Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It’s that time of year again. No, not midterms, but fall TV premiere season. While the bulk of new series kicked off last week, cable and network programmers are debuting their most recent fare in the hopes of finding the next Empire, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead. But with forty-six shows premiering (and hundreds more coming back for another season) over six weeks, it can be hard to sort through the fog and find your next study break addiction.
That’s where I come in. I’m setting out to watch (at least) the first episode of each new show for the Fall 2016 television season to find the must-sees for the next time you find time to relax (or… Fall Break?). Without further ado, here are some snap judgments from the pilots and premieres of the last two weeks.
THE BEST (DRAMAS):
ONE MISSISSIPPI (Amazon, Season 1 now streaming)
I was about to skip watching One Mississippi for many reasons — its focus on older characters, the fact that it’s on Amazon, the lack of buzz — but I’m so glad that I watched this incredibly heartfelt and surprisingly hilarious tragicomedy written by Tig Notaro and Diablo Cody (Juno). The series focuses on the aftermath of Tig losing her mother and reconnecting with her brother and stepfather right as she is recovering from a cancer scare and subsequent double mastectomy. The pilot manages to make the loss of a parent and a cancer scare both poignant and lighthearted, not surprising given Notaro and Cody’s past successes. Casey Wilson (Happy Endings, Gone Girl) is one of the pilot’s gems as Notaro’s stereotypically LA girlfriend, and I can’t wait to see what she brings to this series. I’m not sure what to expect from the rest of the season, but with Notaro and Cody at the helm I’m excited to try and hold back inappropriate laughter in Cornell as I watch the first Amazon series I’ve ever loved.
TL;DR: Half-hour dramedy about death and cancer that doesn’t make you want to bawl your eyes out! Perfect study break!
PITCH (FOX, Thursdays 9pm)
This series has gotten a lot of buzz for its inventive production methods and groundbreaking deal with the MLB, but the show’s leading lady, Kylie Bunbury, has gotten lost in the fray. Bunbury plays Ginny Baker, the first woman in the MLB who plays as pitcher for the San Diego Padres. With its unique partnership with baseball’s governing body, the show is filmed at actual MLB stadiums, uses MLB footage, and is created under the guidance of MLB consultants. All of this comes together to give Pitch a helpful dose of reality. Baker’s arrival on the mound during the pilot makes me wonder why this isn’t actually happening now, though the thought flutters away as I’m drawn back in with FOX’s signature soapy plotlines. To say anything else would spoil a delightful premiere worth watching, if not only to see a groundbreaking piece of network television. Plus, the fact that FOX chose a woman of color to helm an already controversial show gives me hope that the series will tackle actual issues surrounding gender disparities in professional sports rather than rely on petty drama to drive the plot. The biggest glimmer of hope: the fact that we got through an entire episode of a network show led by a woman that didn’t feature any romantic sub-plot. How’s that for progress?
TL;DR: Surprisingly risky hour of network television worth watching if only for the fact that it breaks boundaries as the first scripted series partnering with a professional sports league.
DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (ABC, Wednesdays 10pm)
Designated Survivor came to the season as one of the buzziest network shows—critics raved about it, fans couldn’t resist the return of 24’s Kiefer Sutherland, and ad buyers flocked to its commercial spots. With all the praise, I was ready to be let down but Designated Survivor lives up to the hype, albeit in a much sillier way than I’d hoped. The series focuses on a catastrophic event during the State of the Union that takes out all of those in line for the presidency… except the designated survivor, Secretary of Urban Housing and Development Tom Kirkman played by Kiefer Sutherland. The pilot follows ABC’s host of other politically minded shows (Scandal, Quantico) by not taking itself too seriously (hello, House of Cards!) yet still offering a compelling concept to audiences. The first episode does a solid job of introducing questions that I assume will drive the first half of the season, though I wonder whether Designated Survivor will flounder before its season finale. The show will please even the most diehard 24 fans, too, if even just to see Kiefer Sutherland play a character who doesn’t kill everyone he encounters, instead shrinking away from most direct conflicts as the inexperienced Secretary of Urban Housing and Development turned President of the United States.
TL;DR: Series about someone completely unqualified to be President of the United States becoming President of the United States—relevant, anyone? Oh, and there’s Kiefer Sutherland.
THE BEST (COMEDIES):
THE GOOD PLACE (NBC, Thursdays 8:30pm)
Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Veronica Mars) stars as Eleanor, a morally dubious (and recently killed) woman who makes it into the afterlife’s “Good Place” by mistake. This one-hour network comedy continually surprises throughout its first hour with a punchy cast, vibrant production design, and deep-yet-silly concept. When Eleanor arrives at “The Good Place”—a part of the afterlife reserved for the moral elite that lets them live the life of perfect luxury for eternity—and realizes there has been a huge mistake, she decides to stay silent and enjoy her new, surreal life. Soon, bad things start happening at “The Good Place”—trash rains from the sky after Eleanor skimps out on picking up trash and flying shrimp attack her neighborhood when she steals shrimp cocktail from a soiree—and Eleanor has to figure out how to restore order. If this all sounds a bit absurd, you’re right. But Bell manages to inject a sense of sincerity throughout her portrayal of Eleanor that grounds the concept and somehow makes it feel, well, real. I found myself rooting for the relatable sinner rather than her neighbors who take the moral high ground and I’m excited to tune in again. Plus, the host of supporting characters make The Good Place one of the most high-energy hours of network television I’ve seen recently. Ted Danson (Cheers) plays the architect of “The Good Place” who is horrified by the turn of events and D’Arcy Carden (Broad City) is truly hilarious as the world’s celestial guide, answering any and every question that its inhabitants might ask.
