Once upon a time, the fall rollout from the Big Three broadcast networks was as eagerly awaited as those shiny new models from the Big Three automakers, unveiled with great fanfare in dealer showrooms.
The TV “season” today is a seamless year-round cycle with dozens of providers adding scads of new prime-time shows to the hundreds already swamping the audience on cable and streaming as well as broadcast.
To acknowledge this vestige of a bygone media age — the fall TV season — is to dwell on fewer than two dozen new series arriving on the five legacy networks.
Some will likely find favor with viewers, and, despite years of doomsday forecasts, the broadcast networks launching them will continue to hang tough. (In part, that’s because they are expanding their reach beyond their age-old linear presence — in NBC’s case, 14 platforms now distribute its content).
But however warmly these rookie shows are received, this freshman slate resonates with a clear message: Creatively, the networks are fed up trying to compete for new-and-different with their cable and streaming rivals and have thrown in the towel. Surprise is off the table for what is now the Big Five, which have succumbed to formulas and spinoffs. Comfort TV is the rule.
It’s as if they’ve said: We can’t compete with the more liberated outlets’ risky, edgy fare. Not when we’re answerable to the FCC and community standards (unlike cable and streaming, broadcast is beholden to the public airwaves), and to skittish advertisers (unlike sponsor-immune premium cable and some streaming channels). The fall slate seems to echo a programming strategy applied with great success decades ago: Least Objectionable Programming. That is, placate rather than entertain.
Consider arguably the most-talked-about “new” show of the fall: NBC’s revival of “Will & Grace.” A groundbreaking sitcom when it aired for eight seasons until 2006, this old TV friend, back with its original cast, is likely to be funny. But thanks to social enlightenment it helped promote way back then, it will now feel comfortable, not outrageous, as before.
Meanwhile, the CW is updating the 1980s soap “Dynasty.” CBS’s sitcom “Kevin Can Wait” is reuniting star Kevin James with Leah Remini, his leading lady years ago on “King of Queens,” for a retooled second season of what seems to be morphing into “King of Long Island.”
“Young Sheldon” is a CBS spinoff from TV’s biggest sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.” Likable, maybe, but no surprises there.
And CBS’s “9JKL” will feel comfortably rote before you’ve seen a single episode. Its stars are familiar, all right: Mark Feuerstein, Linda Lavin and Elliott Gould. More to the point is its done-to-death premise: offspring moving back home with the parents.
Granted, Memory Lane extends beyond broadcast. Netflix is making hay one more time for “One Day at a Time” and “Fuller House.”
But it’s broadcast that seems to have been swallowed by a TV wormhole. An original-cast revival of “Roseanne” is in the cards for midseason at ABC, while discussions are reportedly underway for resuscitating such laid-to-rest favorites as “The West Wing,” ”King of the Hill,” ”24,” ”The Munsters,” ”Starsky & Hutch” and “The Jetsons” (reconceived as a live-action sitcom).
Yet another echo from the past: CBS’s fall entry “S.W.A.T.,” which was a 2003 film and a short-lived 1970s series. And it is but one among a bumper crop of Elite-Team Action Sagas.
Besides “S.W.A.T.” (which, starring Shemar Moore, is billed as a Los Angeles-based “specialized tactical unit”), there’s NBC’s “The Brave” (globe-trotting “elite undercover military heroes” overseen by Anne Heche), CBS’s “SEAL Team” (with David Boreanaz part of “the most elite unit of Navy SEALs”), and the CW’s “Valor” (focused on “an elite unit of U.S. Army helicopter pilots”).
The locations and faces vary from one show to the next. But wherever you land, expect lots of gunfire, lurching camera work, a pounding musical score and at least one hearty hero who’s haunted by regrets.
TV’s cluttered comic-book rack is jammed with even more titles from the Marvel portfolio: “Marvel’s Inhumans” is a new ABC series about a race of superhumans with diverse amazing powers while, on Fox, “The Gifted” (from 20th Century Fox Television in association with Marvel Television) tells of an ordinary suburban couple whose children possess mutant powers.
CBS’s crime drama “Wisdom of the Crowd” seems to be a 2.0 version of the vast computer system that drove CBS’s defunct “Person of Interest.” But instead of the Machine (whose data-crunching skills could anticipate terrorist acts), a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (Jeremy Piven) develops Sophe, an online crowdsourcing platform that he hopes will help him track down his daughter’s killer.
NBC jumps onto the crime-docudrama bandwagon with its limited series “The Menendez Murders,” which carries the durable “Law & Order” brand.
CBS’s “Me Myself and I” borrows a structural element from last season’s breakout hit, “This Is Us” — the multi-time-frame format — and then hokes it up. This unwieldy sitcom zigzags between three points in the lifespan of its main character. It’s overcomplicated, not funny and, by the way, puzzling: Portly Bobby Moynihan, who stars as the protagonist at age 40, bears no resemblance to rangy John Larroquette, who plays him at age 65.
NBC’s laugh-and-cry sensation “This Is Us” offered hope that a broadcast network still knew how to challenge and charm a mass audience — and still aspired to. The networks’ copycat fall slates are declaring otherwise by super-serving viewers more of what they already watch and have watched for years.
It seems unsurprising that ABC’s most valuable producer, Shonda Rhimes, announced recently that she was heading to Netflix for a new world of creative freedom — and likely money — that no broadcast network could match.
As evidence, consider this fall’s new crop. It finds broadcast TV in creative retreat, catering to what the audience expects. Now, more than ever, cable and streaming are where viewers must look to find their expectations surpassed.