The end of the year is a great time to take stock of where we are. Today, I’m letting you know my top new shows of the Fall television season. These shows are weekly installment shows (distinguished from “binge” shows where an entire season is made available at once a la Netflix or Hulu). Why differentiate? Because, at least for me anyway, I watch “binge” shows very differently from weeklies and the characteristics and criteria for what makes them great isn’t necessarily the same in the two categories.
Anyhoo, read on and let me know what you think. There are a couple of “obvious” choices here that you’ll see on other critics lists. There are several that I am sure you will not. But, hey, I’m me and this is my world so step inside my thinking a bit. Leave your thoughts and choices in the comments. I love discussing TV and why you think something is great … or not.
Without further ado, the Best New Show of the Fall Season is …
1. The Brave (NBC). Not only is The Brave the best new show you may not be watching, its the best new show of the Fall television season period. Starring Anne Heche, Mike Vogel, Tate Ellington, Demetrius Grosse, Natacha Karam, Noah Mills, Sofia Pernas and Hadi Tabbal, The Brave follows the story of Captain Adam Dalton (Vogel) and his elite undercover Special Ops unit, as they travel the world attempting to complete dangerous missions deemed extremely important to the vital national security interests of the United States but are either too difficult, complex or sensitive to be trusted to any other operators or military units. Controlled from Washington, D.C. by Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Deputy Director Patricia Campbell (Heche), Dalton & Co also rely on overwatch assistance from 2 DIA analysts, Noah Morgenthau (Ellington) and Hannah Archer (Pernas). Morgenthau and Archer are in mission control with Campbell while missions are active and Morgenthau has even run point when Campbell has been unavailable, making him an unofficial second-in-command of sorts. Also, we’ve learned Archer was previously a deep cover operator but her backstory has so far remained shrouded in mystery.
On the ground, Dalton’s team is filled out by an elite squad of Tip of the Spear warriors. Filling the role of “fiercest woman warrior on TV” today, Sgt Jasmine ‘Jaz’ Khan (Karam) handles sniper duties for the team and also bears the brunt of all of the female undercover work needing to be done. Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Ezekiel “Preach” Carter (Grosse) is the wizened moral compass of the team and Dalton’s Number 2. Sgt Joseph “McG” McGuire (Mills) is the team’s combat medic and a general operator (and rogue ladies man). Rounding out the team is the newest member, Amir Al-Raisani (Tabbal) who is former CIA and fills in the intelligence role for the team’s operations.
In the first 9 episodes, The Brave has traveled throughout the Middle East (not surprising in a show depicting our country’s present day military obstacles and threats), but has also gone to Mexico, Nigeria, Paris, Spain and Mongolia. Wherever America’s enemies are, Dalton & Co are there to meet the challenge head on.
In a TV season that saw three military dramas debut (SEAL Team on CBS and Valor on The CW round out the group), The Brave is the undisputed best of the bunch. Valor is in its own soap opera, CW-ish, category for military drama and is really not even worth talking about, but SEAL Team and The Brave deal in the same world and occupy the same space. Disclaimer – I watch both shows and both are enjoyable. But, if push comes to shove, The Brave is better. Why? The characters. Show creator, Dean Georgaris has crafted a deep bench of characters with fantastic and natural feeling chemistry. You believe that these characters have worked together for a while (in the case of Dalton and Campbell, and Dalton and Preach, a very long time). More over, you care about all of these characters and you’re interested in what happens to them, just ask the fans how they were feeling about Jaz after the mid-season finale. Most importantly for the overall longevity and likability of a show, if one character died or an actor left the show, the show would not collapse – the story could continue.
By contrast, SEAL Team is wholly dependent on the strength of David Boreanaz’s shoulders to hold the show up. Should he decide he doesn’t feel like playing a Navy SEAL anymore, SEAL Team collapses because while the supporting cast is fine and entertaining and compelling in their own ways, you are not invested in them. SEAL Team is told through the lens of SEAL Team Leader Jason Hayes (Boreanaz) as he directs his team and experiences life and its struggles, and the supporting cast is there solely to support his story. If Anne Heche said “fuck it” and quit, The Brave could continue because you care about the story as a whole and each character’s place in it.
