In nature, fall is a time when things begin to wither, fade, and die. But on television it’s the reverse. No season is as outrageously, some might even say foolishly, optimistic as fall. It’s when the broadcast networks unveil their shiny new shows, secure in the knowledge that they couldn’t all get canceled before spring. Could they?
Well, if this year is any indication, maybe they could. Unlike the past few autumns, which brought with them a few signs that the big four dinosaurs were at least attempting to adapt to the new reality forced upon them by the fleet-footed bipeds of cable, 2014’s new offerings carry with them the musty scent of resignation and decay. On the drama side, this means no bonkers gambles like Sleepy Hollow or kamikaze skydives like Hostages. And on the comedy side, it means nothing as beautiful (and doomed!) as Trophy Wife or Enlisted and nothing as sure-thingy as CBS’s Mom and The Millers. Instead, there are a bunch of B-pluses, a few stinkers, and, above all, a ton of questions. Among them: Can ABC1 turn diversity into profits? Can NBC make us fall in love with two different rom-coms? Can Fox succeed with a non-cartoon on Sunday nights? And can someone wake up CBS? It appears to be drooling into its soup again.
Repeat after me: ABC, like Grantland, is owned by the Walt Disney Company.
I’ll run through the dramas this time next week. Below you’ll find my take on the nine new comedies of fall 2014: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the Manhattan Love Story. As a not very funny man once said: Tread lightly.
MARRY ME (NBC)
Tuesdays, 9 p.m.
Premieres October 14
Premise2 means nothing to sitcoms. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter that Cheers was set in a bar, The Office in a paper company, or Seinfeld in the dystopian daydream of a Barney Greengrass fish slicer. What keeps network sitcoms in our hearts and on the air is an ineffable combination of writing, character, and performance. It’s almost always the who, and never the why or the where.
Note: I’m referring to a premise in the TV jargon sense. A premise pilot is one that puts the rest of the series in play: The plane crashes on Lost, James Spader waltzes into the FBI on The Blacklist. A non-premise pilot is one that begins in medias res and is more or less indicative of what the show will be going forward.
This is a problem since, these days, premise means nearly everything to sitcom pilots. With competition for eyeballs at an all-time high, comedies are now required to come front-loaded with the same attention-grabbing hooks as dramas. It’s for this reason the fall 2014 schedule is crammed with half-hour rom-coms. Instead of making workplace comedies with a frisson of will-they-or-won’t-they, it’s far more compelling to hinge the entire series on that same, pressing query. This has led to a glut of pilots that feel like the first acts of semi-decent movies, not the first installments of memorable series.3 The most successful sitcoms don’t give you just one reason to come back. They make it impossible to stay away.
And it sets up way too many comparisons to the similarly romantic You’re the Worst on FX, my pick for the best new show of 2014. Seriously. Watch it. It’s better than anything in this column. It’s better than this column!
So my positive feelings for Marry Me, a premise pilot if ever there was one, stem more from the show’s bones than its public face. The story it tells in its first half hour is both too cute by half and too limiting to maintain for long: After returning from a romantic vacation in Mexico, six-year-old couple Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino) proceed to epically botch a series of marriage proposals to each other. It’s plenty of fun to watch the tremendous Wilson verbally napalm her entire family (who are, of course, hiding behind the couch, waiting to surprise her once she says yes; she never quite does) and accidentally get Marino fired. But it’s also confusing: How long can people continue to spit-take the biggest decisions of their lives?
Thankfully, Marry Me creator David Caspe has been down this road before. His last series was the magical laugh Ferrari known as Happy Endings, a show that outpaced its own compromising premise — woman leaves man at altar, group of friends struggles to remain intact afterward — in a matter of weeks. And while Wilson and Marino are more than game enough to carry a series on their own, Caspe has smartly stacked the deck with strong supporting players like Tim Meadows and Dan Bucatinsky (as Wilson’s gay dads), JoBeth Williams (as Marino’s mom), and Tymberlee Hill (as a wacky neighbor). Plus, his writers’ room is loaded, with clever typers like Daniel Libman (Happy Endings), Andrew Guest (30 Rock, Suburgatory), and Bridget Kyle (Family Guy). Let Annie and Jake worry about the honeymoon. The real work starts once week-to-week life begins.
Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.
Premieres September 24
Black-ish knows what you’re thinking before you even say it. At a time when networks have been rightly excoriated for their lack of diversity both on-air and behind the scenes, the show appears like a glimmering beacon of hope and change. Written by America’s Next Top Model cocreator Kenya Barris, shepherded by stars Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, and featuring the first all–African American cast on a network comedy in years, it’s precisely the sort of offering that will receive praise merely for existing, regardless of its quality. Which is what makes it all the more delicious in the pilot when Anderson’s Andre Johnson, a wealthy L.A. family man, receives an unexpected promotion at his tony advertising firm. Yes, he’s named the first black senior vice-president, but it comes with a big, honking asterisk: He’s the senior vice-president of the firm’s newly created “urban division.” Has he hit the jackpot? Or is he just a token? What does it mean to be successful and black when being “black-ish” — a word that connotes everything from Miley Cyrus twerking to, yes, “urban” as a wink-wink adjective — has suddenly become commonplace?
