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 second half covers new shows airing Thursday through Sunday. Check out part one from yesterday, which covers Monday through Wednesday.
Note: All pilots screened for this feature are works in progress. They may improve thanks to recasting or reshooting or magic. But probably not.
Derek (Netflix, 3 a.m., debuted Thursday, September 12)
What is it?: After a long break from playing characters not named “Ricky Gervais,” Ricky Gervais returns as Derek, a worker in a struggling, underfinanced retirement home. Derek’s own mental status is ambiguous: The cold-hearted bureaucrats who invade the home and make life difficult for its overworked manager Kerry Godliman take him for autistic, but Godliman explains that he just seems that way to them, because he’s actually “too nice” for this world. Before its premiere in Britain last spring, the show was criticized by those who assumed that Gervais was making fun of the mentally challenged. In fact, the show is heartfelt in its treatment of Derek and his friends (who include Karl Pilkington as his co-worker and landlord) as unappreciated heroes in a cold, uncaring world. It’s also sentimental, grossly condescending, and, even on its own gooey terms, totally unconvincing: Gervais may be a comic genius, but he doesn’t have the widest acting range in the world, and playing a sweet simpleton is outside it.
Target audience: People who say the three greatest movies ever made are, in this order, Forrest Gump, Forrest Gump, and Forrest Gump; anyone whose favorite Jackie Gleason performance is Gigot.
Ideal way to watch: While listening to The Ricky Gervais Show on your iPod, and fantasizing about what Gervais and Pilkington would say about this show, if someone else had made it.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “It’s desperation, isn’t it?”
Once Upon A Time In Wonderland (ABC, 8 p.m., debuts October 10)
What is it?: ABC has always had trouble programming this timeslot, so why not kill time with a spin-off miniseries from one of its biggest hits? We haven’t seen a full pilot yet, just a shortened, 20-minute pilot presentation, but what’s there is surprisingly involving, with newcomer Sophie Lowe proving a strong center as the famous Alice, now reimagined as a normal human girl who will do anything to reunite with her lost love. It has all the usual cheesiness of the parent series but a stronger quest and narrative drive. Plus, it has John Lithgow as the voice of the White Rabbit, making for the perfect joke about the Venn diagram intersection between Dexter’s Trinity Killer and The Unwritten’s Pauly Bruckner we just haven’t figured out yet.
Target audience: People who enjoy special effects that still look sort of like they were taken from one of the Myst sequels; anybody curious to see if cast member Naveen Andrews seems sort of over it when he has to play Jafar; employees of the Disney Store.
Ideal way to watch: This, of all shows, seems like a good one to wait for the end, then watch in one long go. Then you’ll know if it lived up to the promise of its casting, and you can reward ABC taking a chance on an unusual show structure by giving it terrible ratings!
Context-free dialogue from the pilot presentation predicting how this will do: “It’s for my father. He thinks I’m insane.”
The Millers (CBS, 8:30 p.m., debuts October 3)
What is it?: Following his divorce, TV reporter Will Arnett revels in newfound freedoms—specifically the freedom that comes from not telling his parents, Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale, that his marriage is at an end. Unfortunately, coming clean has unintended consequences: It splits up Bridges and Martindale, the latter of whom shacks up with Arnett while the former moves in with second-favorite child Jayma Mays. Thus ensues a series of generational clashes, at least one of which is fart-related, an indication that creator Greg Garcia didn’t abandon his giddily off-color sense of humor in the Raising Hope writers’ room.
Target audience: Divorce-recovery support groups; Freudian theorists; fart-joke enthusiasts.
Ideal way to watch: As a phone conversation with your own parents, the script broken up into answers to questions like “Now who’s that?” “Why did the parents split up so quickly?” and “Why isn’t J.B. Smoove arguing with Larry David?”
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Relax, it’s a fart. Some people think they’re funny.”