With the amount of TV available to watch, you must be careful how you allocate your time. For me, there is no better hour spent than watching The Brave. Here’s to the Twitter fans, a vocal and dedicated bunch(so much so that the show regularly trends on Twitter during new episodes), pimping the #RenewTheBravel; your cause is just and righteous. Hopefully NBC hears your pleas and grants this fantastic new show a Season 2.
2. The Gifted (Fox). Imagine a world where you are a federal prosecutor, dedicated to arresting and trying to lock away forever troublesome mutants who you see as a societal menace. That is, until BOTH of your children come out as, you guessed it, mutants. Meet the Struckers, Reed (Stephen Moyer) and his wife, Caitlin (Amy Acker). Following their son’s explosive discovery of his mutant power following a bullying incident at school, its not long before the Struckers are on the run from Sentinel Services, the shadowy government agency charged with eliminating the mutant threat. Leading the charge for the government is Jace Turner (Coby Bell), a man possessed with tracking down all mutants due to a horrible family tragedy in his past. Helping Reed and Cait and their 2 children, Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Sean Teale) evade capture is the Mutant Underground, a new batch of mutants who have banded together to help all mutants escape capture and try to live normal-ish lives. Its important to note that we have not previously seen any of these mutants in the X-Men film franchise but the show exists in the world of the films. In this timeline, the X-Men have all disappeared and no one is attending Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
I didn’t want to like The Gifted. I actually began watching it as a hate watch to prove that it wasn’t as good as the multitude of Marvel properties. I wanted Inhumans to be the far superior property and for The Punisher to kick its ass (both shows debuted in the same time frame as The Gifted with Marvel’s Runaways debuting on Hulu just recently). But goddamn it, it grew on me. Not only did it grow on me, I found myself really enjoying it. Its my second favorite show I look forward to every week. The characters are fresh and intriguing; watching normal parents struggle with the realization that not only are mutants not the inherently evil creatures you presumed, you need to completely abandon your bias as to be able to accept your own children. Watching the kids learn to deal with their powers, to see them be equal parts scared of what they can do but also empowered (pun totally intended) by it, has realistic nuance to it. In fact, all of the mutants in this show are in different stages of maturity with their abilities, and so it provides a compelling story arc of watching these super-powered people interact. And the bad guys, or at least Jace Truner, isn’t a mustache twirling villain. He’s conflicted and filled with shades of gray. To be sure, as the season has progressed there is definitely at least one comic book level super villain at work but its a nice dynamic to know, the Mutant Underground isn’t always right and Turner isn’t always wrong.
In the real world, we are dealing with hyper partisan debates on immigration and acceptance and rejection of those that are “different” from us; The Gifted plays out these conflicts every week and in doing so, allows there to be a conversation on a relevant topic without having to throw political molotov cocktails at each other.
At the end of the day, The Gifted is going to draw you in with cool mutant powers and lots of action but you’ll stay because you’ll find at least one or two characters that are going to resonate with you and you’ll want to see how their story turns out. And that, is the definition of great TV.
3. The Good Doctor (ABC). Based on its synopsis, The Good Doctor sounds like nothing more than a weekly medical procedural wrapped in a gimmick, “Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, relocates from a quiet country life to join the prestigious St. Bonaventure hospital’s surgical unit. ” However, through the dynamic and utterly believable performance of Freddie Highmore as the eponymous good doctor and supported by a tremendous ensemble cast led by the formidable Richard Schiff as Dr. Aaron Glassman, Shaun’s biggest advocate and pseudo-father figure, The Good Doctor rises to something far beyond a two dimensional cliche. Weekly, the show deals head-on with issues including loss, bias, coming of age, inter-personal relationships, workplace romantic relationships, workplace harassment, parental control, and that fine line of when should we do for ourselves versus having others do for us. All while presenting really cool medical cases as only surgeons on TV can deal with.
