The fall TV season seems more like a weird anachronism with every passing year. Originally tied to things like the farming calendar and the school year, the idea of launching a whole bunch of shows in late September and early October to see what sticks has become so obviously a faulty way of doing business that the networks have been talking about doing away with it for roughly 20 years now. Yet it persists for reasons we can’t precisely identify. Still, we here at The A.V. Club know that viewers will probably stumble upon these shows years after their cancellation on an out-of-the-way corner of Netflix or Hulu, so consider this a guide to what we considered important in 2013, brave travelers from the future.
This first half covers new shows airing on Monday through Wednesday. Come back tomorrow for Thursday through Sunday.
Note: All pilots screened for this feature are works in progress. They may improve thanks to recasting or re-shooting or magic. But probably not.
Almost Human (Fox, 8 p.m., debuts November 4)
What is it?: Cops and robots re-team once more in the latest J.J. Abrams-branded effort. Karl Urban is Det. John Kennex, an ace investigator who plays by his own rules, a trope that still exists in 2048. Kennex has a strong distaste for the robot kind. Two years after a raid ends up killing Kennex’s entire team (save himself, naturally), he returns to the force and is partnered with Dorian (Michael Ealy), an android programmed to feel. Haunted by the death of his team and the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Kennex gets embroiled in the fight against the Syndicate, a shady criminal organization interested in biotech research. Rounding out the precinct are boss-lady Maldonado (Lili Taylor) and colleague Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly). Overdone concept aside, the plot gets twisty-turny right away, meaning supporting characters spend a great deal of time telling viewers what happened. But, hey, Gareth from The Office is in it!
Target audience: People who were super bummed that Mac And C.H.E.E.S.E., Joey’s show from the sixth and seventh seasons of Friends, was not real; people who liked the movie version of I, Robot more than the book; people who were devastated by the cancellation of the short-lived Dick Wolf/Robert De Laurentis show Mann & Machine.
Ideal way to watch: With your Roomba quietly whirring in the background.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “I assume you want quiet mode, detective.”
We Are Men (CBS, 8:30 p.m., debuts September 30)
What is it?: Left at the altar, wannabe basketball coach Chris Smith takes up residence at a temporary housing complex in Southern California, where he’s adopted as the pet project of three tenants who’ve extended their stays after being similarly spurned: perpetually Speedo’d divorcé Jerry O’Connell, hopeful single dad Kal Penn, and middle-aged skirt chaser Tony Shalhoub. Based on the real-life, post-divorce experiences of creator Rob Greenberg, We Are Men’s pilot plays like a hangover from the great “mancession” wave of 2011, of which the increasingly bizarre Last Man Standing is now the, er, last man standing. Smith’s prospective spouse is portrayed as the wettest blanket among all fun-killing sitcom women, but Greenberg promises more nuanced characterization for the other women harshing the buzzes of his good-time gang.
Target audience: Guys who are actually living at a place like the show’s Olympia and could use a sympathetic 22 minutes; Pain & Gain fans who feel that Michael Bay didn’t get enough of “Tony Shalhoub as a total asshole”; time-traveling, pre-Sliders Jerry O’Connell, seeking the inspiration he needs to shed those last few Stand By Me pounds.
Ideal way to watch: As a second-screen experience with the latest posts on a men’s-rights subreddit.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Our timing could’ve been better, but are you sure this is what you want?”
Sleepy Hollow (Fox, 9 p.m., debuted Monday, September 16)
What is it?: Forget everything you think you know about Ichabod Crane. Instead of the cowardly schoolteacher-cum-ladies man of Washington Irving’s short story (or the cowardly police detective-cum-ladies man of Tim Burton’s film), the real Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a former Oxford professor turned revolutionary in the War Of Independence who, on special instruction from George Washington, cut off the head of a villainous redcoat who may or may not be one of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Crane is then buried for more than 200 years, only to rise from the dead just as the Headless Horseman gets up to his old ax-murdering tricks again. There’s also a police officer (Nicole Beharie) on her way to Quantico, who gets sucked into Crane’s adventures in order to avenge her murdered boss. It’s ridiculous but surprisingly fun, like a tale told by the world’s most charmingly batshit idiot.