These are the sort of queries that Black-ish attempts to answer with a spring in its step and a sly smile on its face. By basing its investigation into race within the warm and expansive walls of the Johnson family manse (and it really is a manse; Andre has a walk-in closet with lighted shelves for each of his lovingly curated baseball caps), the show manages the neat trick of generating laughs out of content that might otherwise result in sighs. Much of this is due to the delightful cast, which includes Tracee Ellis Ross as Andre’s wife (a biracial doctor named Rainbow) and producer Fishburne, gleefully cackling away as Andre’s old-school pops. (Call him Cantankerous Styles.) Producer Larry Wilmore’s clever fingerprints are everywhere, from the been-there-done-that way the Johnson kids shrug at the novelty of a black president to Anderson’s full-body cringe when Andre Jr. announces his desire to have a bar mitzvah. After initially signing to run the show, Wilmore left this summer to concentrate on his upcoming Comedy Central series. Can Black-ish survive his absence? Can it build on the promise of the pilot? Can we, as a country, really accept the nine-year age difference between father Fishburne and son Anderson? I’m not sure, but I’m glad a sitcom is finally forcing us to confront such tough questions.
THE MCCARTHYS (CBS)
Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.
Premieres October 30
I know. I’m as surprised as you. I fired up The McCarthys, CBS’s only new comedy this season, expecting more of the same: the same tired setups, the same creaky multicam staging, the same lowest-denominator gags, all of which have resulted into billions of dollars in profits for the network and total, crushing anhedonia from the likes of me.
And, sure, I found those things. But I also found a lot more. Namely: pleasure. The McCarthys is old-fashioned like a pocket watch or, to put it in terms the McCarthy family might appreciate, a boilermaker. It’s a crisply made, strongly acted throwback of a sitcom. Of course, I suppose the hook is relatively fresh — for CBS, anyway, a network that, in 2014, is unironically debuting a show with the word “cyber” in the title. It’s this: Ronny (Tyler Ritter), the youngest of Arthur and Marjorie McCarthy’s four children, is gay.4 Rather than obsess over the Celtics with his gruff high school coach dad (Jack McGee), Ronny would much rather freak out over The Good Wife with his overbearing mom (the brilliant Laurie Metcalf). What makes The McCarthys work is the way Happy Endings vet Brian Gallivan digs past the surface stuff and zeroes in on the lovable friction that’s fueled every classic family half hour from time immemorial. Arthur isn’t mad that his son is gay. He’s mad that his son is considering moving all the way to Providence, Rhode Island — that infamous sinkhole. Though the humor is sharp (the pilot features a dead friend, a surprise pregnancy, and a very inappropriate pizza order), it’s rarely biting. I found the show to be blessedly free of the nastiness that tends to lurk, like a virus, just below the surface of CBS’s purportedly family-friendly sitcoms. The McCarthys doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It just rolls.
Perhaps of greater cause for concern: One of the other children is a New Kid on the Block.
WAIT FOR IT
Sundays, 9:30 p.m.
Premieres October 5
TV is all about trust. When we commit to watching a new series, even as it trembles and wobbles like a newborn foal, we do so in the hope that we’ll eventually see it walk and then, if ratings allow, gallop. Mulaney, the long-gestating multicamera sitcom from longtime SNL writer (and very funny stand-up) John Mulaney, requires that sort of trust. Because, as of now, the show’s intentions are far better than the results.
Deposed Fox boss Kevin Reilly misspoke in May when he referred to Mulaney as a “Seinfeld for a new generation” — no baby foal can survive that kind of pressure — but it’s hard to blame him for the gaffe. Though filmed in L.A., Mulaney has a similar Upper West Side neuroticism running, like hot-dog water, through its veins. Mulaney plays “Mulaney,” a struggling stand-up comic working as a joke writer and sounding board for an aging, ego monster of a comedian played, with gusto, by Martin Short. Nasim Pedrad is on hand as Mulaney’s lady roommate, and Seaton Smith is there as his black one. (This isn’t meant to be dismissive. It’s hard to get a sense of who these people will be just yet.) As a weed dealer named Andre, Zack Pearlman (one of a scourge of bearded dude-bros ravaging TV this fall) shows up with the smugness of a Kramer, but, in actuality, is a bit of a Newman. Elliott Gould is off to the side as an aging gay neighbor. The stories, at least at first, are culled from Mulaney’s generally excellent act: Why can’t two women be friends with each other? What happens when you lie to a doctor to score Xanax? What’s the deal with airplane food?