You can imagine the challenges a young man with a baby face and a genius IQ would face coming into a new, uber-competitive surgeon environment, trying to convince your peers, your bosses and your patients that you are more than capable of the task. Now, add having autism on top of that. But, The Good Doctor doesn’t wallow in Shaun’s condition; he’s not some blameless saint that can do no wrong. He makes mistakes, and he’s taken to task for almost everything he does, some deserved, some not. You root for Shaun but at the same time, you can totally find yourself thinking he’s a jerk sometimes. Which is what real life is like.
Yes, he has autism but otherwise, Shaun Murphy’s story is like a lot of our stories and that resonates with me. I can relate to a lot of what he’s going through as well as his co-workers. And that goes a long away. I am on board for Shaun’s journey and based on the ratings, so is much of the country. I haven’t been a fan of the weekly medical procedural since the earliest days of Grey’s Anatomy but I was hooked on The Good Doctor from day one. I cannot recommend this show enough.
4. The Orville (Fox). I have a couple of controversial choices on this list. Well, controversial in so far as they are likely not to appear on any other critic’s list of best brand new shows. The Orville is no exception. I don’t feel any great need to defend my choice here, its really as simple as this: if you enjoy Seth MacFarlane’s humor (e.g., you think Family Guy is really funny), you will love The Orville. If you don’t like Seth MacFarlane’s humor, you will loatheThe Orville. Because, like Family Guy, this space dramedy is interchangeable with Seth MacFarlane or at least his public persona.
Premise: 400 years from now, Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) is a hot shot, up and coming spaceship commander for the Planetary Union (think Star Trek’s Federation of Planets) until he comes home to find his wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), in bed with a blue alien. I don’t know why its important I note he’s blue but there you are. Thrown into a life and career spiral, Ed wallows at rock bottom until he (unexpectedly) receives a commission to captain a mid-level exploratory ship, the U.S.S. Orville. Once on the ship, Mercer assembles a ragtag crew, including a pilot prone to drinking in the morning, a navigator who likes to drink soda on the bridge, and a green blob that looks like the Mucinex virus. In fact, he fills every position except that of first officer. To the surprise of no one who has ever watched a TV show, the Union appoints ex-wife Kelly as his second in command. We learn at the end of the Pilot episode that it was Ex-Wife Kelly that convinced the Union to trust Mercer with a captain’s position in the first place and volunteers herself to be his first officer, all without him knowing … presumably out of a sense of guilt. The Orville’s mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, basically, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
As you may have noticed from the above, The Orville is an homage to, and sometimes blatant ripoff of, Star Trek but with a MacFarlane-esque blend of comedy, drama, and (mostly) sincere intentions. Not shy to try and tackle timely social issues including gender reassignment, religion, cultural and societal differences, moral superiority, and the danger of submitting to social media-driven societal norms, The Orville fails as often as it succeeds in ground breaking drama, but the effort is noted and it goes far enough to engender at least a conversation once the episode is over. That’s more than you’re getting from 90% of what is on TV. To boot, the show makes me laugh and I have a genuine affection for several of the characters, at least the ones the show has spent time trying to develop (which to be fair, has been uneven among a larger than probably necessary ensemble).
Critics hate this show. I think that’s mostly because (a) they hate Seth MacFarlane and his comedy and (b) the show varies wildly in tone from episode to episode and sometimes even within the same episode; from straight frat humor to serious dramatic questions of what happens when parents disagree on how to raise their child, gender wise. It can be dizzying and disorienting. It gives off the vibe, “hey, we don’t know what we want to be so we’re trying to be everything.” But, I think it is exactly what it means to be. In many ways, its an anachronism, a throwback to a different time of making TV; All in the Family varied wildly in tone from time to time as well. There is certainly nothing else like it on TV right now, that’s for sure. And I like that about it; I can see where others would be put off.
If you have accepted the premise that this is a vehicle for MacFarlane and his world view, I think you’ll find the show more than a little enjoyable. The quick pickup of season 2 and largely positive audience response supports me on this. The Orville is not for everyone but if you are willing to not expect the highest brow or deepest thought from the show, you’re going to really enjoy reporting for duty, week to week.