Welcome To The Family (NBC, 8:30 pm, debuts October 3)
What is it?: Culture clash is never not funny, romantic pairings of opposite personalities are never not funny, and teen pregnancy is very hip these days. So why not find a way to combine all three? Mike O’Malley and Mary McCormack play the loving Caucasian parents of a dippy but adorable daughter (Ella Rae Peck) who discover soon after their daughter’s high school graduation that she’s pregnant. Ricardo Chavira and Justina Machado play the loving Latino parents of a naïve, over-achieving son (Joey Haro) who find out soon after their son’s high school graduation that he’s gotten someone pregnant. Can the fundamentally decent but strong-willed adults find a way to embrace their respective differences and find mutual respect as they help guide their children through the various crises of young love? If the genial, moderately funny, intensely sentimental pilot is any indication, yes, yes they can, although O’Malley and Chavira will definitely be dicks to each other along the way.
Target audience: Former TGIF viewers looking to recapture the magic; pastel enthusiasts; easily frightened white people.
Ideal way to watch: Sitting in an Applebee’s, waiting for the appetizers.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot prediction how this will do: “That took a sharp left.”
The Crazy Ones (CBS, 9 p.m., debuts September 26)
What is it?: Robin Williams in a show! Robin Williams in a show! What’s that? You mean what’s the show about? We’re sorry, We can’t hear you over Robin Williams in a show! It’s true that the primary reason to watch The Crazy Ones is just to watch Williams doing his thing, but shockingly, the show kind of works around him, although it might be a little too zany to fly. It’s a careening single-camera sitcom, at times unhinged, at other times, heartfelt. Williams plays an advertising executive; Sarah Michelle Gellar, his daughter and business partner. James Wolk, who was so great as Mad Men’s Bob Benson,also stars as another ad man; he’s a surprisingly strong counterweight to Williams’ constant attempts at scene-stealing humor. Gellar doesn’t have much to do just yet except be the straight-woman for everyone else, but when everyone else includes Williams, Wolk, and a cameo by Kelly Clarkson, this breezy sitcom is a surprising breath of fresh air from usually staid CBS.
Target audience: Well, it’s CBS, so we’re going to guess baby boomers. But let’s go with baby boomers who (think they) are hip and with it!
Ideal way to watch: With the red clown nose from Patch Adams on your face and the remote poised to mute the television as soon as it’s 9:30 p.m., because that’s when Two And A Half Men starts.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “It ain’t the meat; it’s the motion.”
Reign (The CW, 9 p.m., debuts October 17)
What is it?: Hey, you know who’s been needing the CW treatment for some time now? Mary, Queen of Scots, whose real life story can be easily looked up on Wikipedia. However, said Wikipedia-ing, you might realize the real Mary, Queen of Scots, would make for a pretty shitty TV show, what with the fact that her intended died of an ear infection and she didn’t really do all that much. So The CW steps into that breach with a series that takes some… let’s call them liberties with history, in favor of surrounding fresh-faced star Adelaide Kane with courtly intrigue, a bunch of fresh-faced ingénues to serve as her court, a hunky Nostradamus (yes, a hunky Nostradamus), Megan Follows from Anne Of Green Gables, and hints of werewolves and shit. It’s as if The CW wanted to make its own version of Game Of Thrones, but also wanted to make sure that it was one zit sticker sheet short of a rousing round of Girl Talk. It’s likely the weirdest thing coming to the air this fall, and that takes some doing, given the existence of Sleepy Hollow.
Target audience: Teenagers who are about to bomb their history papers; people with crushes on Nostradamus; werewolves and shit.
Ideal way to watch: Multi-part process: First: Are or were you a history major in college? If yes, then proceed to the end of this paragraph. If no, then go back to school, taking on surely crippling loans to get that history degree. Then, make sure your DVR is set to suck up every episode of this show. Finally, once you have a job as a history teacher, sit back, and let Reign teach the class for you. You’re welcome.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Tell me, Nostradamus! What have you seen?”
