Summer is sagging, the pandemic is persisting and we need a fresh diversion.
We need the new TV season – new shows, new … Well, maybe we can settle for “new-ish.”
The season officially starts Monday (Sept. 20), when all of the reruns and most of the summer reality shows vanish. But by pre-pandemic standards, this won’t seem terribly new.
New scripted shows, broadcast networks
It’s a small, sturdy crop – this year’s group of new shows on the broadcast networks.
There are only 11 scripted ones at the start of the season, about half the usual total. Many are spin-offs or reboots. And most have sent only a rough pilot film, not ready for review.
Still, a few shows already stand out. We’ll list them first, then the rest; both lists are chronological:
“The Big Leap,” 9 p.m., Mondays, Fox (starting Sept. 20). The fictional notion makes little sense: A national dance show focuses only on contestants from Detroit … concluding with “Swan Lake.” (A reality show, setting up a ballet?!?) Once you get past that, you’ll find deep characters. Scott Foley plays the cynical producer; Teri Polo plays someone in mid-life crisis. Other roles go to relative newcomers (led by Simone Recasner as a young single mom); you’ll quickly root for them.
“NCIS: Hawaii,” 10 p.m., Mondays, CBS (Sept. 20). Sure, it’s just a spin-off, the fourth in the “NCIS” empire. But this gets it right – an appealing star (Vanessa Lachey as the bureau chief) … strong support (especially Alex Tarrant, a New Zealand actor with Maori roots, as the lone native-Hawaiian on her team) … smart stories … and Hawaii itself. It’s a splendid backdrop.
“Ordinary Joe,” 10 p.m. Mondays, NBC (Sept. 20). Here’s the consummate character study – the same guy in three different lives, depending on which path he took. That only works if you have a gifted actor – Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1998 “Sliding Doors” or James Wolk, who’s been terrific in everything from “Mad Men” to “Zoo” and “Watchmen,” here.
“The Wonder Years,” 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC (Sept. 22). The original series was a wondrous look at the 1960s, via a modern narrator. Now we do the same, with a Black family in a middle-class Alabama neighborhood. This is partly a comedy, but it’s set in 1968, so tragedy looms in the opener. The result is quietly involving; Fred Savage, the original “Wonder Years” star, is producer-director.
“Ghosts.” 9 p.m. Thursdays, CBS (Oct. 7). Rose McIver has a knack for playing likable souls in bizarre situations. She was perfect as an accidental zombie in “iZombie”; now she plays someone who has just inherited a haunted home. We can see the ghosts, but she can’t … until an accident changes that. In the final minutes of the opener, a sorta-funny show turns hilarious.
And the rest
“Our Kind of People,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox (Sept. 21). Lee Daniels has done great work, from “The Butler” to “Empire.” But now he confesses: “I’m a ‘Dynasty’ fanatic … Soap lives in me.” He says that as if it were a good thing. Set in a wealthy Black enclave at Martha’s Vineyard, the show has all of the excesses of “Empire,” with none of the redeeming music.
“FBI International,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, CBS (but debuts at 10 p.m. Sept. 21). The story starts during a three-hour blitz of FBI shows, leaping to Hungary. It will stay there, sending its team to other countries.
“La Brea,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC (Sept. 28). Don’t you hate it when you’re swallowed up by a giant sinkhole and end up in an alternate world? The result is sort of “Lost” without the plane … except we also see the people topside, pondering a solution. This is an intriguing notion – harmed by the fact that NBC recently canceled two other sci-fi shows (“Debris,” “Manifest”) without resolving them.
“CSI: Vegas,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, CBS (Oct. 6). At least the title is new. This is simply “CSI” six years later, with a new lab, new people … plus, soon, the old ones. By the end of the first hour, we’ve re-met Grissom (who left 13 years ago), Sidle, Brass and Hodges. Their stories are stiffly competent.
“Queens,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC (Oct. 19). Breaking up a hot music group, these women drifted into so-so lives … until a young star sampled their music in a hit record. That sounds like a good series – which it is in “Girls5Eva,” on Peacock. This show is similar, but with little humor and no subtlety.
“4400,” 9 p.m. Mondays, CW (Oct. 25). What happens to all those people who disappear, presumably snatched by aliens? Now 4,400 of them suddenly return, with no sense that time has passed. That made a good cable series for four seasons; after a 14-year pause, here’s a fresh version.
Non-fiction shows, broadcast networks
Alongside all the scripted shows on broadcast networks this fall, there are some new unscripted ones.
That includes a couple that could make an impact. Here the shows are, chronologically:
“Muhammad Ali,” 8 p.m. Sept. 19-22, PBS. From Thomas Jefferson to Ernest Hemingway, Ken Burns has mastered profiles of flawed giants. Now he has one of his best subjects – a sweet kid who grew up in a religious home, clowned around in school (where he floundered with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder), then became a fierce boxer and the best-known person on the planet.
“Alter Ego,” 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox (Sept. 22). We keep finding new ways to hear a voice without seeing the person: Judges turn their backs to the stage … singers wear masks … and now the singers remain offstage, while their high-tech avatars perform. The panel includes two successful singers, Nick Lachey and Alanis Morissette, and two master producers, Grimes and will.i.am.
Also: PBS will continue to have terrific documentaries. Coming up after “Ali” are excellent biographies of William Randolph Hearst (Sept. 27) and Rita Moreno (Oct. 5).
