THR Critics Debate: Fall TV Highs, Lows and (Non-Trump) Embarrassments

Atlanta-The Good Place -Insecure-SPLIT- Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of FX; NBC; HBO

The Republican presidential campaign is "more compelling (in a truly awful way) than anything," argue Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg, as they urge viewers to check out the great shows (FX's 'Atlanta,' HBO's 'Insecure,' NBC's 'The Good Place') and avoid the duds.

Daniel J. Fienberg: We’re now several weeks into what the broadcast networks still call the “Fall TV Season,” and there are shockingly few outright ratings failures. It seems viewers weren’t totally opposed to a TV version of Lethal Weapon (Fox) or a new MacGyver (CBS). Sure, ABC isn’t doing so well with dramas that look as if they come from Shonda Rhimes but don’t, and Fox is struggling to get people to watch its version of The Exorcist. But mostly, things are doing decently. So, Tim: Does that mean we’re going to hail this as the “strongest fall in recent memory”?

Tim Goodman: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I definitely think networks are doing more of what they need to be doing in the drama department: keeping it simple, familiar and easily digestible. That said, I’m never looking to networks for greatness, with the exception of a few comedies. But I’m always game for a drama that doesn’t make me think too much and just lets me enjoy it without getting a headache or wanting to throw a brick at the screen. I don’t know, does that sound like an endorsement of the fall TV season? I’m probably the wrong person to ask because my bar for network stuff is so low. Any show that doesn’t trip and accidentally stab itself in the eye is close to a win in my book. Which network offerings are you liking in particular?

Fienberg: By your “don’t make me think too much” standard, I’m actually a fan of the low-cal, quippy mediocrity of Lethal Weapon. But if I try to think of network dramas that hold up under tougher scrutiny, I come up empty. The most recent episodes of ABC’s Designated Survivor (in which Kiefer Sutherland is a White House cabinet member forced to step in as president after a major attack) haven’t risen to the level of the pilot’s first 10?minutes; the “I’ll watch Kiefer in anything” justification only gets you so far when faced with that many one-dimensional bad guys and needless plot convolutions. This Is Us (NBC) has a great cast doing great work, but I’d love to see an episode trust the actors enough to not throw a gratuitous plot twist in their way. Fox’s Pitch, about a female Major League Baseball pitcher, may be the only new network drama that I’ve begun to eagerly anticipate each week, but its avoidance of credulity-straining cheesiness feels like an increasingly daunting tightrope for it to have to walk. Still, all of those shows are downright genius compared to the sub-Shondaland tawdriness of ABC’s Conviction and Notorious. On that note, what have you hated? And are you actually sticking with any new network series?

Goodman: You might be surprised by this, but there are a few I’ll probably keep watching, at least for a couple more weeks: Frequency on The CW and Timeless on NBC are fun and entertaining if you don’t get hung up on plot holes or logic. I’ll also probably continue with The CW’s No Tomorrow and check back in on The Exorcist (call me crazy). Conviction and Lethal Weapon are two I never, ever want to see again. Pitch didn’t hook me, so I doubt I’ll bother. And every time I watch Designated Survivor, I just want to watch 24. If I’m going to spend time on network, I’ll probably just stick to the comedies.

Fienberg: Speaking of which, there are two good new network comedies! I’m entirely on board with NBC’s The Good Place, headlined by a superb Kristen Bell as a bad woman who mistakenly ends up in heaven. It has an increasingly well-used supporting cast and a sharp sense of rapid-fire humor; I’m sad that we’re already close to halfway through its season. I’ve also set the old DVR season pass for Speechless, starring Minnie Driver as the mother of a boy with cerebral palsy. It’s the latest confirmation that nobody does family comedies like ABC.

Goodman: I like both of those shows, too, and hope they have a real future. Now on to the cable and streaming: Wow, there’s tons of great stuff. I’m grateful to have so many options and worried — as always — that there will come a day when this job doesn’t allow for either sleep or, say, an actual life beyond the small screen.

Fienberg: Yes, the sheer quality of good stuff there is absurd. If networks are going for middle-of-the-road shows that take almost no risks, at least cable and streaming are creating homes for new and distinctive voices like Donald Glover (FX’s Atlanta), Pamela Adlon (FX’s Better Things), Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) and Tig Notaro (Amazon’s One Mississippi), none of whom ever would have gotten their shows on a network. At least there are platforms that don’t flinch at the blistering politics of Luke Cage (Netflix) or the slow-moving but fascinating family dynamics of Queen Sugar (OWN). And at least there’s room for a show like Divorce (Sarah Jessica Parker’s big return to HBO), which has proved polarizing precisely because its voice is so barbed and particular.

