Critic's Notebook: Dead Women, Immigration Stories and Other Fall TV Trends

ICE plotlines, lots of dead wives/mothers and even more mediocrity are among the patterns on small screens this season.
Elizabeth Morris/The CW

Chances are good that you, time-strapped reader, have not watched every new broadcast show that has premiered in the past month. Fortunately — or not? — I've now watched multiple episodes of every new show, and the effect is, unavoidably, noticing certain patterns floating to the surface like those 3D image paintings I could never properly see, owing to my astigmatism.

A few early trends:

* Generalized mediocrity. So far, I've set a DVR season pass for ABC's Emergence. That's it. Full stop. For now. I'm almost certain to add CBS' Evil and ABC's Stumptown. The CW's Batwoman seems like a strong possibility for a series recording, if only because I record (and sometimes even watch) all of The CW's other superhero shows. I'm week-to-week on ABC's Mixed-ish. Everything else I've either quit already or I'm on the verge of quitting. 

* Nobody knows how to do procedural plotlines. It's a consequence of broadcast TV's half-in/half-out approach to competing with cable and streaming. Every show wants to have serialized, mythology-driven elements, yet they mostly think they still need to be standalone-friendly. To watch the forgettable and barely crafted procedural plotlines to Prodigal Son or Bluff City Law or even on an otherwise promising series like Stumptown is to appreciate anew somebody like a David Shore (House, The Good Doctor) or Dick Wolf. Good procedural storytelling is hard. Apparently.

* Everybody has noticed immigration is a thing. Way to catch up to early 2017, TV! Now let's figure out how to harness that curiosity. CBS' Bob Hearts Abishola has its heart — sorry — in the right place, but the "Bob" half of the story remains coarse and unamusing. NBC's Sunnyside has its brain in the right place, but its insistence on settling for the easiest punchline at every turn keeps thwarting a strong cast. (NBC announced Tuesday that it would be pulling Sunnyside from its on-air lineup after this week's episode, shifting the rest of the show's run to digital platforms.) Meanwhile, ICE-related plotlines abound without — see second trend — emerging as anything thoughtful or memorable.

Dead women as catalysts.This last trend was what I really wanted to write about today. Twitter has eliminated all pretense of "It takes three things to make a trend" and trends can now be cobbled together from two loosely connected elements. In this case, though, the number of shows using dead wives or mothers as the main, usually offscreen, character motivator or instigating event for an entire series easily exceeds basic qualifications for trend status.

By my count, of the 15 new broadcast shows that premiered since the Emmys, five gain heat from the funeral pyre for a dead female character never actually introduced as "living" within the show. With The CW, it's a solid 100 percent: Both Nancy Drew and Kate "Batwoman" Kane are still grieving their mothers as the shows begin. It also takes a dead mother to motivate a legal reunion between father and daughter in NBC's Bluff City Law. The protagonists of NBC's Perfect Harmony and CBS' The Unicorn are defined first and foremost by the recent deaths of their wives.

None of these wives and mothers are seen living before their demise. Through the episodes I've watched, none is even vaguely defined as a character. The wife on Perfect Harmony was apparently Southern and religious. The wife on The Unicorn agreed to a division of parental responsibilities that left her basically raising their two daughters. The mother on Bluff City Law was a repository of boring platitudes and didn't much care that her hubby was a noxious philanderer. In all five cases, the mothers are plot mechanisms, not characters.

Unless I'm forgetting something, Stumptown is the only new show driven by a dead man and only very barely. Cobie Smulders' Dex had a long-term boyfriend killed in Afghanistan, but his loss relates primarily to the plot of the pilot, not the larger arc of the series. You probably forgot that dead boyfriend existed. On Carol's Second Chance, there's a divorce that inspires the protagonist's life change. On Evil, our heroine's husband is off climbing mountains, but he's apparently still alive. Those are the invisible-yet-absent men. The father on Prodigal Son is in jail. The father on Almost Family should be dead, but he isn't.

It's not as simple as male showrunners killing offscreen female characters. Of the five shows, three were created by women. Bluff City Law and The Unicorn, created cumulatively by five men, probably have the worst of the offscreen contrivance ghost moms/wives, but Perfect Harmony, from Lesley Wake Webster, isn't much better. The two CW shows, for whatever it's worth, are better at tackling the waves of grief, though they have basically the exact same arc — grieving daughter is offended by dad who seems to have moved on and is myopically unable to realize that dad is sad, too.

So why are 33 percent of the new broadcast shows driven by dead wives and mothers? I've got theories, some good and some bad.

Let's try a few.

It's all just Disney. If dead mothers are good enough for Bambi and half of the future princesses in the early Disney pantheon — how else do you think we get evil stepmothers? — they're good enough for TV in 2019. And yes, if it's in Disney, it's in the Brothers Grimm and if it's in codified fairy tales, it's in folkloric traditions of all sorts. It's not like TV is completely missing dead dads. We're just in a wildly disproportionate dead-moms moment.

It's a good way to avoid casting actresses of a certain age. If Bluff City Law has a dead mother who, from beyond the grave, is prone to saying all the right things, that's much easier than having to cast her and write her as an actual human. The CW is much more comfortable with its parade of '80s and '90s hunks-turned-daddies if they're also sympathetic widowers, because other than on Riverdale, the casting formula doesn't work as well with both genders. If you look at the recent Emmys, it's actually a wonderful moment for actresses on TV, but there are limits. Apparently.

TV's really into grief at the moment. You should be watching Facebook Watch's Sorry for Your Loss, a superb chronicle of a young woman (Elizabeth Olson) grieving the loss of her husband. It sounds like it should be unpleasant. It really isn't. Fleabag has a dead mom and a dead female best friend as two of its key catalysts. Grief is all over the place in shows as wildly different as Haunting of Hill House, Chernobyl and Roswell, New Mexico. Grief is everywhere! It's just oddly mom/wife-centered on broadcast.

It's all about Hillary Clinton. Yes, Hillary Clinton is fine and tweeting up a storm, but the idea of President Hillary Clinton is a concept many in Hollywood are still coming to terms with. Nov. 8, 2016, marked the shocking loss of what the media had preordained as a national maternal figure, leaving us in the hands of a man who wasn't prepared to embrace paternity and has been serving us reheated leftovers from Watergate for two years now. Symbolically, I mean. This is not a well-considered theory. But it's a theory. TV has struggled to depict the rise of Trump in a direct way and it's still barely picking around the edges. This is a way of treating a sense of loss felt by slightly over half the voting populace.

Or maybe it's just a coincidence. Something in the water. I'd think about it more, but there's a lot of TV still to watch.

Oct. 16, 9:34 a.m. Updated to reflect NBC's decision to remove Sunnyside from its on-air lineup.