Sean Saves The World (NBC, 9 p.m., debuts October 3)
What is it?: Sean Hayes plays a divorced, gay dad raising his 14-year-old daughter Sami Isler full-time after her mom vanishes to parts unknown. Hackily sweet father-daughter moments are broken up by Sean’s brassy, mean mom Linda Lavin; his wacky co-workers Megan Hilty, Echo Kellum, and Vik Sahay; and his jerky rich boss Thomas Lennon. The cast’s pedigree is high, and creator Victor Fresco was behind two brilliant cult comedies: Andy Richter Controls The Universe and Better Off Ted. So it’s especially baffling all that talent produced this limp, lifeless comedy that feels like it was coughed right out of the ’80s sitcom factory (with the contemporary update of Hayes playing a gay dad). Hayes, who dialed it so far up for eight years on Will & Grace, plays things boringly straight, and only Lennon is given any chance to vamp. It’s especially sad given what a good ensemble NBC and Fresco have assembled. Like most of NBC’s sitcom pilots this year, Sean aims for the glory days and comes off, at best, a pale imitation.
Target audience: People who think Modern Family is too edgy; everyone who wanted a Jewish take on Holland Taylor from Two And A Half Men; fans of ludicrously large sitcom-apartment sets
Ideal way to watch: In stony silence, repeatedly sighing after every half-hearted punchline.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Oh, you have a cockatoo.”
The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC, 9:30 p.m., debuts at 9 p.m. on September 26)
What is it?: Beloved actor Michael J. Fox returns to his sitcom roots amid a very public battle with Parkinson’s disease by starring in a single-camera comedy as beloved network news anchor Mike Henry, who is himself returning to his news roots amid a very public battle with Parkinson’s disease. Get it? But what the show is really about is Henry’s family—led by Betsy Brandt as Fox’s unflappable, funny wife—and how its members have adapted to his diagnosis, one awkward Parkinson’s joke at a time. The show mines Fox’s real Parkinson’s side effects for plenty of humor, which feels mighty uncomfortable right up until the point where it becomes clear that the fine line between warm family comedy and edgy uncomfortable humor (with a wacky workplace setpiece to add an additional laugh source) is exactly what the show is aiming for. The Michael J. Fox Show isn’t a cohesive whole yet, but all the pieces are definitely in place for it to potentially get there in the future.
Target audience: People who want to see if Betsy Brandt will wear a color other than purple; people who think this is a secret reboot of the Back To The Future franchise; Republican Family Ties fans who want to see if a grown-up Alex P. Keaton kept his conservative ideals.
Ideal way to watch: Live and with commercials if you’re a Nielsen family, please, NBC begs you.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “If a lady can have a baby in a tree, then this is nothing.”
MasterChef Junior (Fox, 8 p.m., debuts September 27)
What is it?: On the cooking-competition series MasterChef, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and his sidekicks Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich select a group of home cooks from a huge audition pool, then put them through a series of grueling elimination tests. On this spin-off, which (like the original) is based on a British series, the amateur cooks competing for the chance to be the last one standing (and receive a prize of $100,000) are all between the ages of 8 and 13. The series will start out with 24 contestants, but after the first audition challenge, that number will be cut in half. (After that, the mentors will eliminate two kids every week.) All you need to know is that you’ll get to see a dozen children process the news that they’ve just humiliated themselves on national TV and blown their chance to start themselves a college fund, then you’ll get to see the rest of them on the receiving end of Gordon Ramsay’s drill-sergeant act while trying to work with sharp knives and open flames.
Target audience: People who are getting tired of writing letters to CBS demanding a second season of Kid Nation.
Ideal way to watch: With a child you love, who will come away from the experience with a new love and respect for you, based on your refusal to let him or her commandeer the kitchen and try making that Prosciutto Di Parma salad that Ross Lynch mentioned in some magazine profile. If you have no child of your own that you love, rent one for the occasion.
Context-free dialogue from the trailer predicting how this will do: “Wow.”