Target audience: People for whom any of the above description sounded appealing; people who don’t mind that there’s no way this can possibly sustain itself past episode three; Clancy Brown enthusiasts (first 10 minutes).
Ideal way to watch: Halloween night, post-trick-or-treating, with a sugar high strong enough to make you jump at every goofy scare and laugh too loud at the (unexpectedly) decent jokes.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Perhaps an asylum is exactly where I belong.”
Mom (CBS, 9:30 p.m., debuts September 23)
What is it?: Chuck Lorre’s occasional attempts to resurrect the blue-collar sitcom continue with this series, which occasionally seems like seven shows in one, at least one of which is a stealth Grace Under Fire remake. Anna Faris brings her agreeable, anything-for-a-punchline demeanor to network television—giving Mom far more of a sense of focus than it really deserves—thanks to her ability to tie together disparate series about a working-class waitress, a working-class mother, a working-class daughter, and a working-class recovering addict. (Faris’ character contains multitudes.) The series features plenty of the usual gags to be expected from a Lorre sitcom, complete with a largely unnecessary performance from French Stewart as the most extraneous character ever, but once Allison Janney shows up as Faris’ mother, the pilot settles into a surprisingly poignant groove. Will the series follow off the pilot’s most promising aspects, or those that are, frankly, ass? Have you met 2 Broke Girls?
Target audience: People who leave the TV on after 2 Broke Girls; all of the movie critics who’ve spent the last several years trying fruitlessly to turn Faris into a major star instead of a cult figure; people who are really into their West Wing/Mike & Molly crossover fanfic.
Ideal way to watch: With your mom; she gets drunk, then you get drunk, and you both share the things you don’t like about each other and hire some neighbors to laugh uncomfortably as you do so.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “The correct answer was ass.”
The Blacklist (NBC, 10 p.m., debuts September 23)
What is it?: This fat-headed procedural FBI thriller sees master criminal Raymond Reddington (James Spader, sporting a fedora and very little hair) walking into FBI headquarters after 20 years on the run and declaring that he can help them catch the worst, most dastardly criminals—but only if he can deal with rookie agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Would you believe Elizabeth is late on her first day; or that she has a dark, troubled past; or that her straight-arrow boss is played by Harry Lennix; or that… zzzzzzzzzzz? Spader does his best to pull off a less-psychotic Hannibal Lecter vibe, and there are many dangling mysteries set up in the pilot, but everything feels very derivative.
Target audience: People who have been clamoring for Spader to return to TV after one hellish year off; those who think puncturing someone’s carotid artery is an acceptable way to make a quick point; people who want every show on every network to have that grim CBS feel.
Ideal way to watch: While compiling your own long list of shows and movies this thing is ripping off.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Why involve me? I’m nobody. There’s nothing special about me.”
Hostages (CBS, 10 p.m., debuts September 23)
What is it?: CBS continues its ride on the “limited series but not in the sense that it’s actually limited beyond us ordering fewer than eleventy-billion episodes” train that’s worked so well with Under The Dome. This deeply goofy show is about a hostage crisis that doesn’t just threaten a family or even a handful of people, but the President Of The United States and our way of life itself. It’s as if CBS president Nina Tassler laughed maniacally at the show’s creators as they filled out Mad Libs designed to heighten the conflict to bursting. Toni Collette is the doctor under whose knife the president will soon sit, while Dylan McDermott, deliriously hammy as always, is the man who takes her family hostage. Tate Donovan is also here, and a dog, whom producers have assured all will remain alive.
Target audience: Anyone who’s been missing the “Ben Harmon’s Best Lines” competition from the first season of American Horror Story; people who want to see CBS try something different, no matter how disastrous; the Secret Service, to prep for even the unlikeliest of scenarios.
Ideal way to watch: In 10 years or so, when you happen across it on an out-of-the-way corner of Amazon Prime and say, “How the fuck did they get nine seasons out of that?”
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “You’ve got five minutes.”