Just kidding about that last one. It’s unfair to compare Mulaney to Seinfeld — even though I’ve just spent a paragraph doing it — because, in the early going, it’s possible to see the myriad ways Mulaney wants to distinguish itself. Though Mulaney dresses like a middle-aged Middlebury professor, there’s a younger energy at play in his show. It’s funny enough when it focuses on the petty squabbling of the roommates and the indignity of a life spent in front of open mikes. But the series soars when it takes a broader view by pitting the self-promoting narcissism of the roommates (Smith’s Motif, also a comic, prints T-shirts for a joke he hasn’t finished writing yet) against the smug windbaggery of the older generation. And it is, slowly but surely, finding its legs. The first episode I saw wasn’t great. The second was almost good. The third was the best yet. (Thanks to Reilly’s likely-to-be-abandoned year-round development cycle, Mulaney was able to provide more than one episode to critics.) Mulaney hasn’t proved worthy of our trust yet. But it does have my interest. And sometimes, with new sitcoms, that’s enough.
Tuesdays, 8 p.m.
Premieres September 30
Pity the poor, overmatched drone tasked with naming ABC sitcoms. Over the past few years, this sorry individual has taken a promising slate of smart comedies and sent them out into the world with ridiculous, off-putting titles like Cougar Town, Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, and Trophy Wife. With Suburgatory, Emily Kapnek had a pretty good show of her own nearly sunk by its silly name, though she at least managed to wring three strong seasons out of it. Now, as a reward for her troubles, ABC is putting her back on its front lines with Selfie, a show with a title that absolutely screams, “Don’t watch!” Except the sneaky thing is, maybe you should.
Look, I get it. Calling a show Selfie in 2014 is like the television version of swingin’ on the flippity-flop. It reeks of creepy corporate desperation, of boardroom buzzwords and skateboarding dogs. But buried beneath the hashtags is a sweet, borderline conventional comedy that just might have the highest upside of anything on this list. Selfie is essentially a remake of My Fair Lady minus the songs or, if you’re a purist, of Pygmalion with smartphones added. The delightful Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy) is Eliza Dooley, a social media–damaged human with a word cloud where her brain should be. Star Trek’s John Cho, his dudgeon meter set to stun, is Henry Higenbottam, a prim Luddite. Together they work at a kids cosmetics company — their boss is David Harewood, who played a much less smiley authority figure on Homeland — and together they endeavor to retweet Eliza into a real person. There’s plenty of the sort of heavy-handed insight necessary to get high-ranking development execs to sign off on something medium-concept like this (Henry to Eliza as she Instagrams a rainstorm: “You think you are getting it, but you are, in fact, missing it.” O RLY!). But there’s also a sense that Kapnek knows just what to do with these people once the gimmick is out of the way. If only Henry could rebrand his own show.
Fridays, 8:30 p.m.
Premieres October 10
The story behind Cristela is almost better than the series itself. A year ago, up-and-coming Mexican American comedian Cristela Alonzo was asked to put together a “pilot presentation” for the suits at ABC. Not a full pilot, mind you. Just a few ideas as to what that pilot, should it eventually be ordered, might be. It was a courtesy and an investment, maybe, in the future.
That future came much sooner than anyone expected, Alonzo included. After delighting the network, the pilot presentation became a pilot, the budget for which was so small that it was actually shot on the set of another ABC show, Last Man Standing. The recycling worked: Cristela quite unexpectedly made ABC’s final schedule ahead of some higher-profile projects and names. Alonzo’s victory lap continued over the summer as she charmed the notoriously cranky crowds at the Television Critics Association conference with her plea for more shows and TV stars that “look[ed] like America.”
With its predominantly Latino cast, Cristela does indeed look like America in a way a majority of shows fail to accomplish. But what Cristela also looks like is a type of American TV that is all too familiar. It’s a family sitcom about a black sheep — Alonzo herself, playing a woman in her sixth, and hopefully final, year of law school — trying to get ahead without leaving her relatives behind. And it’s … fine. There are some good gags in the pilot, most of which involve the steely Terri Hoyos as Cristela’s no-nonsense immigrant mother, and Alonzo is a warm and convivial presence. The show is smartly placed next to its former landlord, Last Man Standing, on ABC’s Friday, a night devoted to sitcoms that would have made more sense as part of the TGIF lineup in the ’90s. I’m happy Cristela beat the odds. But I wouldn’t bet on me watching with any regularity.
A TO Z (NBC)
Thursdays: 9:30 p.m.