5. Dynasty(The CW). For much of the 1980s, the soapy nighttime drama of Dynasty sustained a generation that needed a weekly fix of beautiful people engaging in blackmail, betrayal, female fistfights, and lots of sexy times. If you closed your eyes and heard that description of a show, you think to yourself, “sounds like a show airing on The CW” and you’d be right. The CW reboot of the 1980s classic is everything you loved about the original (Disclaimer – my older sisters and grandmothers watched Dynasty and the spinoff, The Colbys so I may or may not have seen more episodes than a little kid should have) but made even younger, placed in the beautiful people CW blender, and modernized to talk about things like wind farms as the future to big oil and how social media makes the smallest scandal ginormous. But, it all works. The cast, led by Elizabeth Gillies, as Fallon Carrington; Nathalie Kelley as Cristal Flores; and Grant Show as Blake Carrington, is an enthusiastic group of scenery munchers, a delightful cacophony of yelling and scheming, backstabbing and poor decision making. The shift of this reboot has focused on (i) Cristal (note the ethnicity shift from the original – modern diversity!) “stealing” Fallon’s rightful place as the favorite woman in Blake’s life, at home and professionally, and the steps Fallon will take to make a name for herself in this world in spite of this usurper, and (ii) the secrets of Cristal’s past that she’s desperate to keep buried. I’d be remiss to not mention how Alan Dale, as Anders, the uber-snob butler, steals every scene he is in. He’s a goddamn national treasure and serves as icing on this beautiful disaster of a cake.
If you need to forget your troubles for a bit, I recommend you sit back, binge Dynasty and live vicariously through these horrible people.
Marvel’s Inhumans (ABC). You are not going to see this show on any other Best of List this year. But, we at Pop Culture Review march to the beat of our own drum. Did Inhumans have problems in production, costuming and storytelling? Yes, yes it did. But, there was enough here that I found myself looking forward to each week’s new episode and that is a big criteria for me for what makes good TV. The desire to see more. Also, once they reunited the Royal Family, the show vastly improved and the interplay of character motivations got pretty interesting. By the end of Episode 8, they were telling an engrossing story and there is so much potential here for future plotlines. Unfortunately, they spent 2/3 of their limited 8 episode engagement looking for each other and so it was uneven at best for much of the short season.
The nutshell: When Maximus (played by the wonderfully villainous if not a tad too petulant Iwan Rheon), disgruntled brother of Black Bolt (Anson Mount), king of the Inhumans of Attilan, a secret city on the Moon, stages a coup, Black Bolt, his wife, Medusa (the true breakout star of this show, Serinda Swan), and the rest of their immediate Royal Family flee to Hawaii but are are scattered. Black Bolt (who cannot speak because his voice is so powerful, it can destroy city blocks with no more than a grunt) and Queen Medusa (who has her superpower in her hair but is sadly shaved bald early on), along with Karnak (Ken Leung), Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor) and Crystal (Isabelle Cornish) along with her teleporting giant pup, Lockjaw, spend multiple episodes looking for each other. Once reunited, they return to Attilan to square off against Maximus and his followers. For his part, Maximus’s motivation is base jealousy of his brother not only being King but also having obtained superpowers through the process terrigenesis, Maximus came out of the process still an ordinary human.
As noted above, Serinda Swan, as Medusa, was a lot of fun to watch and as I review the season, the biggest high point for me. Week to week, we watched her grow from disoriented (no longer) super-powered Queen having to learn how to cope in modern American life into an assertive, power wielding ass kicking female warrior. The couple of episodes where she and her human buddy, Louise (Ellen Woglom) romped around Thelma and Louise-style was a fun treat to watch and a great demonstration of the good character interaction this show is capable of. Once reunited with Black Bolt, watching her assert her place as Attilan’s Queen and not just Black Bolt’s kept woman, was a great role modeling message for women to take the backseat to no man.
As noted above, Inhumans was best just as it was ending; the confrontation of brothers and fight scenes of Inhuman v Inhuman on Attilan served as high water marks for the show and the destruction of Attilan at the end of season with the Inhumans fleeing to Earth set the stage for a potentially rich storytelling environment for Season 2.