“Legends of the Hidden Temple,” 8 p.m. Sundays, CW (Oct. 10). Some good CW dramas have died on Sundays, so the network is going another way. This show – reviving a Nickelodeon one that combined action and trivia tests – will be followed by a second season of “Killer Camp”: Each week, one camper is “killed”; survivors try to beat challenges and figure out who is the secret accomplice.
“Home Sweet Home,” 8 p.m. Fridays, NBC (Oct. 15). “Wife Swap” and other reality shows had people temporarily swap lives. Now that gets serious, under producer Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “When They See Us”) and the Warner Bros. unscripted division, led by Mike Darnell, once Fox’s chief of offbeat shows. The switches involve broad differences in money, race, religion, setting and more.
“The Activist,” 8 p.m. Fridays, CBS (Oct. 22). Here’s another reality show with a broader goal: For five weeks, six activists compete to see who can bring the most attention to global causes. Usher hosts, joined by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianna Hough.
New cable and streaming shows
While the broadcast networks sputter, their competitors get more ambitious.
Cable channels and streamers keep pouring out new series (often with short seasons) and mini-series. It’s a deluge, so we’ll try to keep this basic: This is a chronological list of shows for which we’ve seen at least one episode:
“Impeachment: American Crime Story,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX (started Sept.7). The Bill Clinton impeachment story is retold, with the emphasis on Monica Lewinsky (the film’s prime consultant) and Paula Jones. Wonderfully played by Beanie Feldstein and Annaleigh Ashford, we see them as naive souls, manipulated by Type-A women and men. The result is simultaneously funny and depressing.
“Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.,” Wednesdays, Disney+ (started Sept. 8). Three decades ago, “Doogie Howser” charmed us with the story of a teen doctor. Now – at a time when we like young geniuses, from “Young Sheldon” to “The Good Doctor” – it’s ripe for remake. Lahela, 16, is a Hawaiian surfer like her dad and a doctor like her mom; colleagues, recalling the old show, dub her “Doogie.” The result is an amiable mix of light comedy, teen angst, medical crises and Hawaiian beauty.
“American Rust,” 10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime (started Sept. 12). In a small town, money is scarce and problems are personal. The police chief (Jeff Daniels) probes a murder in which the prime suspect is the son of his sometimes-lover (Maura Tierney). It’s a story filled with deeply layered characters.
“The Lost Symbol,” Thursdays, Peacock (started Sept. 16). Three Ron Howard films have had Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, an expert on ancient codes and puzzles that unearth modern plots. Now this series – with Howard as one of the producers – has Langdon as a younger guy (Ashley Zukerman, 37) on the Harvard faculty; he’s nudged into a world that’s alternately fascinating and just creepy.
“The Harper House,” Thursdays, Paramount+ (started Sept. 16). With her finances crumbling, Debbie Harper moves her family into her late aunt’s house – an ominous place in a scary Arkansas neighborhood. This animated show (for grown-ups) offers some fairly funny moments.
“The Premise,” Thursdays, Hulu (started Sept. 16). This is rare these days – a real anthology, telling a full story for each of the five weeks. The opener is just as adult as its title – “Social Justice Sex Tape” – suggests; it works quite well, thanks to a terrific performance by Ben Platt.
“Chucky,” 10 p.m., Tuesdays, USA and Syfy (Oct. 12). A sensitive 13-year-old keeps meeting people who are nasty or blank. We might wish something bad would happen to him, but Chucky – the killer doll – puts thoughts into action. Even before the first death, the story gets repetitious.
“Dopesick,” Wednesdays, Hulu (Oct. 13). Danny Strong has turned real life into brilliant scripts, winning an Emmy for “Game Change” and a nomination for “Recount.” Now he has an eight-part mini-series, telling about OxyContin and the opioid epidemic. There are great scenes with the drug-company people and the investigators, but “Dopesick” soars when we see the effects on a coal miner (Kaitlyn Dever) and an earnest country doctor (Michael Keaton).
"Dexter: New Blood,” 9 p.m. Sundays, Showtime (Nov. 7). For seven seasons, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) committed grisly murders (of bad guys) against a sunny Miami backdrop. Now he’s in the sort of bleak setting we link with murder stories. In snowy, small-town Oregon, he has an assumed name, argues with his late sister and tries not to kill anyone. It’s a strong start.
“Yellowjackets,” Sundays, Showtime (Nov. 14). After a plane crash, members of a girls’ soccer team were stranded in the wild for more than a year. Some rose to the situation, some sank to evil, all tried to bury that afterward. Now, 25 years later, secrets loom. A tough story bounces between then and now.
Some sci-fi notes
There’s much more, especially on the science-fiction side. The mega-budget “Lord of the Rings” series on Amazon Prime is still a year away, but others are coming now.
“Y: The Last Man” debuted Monday (Sept. 13) on Hulu. “Invasion” arrives Oct. 22 on Apple TV+ – the same day the “Dune” movie reaches HBO Max. Also coming is “The Wheel of Time” (Nov. 19, Amazon Prime) and series from each of the sci-fi giants:
“Star Wars” has “Visions,” an anime-style series Sept. 22 on Disney+ … “Star Trek” has “Prodigy,” an animated series aimed at kids, Oct. 28 on Paramount+ … And Marvel has “Hawkeye,” with Jeremy Renner returning to his role in the Avengers movies, Nov. 24 on Disney+.