Premieres October 2
Man, the pitch for A to Z must have been killer. “We’re going to tell the entire story of a relationship,” writer Ben Queen (Cars 2) and producer Rashida Jones (Rashida Jones) must have said. “It’ll be like 500 Days of Summer and How I Met Your Mother. It’ll be young and fresh and cute and sweet. It’ll have a narrator. It’ll have an Arcade Fire joke.” These are all great things to say to a room full of cool-hunting execs, and those execs must have been high-fiving each other over their Red Bulls and vodka when they landed charmers Ben Feldman (Ginsberg from Mad Men) and Cristin Milioti (the Mother from HIMYM — RIP) to play the leads. In fact, A to Z would appear to have everything. Except, you know, a soul.
Andrew (Ginsberg) and Zelda (Milioti) are not human beings. They are sensitive quirkbots designed to take the audience from point A to point Awwww with the least friction possible. “Andrew is a guy’s guy,” intones narrator Katey Sagal in the opening moments of the pilot. “He likes sports and Liam Neeson movies.” Then, later: “Zelda is a girl’s girl. She likes pedicures and themed cocktail parties.” This isn’t writing. It’s shrugging. (“Andrew is a cardboard box’s cardboard box. He likes being brown and containing things.”) As their meet-cute unfolds in the most grating way possible, the false notes add up into a symphony of nonsense. Andrew’s and Zelda’s windows face each other across an anodyne office park. (Nope!) Andrew’s best friend, roommate, and coworker is another one of those noxious, bearded dude-bros who leers at bisexuals so sensitive Andrew doesn’t have to. (No!) Zelda’s best friend and roommate is a daffy Englishwoman (no) who takes up the trumpet (nope) after a one-night stand with a musician named Scatman (ABSOLUTELY NOT!). Feldman and Milioti appear to be up for anything. Too bad it had to be this.
MANHATTAN LOVE STORY (ABC)
Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.
Premieres September 30
Manhattan Love Story is a sitcom so odious that it almost makes one yearn for last year’s ABC stink bomb, Mixology. Or at least it makes one yearn for a drink. Despite its lofty title, Manhattan Love Story plays like the work of someone who has never set foot in New York City and who, most definitely, has never been in love. How could he have been? Manhattan Love Story is despicable from its very first scene, in which stars Jake McDorman and Analeigh Tipton use the show’s inane voiceover conceit to provide insight into what, exactly, their nothingburger characters are thinking. To wit: He’s thinking about tits. She’s thinking about purses. Talk about your guys’ guys and girls’ girls! These people shouldn’t be a couple. They shouldn’t even be on our TVs.
From there it only gets worse. McDornan’s Peter is a grade-A asshole, prone to make comments like “It’s New York City, the only way you’re ever going to get anyone’s attention is if you make a fuss.” Tipton’s Dana is potentially worse: She’s a Sorkin-esque whoopsy machine who can’t make her cell phone work properly (buttons are hard!) and thinks crying men are probably gay. What unites these two zeroes is Peter’s brother, David (Nicolas Wright), a millionaire slimeball (his apartment is what happens when the Friends apartments mate with a train station) who openly loathes his wife. Of course said wife happens to be Dana’s college friend and the two apparently used to engage in “full sapphic debauchery,” which means David spends the pilot trying to get Dana drunk so the two will hook up in front of him. Adorable! When asked if Woody Allen’s classic Manhattan was an influence on his show, creator Jeff Lowell answered, “It’s there, but hopefully not so directly that it seems opportunistic.” Sure. Listen, Manhattan is “there” in Manhattan Love Story the same way pies are present in cow pies. Do the smart thing and avoid them both.
BAD JUDGE (NBC)
Thursdays, 9 p.m.
Premieres October 2
Unlike everything else on this list, I haven’t actually seen Bad Judge. NBC declined to provide me with a screener, saying the pilot was being “reworked” ahead of its premiere. This is probably a good thing. The series is already down one showrunner — Nurse Jackie vet Liz Brixius was ousted last week over the dread “creative differences” — and the promotional clips for the show are dire. Kate Walsh, last seen playing a similar, though less credentialed hot mess on Fargo, stars as a Van Nuys jurist who bones counsel in her chambers, forces her bailiff to dispose of her pregnancy tests, and eats “wine and cake” for breakfast. Still, when I saw Will Ferrell and Adam McKay among the show’s many executive producers, I had a brief flash of hope. Could Bad Judge actually be the ballsy, female-fronted comedy that might fill the Kenny Powers–size hole in our lives? And then the sweet-faced African American orphan showed up to humanize Walsh and tug at audience heartstrings and, as the great KP would say, I was effing out.
Look, there’s a chance Bad Judge isn’t terrible. Anything’s possible. But let’s focus on the bigger picture: What does it say about this crop of comedy pilots that the best thing I can say about one of them is that I haven’t seen it?
Illustration by Martin Salazar