TL;DR: Bright, high-energy show that tackles the notion of heaven and morality and somehow doesn’t get lost in its own ambition.
SPEECHLESS (ABC, Wednesdays 8:30pm)
Following ABC’s host of family comedies focused on specific subcultures in American society (Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Real O’Neals) comes a series about a larger-than-life family with a son who has cerebral palsy. At first glance, the show seemed to be, in a way, a knockoff of The Real O’Neals with the only change being that instead of having a gay son there is a son with cerebral palsy! The mom is high maintenance, the dad is the fun parent, and the two other siblings are bland and “normal.” But after watching the show’s pilot I can confidently say that ABC somehow managed to make the formula work. The humor is pointed and cutting at times, the characters defy stereotypes, and Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) is radiant as Maya, an overprotective mother who fights with everyone she encounters. Not only does this show aid in the fight for a more diverse and representative sense of media visibility, but it doesn’t rely on a buzzy character to draw in audiences. In fact, some of the pilot’s scenes were particularly relevant to thoughts I have had throughout my Swarthmore experience. Throughout the episode Maya bluntly and aggressively fights for her son to have access to things her son doesn’t even care about. Though throughout she manages to be blinded by her righteousness as she perpetuates aspects of “hidden” racism and classism. I’ll leave it at that, but I’m curious to see what Speechless tackles in the coming weeks and how it utilizes its three young actors who breakout during the first episode.
TL;DR: Perhaps the funniest family comedy on network television since Modern Family!
THE BEST (REALITY):
FINDING PRINCE CHARMING (LOGO, Thursdays 9pm)
Don’t you worry Bachelor fans, television has you covered during the unfortunate gap until Nick Viall returns as another white bachelor seeking love on the ABC series. It has answered your calls of agony with Finding Prince Charming or as I like to call it, “The Gay Bachelor.” It’s about time that there was a gay dating show on television—it’s 2016! So thank you LOGO, home of RuPaul’s Drag Race, for giving me what I want in a way better than I could ever imagine. The first episode features a more diverse cast than ABC’s white dating show could ever hope to, as the show tries to show as wide a representation of gay America as it can. There are guys with perfect abs and perfect teeth. There are guys who seem to be balding. There are guys who are kind-of ashamed to take their shirts off. This is real! Well, of course, until all the less-chiseled suitors get kicked off, but that’s an article for itself. Finding Prince Charming is the perfect show for a Friday wine night with friends. You can find me watching this in my apartment every Friday with multiple bottles of wine and I suggest you do the same.
TL;DR: Gay guys getting drunk and going on dates. What’s not to love?
SCREAM QUEENS (FOX, Tuesdays 9pm)
I chose to watch this as a “new” show because it follows Ryan Murphy’s anthology formula. Unfortunately, Scream Queens’ second season is off to just as bland a start as its first season despite adding the dreamy duo of Taylor Lautner and John Stamos to its ranks.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKE (FX, Wednesdays 10pm)
Another Ryan Murphy anthology, another hour of “what the fuck just happened.” I have enough of that feeling in my classes during the week that I can’t do another hour of it during my free time. With that being said, the series is visually striking as always and has some great performances from the now Emmy-winning Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates.
ATLANTA (FX, Tuesdays 10pm)
I wish I could say I loved this buzzy new show, but it just moved at such a glacial pace that I couldn’t take another half hour. The show does feel daring and original, but the fact that I couldn’t tell where it was going after the first episode and that it just so clearly did not pass the Bechdel test in the first hour made me pass in favor of my other selections.
SURVIVOR (CBS, Wednesdays 8pm)
I’m a sucker for everything Survivor and this year’s iteration of the series focusing on the battle between “Millenials” and “Gen-X.” For existing Survivor fans like myself this is shaping up to be another great season but I can’t bring myself to suggest that this is the season newbies should watch to try and get into the show.
HIGH MAINTENANCE (HBO, Fridays 11pm)
I loved the original web series that focuses on an unnamed marijuana dealer in New York City that offers stand-alone portraits of New Yorkers’ lives, but I question the move to HBO. The budget may be bigger but I miss the days of intimate, sharp episodes that didn’t have to adhere to any sort of time requirement. If you haven’t taken a look at the web series before, it is definitely worth a quick study break watch as its episodes are only a half-hour and the first HBO installment is funny and pays homage to one of my favorite characters from the web series.
Featured image courtesy of logotv.com.