Dads (Fox, 8 p.m., debuted Tuesday, September 17)
What is it?: In this comedy from executive producer Seth MacFarlane—a 21st-century twist on older sitcoms such as Empty Nest—a couple of “rock ’n’ roll rebel men,” video-game designers played by Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green, open up their spare bedrooms for their clueless, sixtysomething fathers (Martin Mull and Peter Riegert), who have run through their money and lost their homes. Ironically, it’s old pros Mull and Riegert who glide through, in spite of the dialogue, while Ribisi and Green work so grotesquely hard trying to sell this shit that they’re painful to watch.
Target audience: Anyone who bought the explanation that the job Seth MacFarlane did as host of the Academy Awards show was a brilliantly ironic piece of conceptual performance art that was based on the premise, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I hosted the Oscars and pretended to just stink up the stage?” Those who enjoyed that will love this “self-aware” take on the sitcom genre at its most obnoxious, which comes complete with weird racial jokes, gratuitous cheesecake, and the kind of studio audience that loses its mind cheering when Mull drops his towel or Brenda Song dresses up as a “sexy Asian schoolgirl.”
Ideal way to watch: With a clueless senior citizen sitting on either side of you, drowning out the dialogue by talking too loudly about the good old days, when TV comedy was actually funny, while a third blocks the screen by shuffling back and forth from the bathroom.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “It’s not funny, Dad.”
Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, 8 p.m., debuts September 24)
What is it?: Remember when Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson died in The Avengers? Remember how that was kind of sad? Well, what if he was back and ready for action, and there was a vague mystery surrounding his resurrection, even as he wandered down official-looking hallways trading snappy, Joss Whedon-fueled banter with underlings? Would that be something you’d want to watch? Now imagine that show getting pushed into the background of a weird hybrid of NCIS, The X-Files, and Smallville. Still excited? Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the best network drama pilot of the fall, but that’s mostly because all of the other network drama pilots aren’t even trying.
Target audience: People whose main reason for not yet watching Breaking Bad is because it’s not called Marvel’s Breaking Bad; people who have yet to realize Joss Whedon’s involvement in this project will be necessarily limited at best; Joss Whedon, to find out which corners the show will box him into for Avengers 2; punctuation enthusiasts.
Ideal way to watch: In a movie theater in the summer of 2015, sandwiched in between all of the previous Marvel films and Avengers 2, your only sustenance an IV drip of nacho cheese sauce.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “It sounds like someone really wanted to make it spell S.H.I.E.L.D.”
The Originals (The CW, 9 p.m., debuts October 3)
What is it?: What if The Vampire Diaries’ resident baddie Klaus (Joseph Morgan) went to New Orleans to be bad in a different location? What if his family followed him? What if the writers kind of forgot to come up with anything else for Klaus to do once he got there, so they concocted a fairly nebulous power struggle with the so-called Vampire King Of New Orleans, who turns out to be his former progeny? What if they threw in a witch rebellion and a supernatural pregnancy to boot? Stir all of those disparate elements together in one big cauldron, and you have The Originals, a spin-off of The CW’s beloved vampire series. More grown-up than its sire and still working to figure out how to survive on its own accord, The Originals trades teen romance for themes of power, family, and responsibility, while maintaining the anything-can-happen feeling that makes The Vampire Diaries such a fun ride.
Target audience: Fans of the Byzantine mythology bits of The Vampire Diaries; Fat Tuesday revelers; people who are tired of Twilight-esque love triangles in their supernatural CW dramas.
Ideal way to watch: With a hurricane in one hand and some Mardi Gras beads in the other, while enjoying some gumbo and listening to your favorite Preservation Hall Jazz Band album, because this show is set in New Orleans and is adamant about reminding you of this.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “I’m obsessed with the gumbo, Jane-Ann.”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, 8:30 p.m., debuted Tuesday)
What is it?: In the grand tradition of Barney Miller, Parks And Recreation alumni Michael Schur and Dan Goor set up their workplace-comedy shop in a New York police precinct. The officers under their command: the year’s most fine-tuned comedic ensemble, headed by investigative cut-up Andy Samberg and no-nonsense captain Andre Braugher, with backup from faces familiar (Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti) and fresh (Stephanie Beatriz, Melissa Fumero). The setting presents challenges of tone (these are homicide detectives) and subject matter (the temptation to tweak every cop-show cliché in the patrol guide), both of which the pilot hurdles like a badass hero cop over the hood of a squad car—largely by putting the focus on characters and a setting that already feel lived in. By closing that case, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is on better footing than Parks was at this point in its life. (And by breaking away from the mockumentary format to pick up some action-movie tropes, it’s also more visually inventive.)