Dracula (NBC, 10 p.m., debuts October 25)
What is it?: Forget everything you think you know about Dracula. Well, okay, he’s still a vampire, he still has that whole “blood fetish” whatever going on, and he’s still got the hots for Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw). But this Dracula has the smoldering adequatulence of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and he’s in Victorian-era London, disguised as an American businessman with an eye toward using his supernatural powers and influence to take down the mysterious Order of the Dragon. The show takes familiar elements of Bram Stoker’s novel and re-imagines the lot as a kind of supernatural romance-thriller soap opera, with a lot of foggy streets, gas lamps, and cleavage-thrusting dresses. Daniel Knauf’s (Carnivàle) involvement is promising, the last twist is clever, and Rhys Meyers’ inability to appear period appropriate for once serves him well; hopefully more interesting characters will develop along the way.
Target audience: Tudors fans who are none-too-picky about where they get their fix; people who think love based on reincarnation is romantic and not just a dopey, meaningless writers’ trick; people who have been living in a cave for 20 years and still give a damn about vampires.
Ideal way to watch: Drunk on absinthe.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot prediction how this will do: “How did I ever let you talk me into this?”
Last Tango In Halifax (PBS, 8 p.m., debuted September 8)
What is it?: Two elderly Scots, played by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid, rekindle a 60-year-old romance after they happen to find each other on Facebook. She’s aristocratic. He lives on a farm. Their families are worlds apart. It’s a classic tale of star-crossed lovers! With British accents and surnames like “Buttershaw”! And hey, did you know there’s a Halifax in Scotland? (It’s the original one.) Last Tango In Halifax is a classic British import, with that stiff-upper-lip drama that’s so endearing to American audiences, softened by the affection Jacobi and Reid feel for each other and the unexpected comedy of their reunion. The first episode has an actual screwball car chase, which is exactly what it needs to step over the line from sentimental to heartwarming family drama. It’s as cozy as warm cookies and milk. Plus, the show was a hit in the United Kingdom and a second season is already in production—so invest without worrying that it’ll be ruthlessly snatched away.
Target audience: Everybody who cried during the final scene of The Notebook; the Buttershaw clan; retirees who have just learned about Facebook; Mark Zuckerberg.
Ideal way to watch: With parents or a live-in romantic partner; make sure to have hot chocolate and a box of tissues at hand. Bonus points if you rewatch Downton Abbey in the same sitting.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Well, people bother with you more if they think you’re senile.”
The Paradise (PBS, 9 p.m., debuts October 6)
What is it?: Ambitious country bumpkin Joanna Vanderham travels to the big city where she gets a job at The Paradise, a department store owned by Emun Elliot, who is just as slithery as his name sounds. Based on Au Bonheur Des Dames by Émile Zola, The Paradise switches the action from Paris to an unspecified town in Northern England, where Elliot hopes to crush smaller niche shops (including one owned by Vanderham’s uncle, who might as well be named Symbol Of The Dying Middle Class) with his one-stop shopping concept. Masterpiece Classic regulars will welcome the familiar, near-ubiquitous string-filled score, Victorian garments, and upstairs-downstairs dichotomy. While neither subtlety nor characterization are The Paradise’s strong suit, the cast is amiable enough, although it never inspires Downton-level devotion (unless you happen to think discussions of merchandising are akin to finding a Turk dead in your bed).
Target audience: People who thought Mr. Selfridge needed a lot less Jeremy Piven; people who find the rise of retail positively scintillating; your grandmother who watched Masterpiece Classic before it was cool.
Ideal way to watch: With a loosened corset, a healthy stash of tea sandwiches, and a bathtub full of Earl Grey.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “The application will proceed in the usual manner, Miss Lovett. We will write to you.”
Betrayal (ABC, 10 p.m., debuts September 29)
What is it?: Hannah Ware and Stuart Townsend begin a torrid affair after bonding over ennui at a party. They each hail from a powerful Chicago family—her husband is a rising political star, his adoptive family runs a mobbed-up corporation—but they find themselves on opposite sides of a murder case. Which could be exciting and sensual at some point in the future, perhaps when there’s some context for the Damages-style in media res opening. Until then, the big draw is James Cromwell, bald, goateed, and soap-patriarch evil as the mogul who raised Townsend into the lawyer/heavy he is today.
