It’s the golden age of television, apparently. There are hundreds and hundreds of TV series—the most ever produced, with no sign of slowing—all piling up into shiny mounds of gold coins for TV fans and critics to luxuriously wade through, Scrooge McDuck style.
You’d think that at such a rich time for the medium, we’d only be talking in superlatives about the new shows that have come out this fall. Yet when asked, as we are every fall season, what the best and worst new shows are, we’re stuck offering a shoulder shrug: They’re all…fine.
It’s this weird phenomenon coinciding with Peak Content. So much that is produced is…fine. It’s pleasant. Watchable. Well-executed and competently acted. But, to use our favorite phrase, it’s nothing to blow your hair back—and at a time when a TV show needs to take a leaf blower to your hairline to get noticed in this crowded landscape.
So what are we to make of this fall TV season of middling shows with middling ratings and middling buzz? It’s a confusing one, but with most of the new series having aired at least one episode, here’s our best attempt at parsing it out.
Most Promising: Young Sheldon
The idea of a prequel spinoff of the ever-popular and ever-polarizing The Big Bang Theory seemed like such an obvious cash grab that the reflex was to scoff at the whole enterprise. But then creator Chuck Lorre pulled a creative Bazinga on us all, totally ditching Big Bang’s increasingly out-of-style (and, to many, irritating) multicam format and building an origin story of sorts for Sheldon Cooper that more resembled The Wonder Years in its heyday than CBS’s blockbuster sitcom. It’s also one of the few ratings success stories of the season thus far, with its debut marking the highest broadcast comedy premiere in four years.
Most Fun: The Deuce
The creators of The Wire made a show about the rise of the sex industry in New York City in the ‘70s, cast James Franco as twins, gave Maggie Gyllenhaal the best hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role TV has seen yet, and let the sex and seediness run amok. It’s a high-brow show about low-brow art—porn!—with impeccable production value, wild performances, and enough salaciousness to keep you titillated. The best drama series ever? Hardly. But it is a frickin’ hoot.
Most Surprising Success: The Good Doctor
Never in a million years would we have thought the next big broadcast drama series would be ABC’s Doogie Howser-meets-House medical drama starring Freddie Highmore as a savant teenage surgeon who also happens to be on the autism spectrum. And yet this show was a bonafide hit right out of the gate, earning an astonishing 19.2 million viewers for its premiere and holding those numbers steady ever since. We do not know a single soul who watches this show, but presumably they reside with all those Criminal Minds and Ray Donovan fans we keep hearing about.
Most Defiant of Expectations: Will & Grace
Wow were fans excited about the reboot of Will & Grace. Well, actually, not all of them. The original series was not only beloved, but also such a product of its time: revolutionary because of when it was airing, and featuring humor that could be considered offensive if it aired now. What a relief, then, that the series managed to return while keeping the fabric of what it made it so great perfectly intact, and also with an updated sense of “wokeness” and willingness to charge into present-day issues, gay or otherwise, with the same fearlessness it did two decades ago. More importantly, it’s still riotously funny.
Best-Kept Secret: American Vandal
True crime has become such a staple of modern programming that the best entry in the genre is actually a spoof of the entire phenomenon. Despite the hilariously ridiculous crime at the center of its narrative—a high schooler might be wrongly accused of drawing penises on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot—the series was so spot-on in its recreation of the tropes, filmmaking style, and tone of the true crime genre that many viewers didn’t realize it was a fictional satire until they had already binged several episodes. The series might sound juvenile, and, sure, dick jokes figure heavily into the plot. But it’s far more sophisticated than most of us gave it credit for at first blush.
Biggest Word-of-Mouth Success: Big Mouth
Whoo-ee do straight thirtysomething males love Big Mouth. If you work with them, are friends with them, or are within a three-mile vicinity of them, you’ve heard them talk about how great they think Netflix’s animated series is. That word of mouth has done a hell of a lot for the popularity of the show, which whimsically and raunchily dramatizes the awkward trauma of going through puberty. While Big Mouth might not have the zip of Bob’s Burgers, the sharpness of South Park, or the heart of BoJack Horseman, it is a ton of fun to watch and laugh along with, and a worthy contemporary of those animated greats.
Best Effort: Kevin (Probably) Saves the World
Inspired by the success of This Is Us last year, networks admirably attempted to add some sweetness and touchy-feely earnestness to their lineups. ABC did right by casting TV’s biggest awwww that guy!, Jason Ritter, as the lead in a high-concept series about a formerly suicidal deadbeat who moves in with his sister and is tasked with a mission from God to bring goodness back to the world. It’s adorable. It’s pleasant. It’s... fine. We just wish ABC would have more faith in the rescue abilities of Kevins.
Biggest Trainwreck: Megyn Kelly Today
This week gave us Megyn Kelly’s shining moment in her new daytime hosting gig. Assured, authoritative, and without mincing a single word, she took Fox News to task for its complicity in enabling a culture of toxic masculinity that fostered sexual harassment. She brought personal experience to a breaking news story, just as we ask daytime hosts to do. And this shining moment illuminated more brightly than ever how everything else that NBC has orchestrated for Kelly’s daytime show has been an utter travesty. Celebrities refusing to be booked. Tonal whiplash. Stilted audience interaction. Inexplicable dancing. Daytime debuts are always wonky. But few are this messy or so thoroughly fail to even understand what the host is good at.