Target audience: Loose-cannon cops who don’t play by the rules; commanding officers who do everything by the book; anyone who can see the comedic potential in dwelling on the day-to-day interactions between those first two target audiences.
Ideal way to watch: As the break-time entertainment at your office’s next team-building exercise.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “I wish I could be assigned here full-time—you could not be further from the action.”
The Goldbergs (ABC, 9 p.m., debuts September 24)
What is it?: Showrunner Adam Goldberg Wonder Years-izes his life story, except with more yelling. A lot more yelling. Patton Oswalt steps in for Daniel Stern, narrating over Jeff Garlin as irritable dad and Wendi McLendon-Covey as harpy mother to three children (including young, nerdy Adam, who will apparently grow up into Oswalt somehow). Rounding out the family is George Segal as the playboy grandfather. The adult cast does all they can to make the characters likable, but the heartfelt moments in the pilot don’t hit hard enough to drown out all of the yelling. Familial dysfunction can be funny, but without the “aw, shucks” moments, The Goldbergs is just Thanksgiving for most people.
Target audience: People who wish VH1 was just I Love The ’80s on a loop.
Ideal way to watch: Alone, thanking a higher power that you no longer live with your parents.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “I raised a moron.”
Trophy Wife (ABC, 9:30 p.m., debuts September 24)
What is it?: This is easily one of the year’s most promising new shows. Naturally, ABC has saddled it with a name that’s unrepresentative of the program, an advertising campaign that makes it look absolutely awful, and a timeslot where no one will be able to find it, because that’s the way modern networks nurture talent. Malin Akerman plays the titular character, a party girl who ends up marrying high-powered lawyer Bradley Whitford and tumbling into his world of suburban comfort, as well as a family dynamic straight out of an acclaimed literary novel. Whitford’s two ex-wives—the terrific Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins—don’t believe in the relationship between Whitford and Akerman, and the show notably takes every character’s point of view seriously, which only adds to the laughs. Add in a cast of ringers, including Natalie Morales, and you’ve got a show that will almost certainly be the subject of a frantic campaign to have TBS pick it up in the spring.
Target audience: People who work for the ABC television network and, thus, will be the only people able to find the program; anyone who finds Russian novels too complicated and also wishes they had Malin Akerman singing karaoke; the webmaster of StrikingBradleyWhitford.com, to make screen caps.
Ideal way to watch: Stream it five years from now because you’ve always been meaning to get to it, then huff indignantly about how it was canceled after its first season.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Round up the kids and tell them to prepare for the worst.”
Lucky 7 (ABC, 10 p.m., debuts September 24)
What is it?: The lives of seven convenience-store employees are turned upside-down when they win the lottery in a joint pot. In an absolutely shocking twist, it turns out getting a bunch of money doesn’t automatically make you happy. The characters are forced to confront unpleasant truths about themselves and each other while managing a sudden influx of cash and attention. There’s a fun idea here, but the cast is a little lackluster, and as if to compensate, the interpersonal drama between them is ratcheted up to the point of melodrama. It feels like it’s not enough of anything—funny, dark, serious, gripping—while simultaneously trying too hard to be something, but who knows what that is. It’s not the strongest drama of the pilot season, but it could be worth a trip to the convenience store for a scratch ticket.
Target audience: Gambling law policymakers; anyone who self-righteously hopes that everyone who wins the lottery goes straight to hell after raking in their fortune; New York moms trying to convince their children to buy them a lottery ticket on the way home.
Ideal way to watch: While playing keno over and over again in a Rhode Island convenience store.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “You are a wonderful father, and I love you. But you are going to have to explain this to my mother, because I bought her a first-class ticket from Miami.”