Target audience: People who wish Brothers And Sisters were a little less racy; Revenge fans in need of a comedown before bed; apologists for Andrew Lincoln’s accent.
Ideal way to watch: Between a teapot on the stove and a wall of drying paint while fantasizing about the life you could be leading.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “This show is over. Put another one on.”
Masters Of Sex (Showtime, 10 p.m., debuts September 29)
What is it?: By critical consensus, this would seem to be the most promising drama pilot of the fall (although that’s somewhat of a backhanded compliment given the weak season), Yet Showtime’s Masters Of Sex is not the lurid nudity-fest one might expect given the title and network. Exploring the lives of the groundbreaking Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers in the field of studying human sexuality, the show (set in the late 1950s) is nuanced, subtle, and clever when it could so easily be a Mad Men knockoff with more boobs. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan play the titular pair, and their performances in the pilot bode for a fascinating series.
Target audience: People hunting for the next prestige premium-cable drama that will be discussed at dinner parties; those who watched Kinsey’s methodical approach to sex and thought, “I want more of that, please”; anyone who doesn’t understand why a woman might fake an orgasm.
Ideal way to watch: With two copulating friends hooked up to EKG monitors. (You can stay behind the surgical curtain if they want privacy.)
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “You’re saying watch out for the dildo?”
Witches Of East End (Lifetime, 10 p.m., debuts October 6)
What is it?: In a fall weirdly stuffed with supernatural romances, Witches Of East End is the supernatural-est, complete with a scene where Jenna Dewan-Tatum—as a young woman who is unaware of her status as a powerful witch—runs down a hall in slow-motion after sharing an earth-shattering kiss with a handsome young man she first met in a dream and roses explode all around her. Based on a novel with a completely nutso backstory (we won’t spoil it here, but go look it up; we’ll wait), Witches Of East End pushes everything right up to the edge of being too much, grins, then floors the gas pedal and roars off into the stratosphere. It’s all way, way too much, but it’s filled with good actors, including Julia Ormond, Mädchen Amick, and Rachel Boston, who’s been the best part of any number of bad shows—including maybe this one?
Target audience: Anyone who can’t wait three days for the debut of American Horror Story: Coven; children of powerful witches who don’t yet know they’re witches; people who giggle when they say Jenna Dewan-Tatum, because, c’mon, it’s kinda funny when you say it out loud, right?
Ideal way to watch: With your free Spellcasting, Jr., app pulled up on your iPad so you can cast magic along with the witches from the comfort of your own home.
Context-free dialogue from the pilot predicting how this will do: “Am I the only one who finds this completely exhausting?”
Hello Ladies (HBO, 10:30 p.m., debuts September 29)
What is it?: Based on the stand-up special of the same name, Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) plays a fictionalized version of his gawky self, a British expat navigating the L.A. dating scene. Aside from that stand-up special, it’s Merchant’s first major TV effort without longtime collaborator Ricky Gervais, though he’s teaming with two other writer-producers well versed in the rhythms of cringe comedy and past Merchant-Gervais projects: busiest men in TV comedy Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, of the American Office and concurrently running Trophy Wife for ABC. Though HBO had yet to distribute the pilot at deadline, preview footage of Hello Ladies demonstrates the same attention to awkward details of Merchant, Eisenberg, and Stupnitsky’s name-making efforts, underlined by its own small, quiet sadness.
Target audience: Suave, sophisticated ladies’ men (who are actually none of those descriptors) and the women who tolerate them; anyone still retching with laughter from Eisenberg and Stupnitsky’s all-time-great Office script, “Dinner Party”; supporters of U.S.-U.K. business relations.
Ideal way to watch: As a tutorial supplement for an online-dating service.
Context-free dialogue from the trailer predicting how this will do: “You’re dealing with an absolute master here. What can I say?”