Biggest Copycats: Military Hoo-rahmas
An entire three broadcast dramas injected with an adrenaline shot of patriotism each premiered this fall, one essentially indecipherable from the next. Given the cultural climate, perhaps it’s understandable how The Brave, Valor, and SEAL Team all came to fruition at the same time: the blue-collar, flyover states are woefully overlooked by the more liberal-minded networks. But don’t they deserve shows that aren’t this one-dimensional, or interchangeable? The ratings have been...fine (are we a broken record yet?), hinting that audiences felt like they deserved better, too.
Star Trek Series We Deserved: Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery is gorgeously shot, impeccably cast, and, like the many Star Trek iterations before it, so not for us. But it is for some people! And those people are quite pleased with the expensive, reverential, and yet still envelope-pushing new Star Trek installment aimed at bringing viewers to CBS All Access. Time will tell if the new series will get audiences to boldly go where no one (or at least those of us who didn’t watch The Good Fight) has gone before: CBS’s streaming service.
Star Trek Series No One Asked For: The Orville
When it was announced that Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, a longtime Star Trek fan, would be creating and starring in a new Fox series homage to his favorite series, many were onboard for what they assumed would be a Galaxy Quest-like irreverent spoof. Instead, MacFarlane made a straightfaced, Star Trek-like sci-fi series. The result is—you guessed it!—fine. But not at all what we wanted.
Best New Sitcom No One’s Watching: The Mayor
The hardest thing to be is a new sitcom on a broadcast network at a time when, generally speaking, no one watches new sitcoms on broadcast networks. Gone are the days when upwards of 20 or 30 million people watched Seinfeld or Friends each week. Here are the days when getting just north of one million viewers is completely normal. The Mayor is a sweet show, one that takes an on-the-nose concept—someone runs for public office in order to be famous, but then actually wins—and imbues it with so much heart and humor that you feel bad no one else is watching.
Worst New Sitcom No One’s Watching: 9JKL
Then again, sometimes it’s a good thing that no one watches new sitcoms on broadcast networks. 9JKL is the kind of show that could have existed in the ‘90s, early ‘00s, or today, and still been panned no matter when it debuted. Crass, but not clever, and wallpapered with caricatures, stereotypes, and tired tropes, the series is getting the cold shoulder from viewers too, miffing the Big Bang Theory lead-in it was gifted for its debut.
Biggest Bomb: Inhumans
Inhumans might be the biggest misstep Marvel has made thus far. The reviews couldn’t have been more scathing; in fact “worst thing Marvel has done” is a phrase that showed up in many of them. Pouring salt into the wound was the big-budget bet that Marvel had made on the series, releasing its first two episodes in IMAX ahead of its television launch—a roll of the dice that garnered a scant $2.9 million when all was said and done. Woof.
Kyra Sedgwick Star Vehicle That Deserved a Fairer Shake: Ten Days in the Valley
This might be a very specific category, sure. But the heralded return of Kyra Sedgwick to a regular series role should have been more, well, heralded. When we spoke to Sedgwick ahead of the Ten Days in the Valley premiere, she herself admitted that she feared that the word wasn’t getting out and no one was going to watch. This is the woman who, with The Closer, kicked off the trend of actresses in their 40s top-lining award-winning hit drama series and, more, getting paid the money they’re worth for it. She deserved better.
Creepy Show We Stopped Watching: American Horror Story: Cult
The first few episodes of American Horror Story: Cult truly surprised us, a season of the anthology series inspired by the paranoia and divisiveness in the U.S. kicked off by the election of Donald Trump that was far more cerebral, egalitarian, and unsettling than we expected when we heard the idea. Of course, no American Horror Story lasts long without flying off the rails. Increasingly with this series, we tend to fly off with it.
Creepy Show We Can’t Stop Watching: Mindhunter
Because it just recently premiered, we’re still mid-binge on David Fincher’s psyche-of-the-serial-killer drama Mindhunter, which is as gorgeously shot and psychologically unnerving as you expect something from David Fincher to be. It is also on Netflix, and therefore also as unbearably slow as you expect something from Netflix to be. It’s been more of a long stroll than a swift ride, but we’re somehow still riveted every inch of the way.
Worst Reboot: Dynasty
Pretty, Pretty Good Reboot: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Has this been the sharpest, most relevant, most self-aware season of Curb Your Enthusiasm? Not in the least. Are we fine just having Larry David back anyway? Very much so.
Biggest WTF: Kevin Can Wait Drama
We honestly just can’t get over this. This series fired its lead actress, Erinn Hayes, in order to reunite star Kevin James with Leah Remini in an attempt to juice ratings. When asked how the exit of the fictional family’s matriarch would be handled, the non-chalantness with which producers said she would be killed off bowled us over. That the only mention of the death in the season opener was a single throwaway joke about coupon mailers was just wild, as has been every excuse about creative reasons for the death that James and producers have given. Admittedly, we don’t watch this show. But we live for the drama surrounding it.