Back In The Game (ABC, 8:30 p.m., debuts September 25)
What is it?: When her son doesn’t make the Little League team, Maggie Lawson, an ex-college softball player living with James Caan, her ex-Minor Leaguer father (a slightly grounded Kenny Powers), gets back on the field to coach a team of rejects. Lawson discovers some tension, romantic and otherwise, with the big-batted alpha-jock coach of the original Little League team, and she befriends the show’s all-too-secret weapon, the wealthy widow mother of one of her players. Four single parents make a theme, but the real focus is inspiration. Lawson and Caan will learn to value each other, the kids will learn to stand up to bullying, and we will learn to treasure Lenora Crichlow.
Target audience: People who want a weekly fix of [insert underdog sports movie here]; America, what with its misfit melting pot and baseball; people who leave the TV on between The Middle and Modern Family.
Ideal way to watch: In the background after a Little League game in your neighborhood, drinking Capri Sun, eating orange slices, and mingling with boring parents.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Now go out there and just have fun.”
The Tomorrow People (The CW, 9 p.m., debuts October 9)
What is it?: In every generation (and supernatural iteration), there is a chosen one. On The CW, that means a teenager, or at least a twentysomething trying to pass as one. When average teenage boy Robbie Amell (yes, related to Stephen Amell, star of Arrow, which precedes this) starts to hear voices, what his family thinks is the manifestation of the mental illness he inherited from his father turns out to be the manifestation of the supernatural powers he actually inherited instead. Like his father, Amell is part of the next evolution of humanity called the Tomorrow People, a group of teleporting, telepathic, telekinetic super-beings who are under siege by Ultra, a shadowy human-led cabal whose goal is to wipe them from existence. The Tomorrow People feels like at least 10 other things you’ve maybe seen before (and, considering it’s based on a British show which itself went through several permutations, you possibly have), but its top-notch production values and likable cast make the show just slick enough to turn this potentially banal familiarity into something compulsively watchable.
Target audience: Amell Wednesday enthusiasts; teenagers who look like they’re 30; 30-year-olds who look like teenagers; anyone currently being hunted by a shadowy cabal.
Ideal way to watch: Right after Arrow, in order to fully appreciate all of the Amell family’s superhuman genetic blessings.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “It’s kind of like a paranormal wet dream.”
Super Fun Night (ABC, 9:30 p.m., debuts October 2)
What is it?: Rebel Wilson and producer Conan O’Brien both have their names attached to this pilot, a sitcom that really puts the “situational” in “situational comedy.” Drawn from experiences in Wilson’s own life, the show is about three girlfriends who are comfortably losers until Wilson’s character gets a promotion, and the girls have to learn about having fun in places and situations that are… not inside on the couch. This got shuffled from CBS to ABC, perhaps because Wilson’s brand of humor is part raunchy, part purely upsetting. The result is a dark humor that is both appealing and awful, depending on how the joke lands. Weirdly, this is one of the few other shows that gets up into Girls’ demographic—it’s a show about girls trying to survive in New York, helmed by a particularly awkward comedian. It’s endearing in its strange way, and if the show can get a little more even, it could be a cult hit.
Target audience: The show wants it to be young women everywhere. It might be just young women who have watched Pitch Perfect 30 times.
Ideal way to watch: Alone on your couch on a Friday night, whenever a self-esteem attack is about to creep up. Add gin, count the rainbows, and queue up Pitch Perfect.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “You deserve this, Kimmie. You have excellent reading comprehension skills.”
Ironside (NBC, 10 p.m., debuts October 2)
Description of the show: The remake of the long-running Raymond Burr-starring drama features Blair Underwood as the wheelchair-bound title character. Bitter about his lot in life, yet brilliant at his job, Underwood is the paraplegic version of the antisocial investigators that populate television screens. Joining Underwood is his team of young, attractive cops, including lithe rookie Spencer Grammer, brash Pablo Schreiber, and banker-turned-cop Neal Bledsoe. Trailing Underwood is his former partner, Brent Sexton, who deals with the emotional fallout of Ironside’s injuries.
Target audience: People who didn’t think the original Ironside was sexy enough.
Ideal way to watch: With episodes of the original playing on YouTube, while at your standing desk.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “How are you dealing with this?” “Because I have no choice.”