job and also having children. (Imagine!) Her job is with the NYPD — presented here as a gaggle of smug buffoons — and her children are unreconstructed cartoon monsters. They pee on each other in public while their awful dad, played by Josh Lucas (once again refusing to sign the divorce papers!), guffaws and stuffs pizza down their maws.

The mood is meant to be light and cutting, but if you look closely, Mysteries is actually venomous and profoundly sour. The secret to Laura’s deep incompetence is that she is, as Alan Sepinwall said on Monday, “a spectacularly awful mother, and human being in general.” In the pilot episode alone, she attempts to extort her children into a private school and then drugs them to the point of vomiting to make them behave. Her breakthrough in a case too stupid even to type out — it involves a billionaire cell phone tycoon who lives in Westchester, where, it should be noted, Manhattan cop Laura has no jurisdiction — comes when she uses her lady intuition to notice a piece of jewelry. An “embarrassing” everywoman incident at a combination clothing store/swimming pool (only in New York, kids!) is really an elaborate opportunity for Messing, who still has it, to flaunt it. All of it is here to feed Laura’s titanic ego and her ravenous victimhood. All of it is here to make me nauseated. The Mysteries of Laura is what happens when absolutely everything in a pilot breaks wrong. As for this fall? It’s what happens when absolutely nothing in the industry’s broken development process breaks right.

Illustration by Studio 168

Filed Under: TV, CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, Television, gotham, Batman, How to Get Away With Murder, shonda rhimes, Constantine, Gracepoint, broadchurch, Forever, The Mysteries of Laura, Debra Messing, Josh Lucas, state of affairs, Joe Carnahan, Katherine Heigl, stalker, maggie q, dylan mcdermott, red band society, ncis: new orleans, Scorpion, madam secretary, Tea Leoni

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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