Goodman: I would definitely add Amazon’s Fleabag to that list of standouts. The show, starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a wisecracking single woman in London, is one of my favorite new series, along with Atlanta, Better Things, Insecure and One Mississippi. And I know you’re not as into HBO’s wildly ambitious Westworld as I am, but that’s another high point for me. So yes, the relentless crush of content on TV looks as if it will be an ongoing story. And indeed, the most impressive aspect of that story is how much of that scripted material is flat-out superb. I keep thinking we’ll hit this fallow creative period where we’re getting more shows that aren’t good, but look at this bounty! And that’s not even counting the excellent returning shows, which for the most part are staying on the rails (Lifetime’s UnREAL being the high-profile exception). Of course, there have been big misses this fall — Woody Allen mailing it in for Amazon with Crisis in Six Scenes perhaps being the most conspicuous of them. But there also are things to look forward to; I’m excited for Chance (with Hugh Laurie), which premieres Oct.?19 on Hulu. I probably should be watching that now rather than sitting here in dumbstruck appreciation of stuff I’ve already seen.

Fienberg: So about Westworld: No, I don’t like it as much as you do. But I can appreciate its ambition; even if I think the show — about the ominous goings-on at a futuristic Wild West-themed amusement park — is a mess, it’s a sprawling and wide-reaching mess in a way that the worst, and even most of the best, network shows just aren’t anymore. Speaking of lack of ambition, it needs to be said: This Donald Trump-dominated election season has, without a doubt, turned into the fall’s biggest show — a televised nightmare from which we can’t turn away and one that’s more compelling (in a truly awful way) than anything on any of our screens.

Goodman: Before I take your bait on the election, let me address your point about ambition. It’s the trait I most look for and admire in dramas, but it can overburden the narrative if there’s too much of it — and if there’s not enough of it, that becomes apparent, and problematic, very quickly. The tricky thing with an ambitious show on ad-supported cable, like USA Network’s Falling Water, is that if it takes too long to become coherent and compelling, option-flooded viewers won’t waste their time (whereas if they’re already paying for HBO, they might be willing to give a Westworld a much more patient look). For broadcast networks, the drawback to having basically zero ambition is that it’s a slippery slope from safe, viewer-friendly bets to overly familiar rehashes of tired concepts. I’d say if a network shoots five drama pilots, one should be a big, high-risk swing. Now, about the presidential race: It has cast such a terrible pall over everything that I’d bet that people can’t wait to just be mindlessly entertained again rather than disgusted by ignorance and awfulness. Maybe that’s why some of these network shows are doing well and why more of them could do well post-Nov.?8. Hey, maybe the networks can heal the nation’s wounds!

Fienberg: Along those lines, I want to give some major credit to Seth Meyers and his Late Night team for being the standard-bearer of comedic political outrage from the network side. Samantha Bee may be the left’s primal scream, but she’s doing it one night a week on a channel that has given her free rein. Meyers does it every night. He has gone after Trump with a vengeance, skewered Hillary Clinton when he felt it was called for and has been a lone, redemptive ray of light on NBC — a network that has squandered much of its credibility with Jimmy Fallon’s flirty tousling of Trump’s hair, Matt Lauer’s inexcusable softball questions for him at the Commander in Chief Forum, the delayed Access Hollywood video release and Saturday Night Live’s inconsistent response to the rise of Trump in the fall.

Goodman: Everything you just said was both true and deeply depressing. I think I’ll go watch an episode of The Good Place to make myself feel better.


THR's Fall TV Awards
Goodman and Fienberg hand out some highly coveted honors

Most Welcome Return to Network
Kristen Bell, The Good Place (NBC)

Least Welcome Return to Network
Matt LeBlanc, Man With a Plan (CBS)

Dumbest Show About Smart People
Bull (CBS)

Freshest New Voice
Issa Rae, Insecure (HBO)

Breakout Performance
Kylie Bunbury, Pitch (Fox)

Breakout Performance, Nonfiction
Ana Navarro (commentator, CNN)

Least Promising Comedy
Graves (Epix)

Best Kid Casting, Network
Speechless (ABC)

Best Kid Casting, Cable
Better Things (FX)

Most Perplexing Show
Falling Water (USA)