The End of Bad TV

Related: The Good, The Bad and the Unexpected

Listen to critics talk about this fall’s new broadcast series, and you might be surprised to hear that network TV is getting better. But that doesn’t mean that it’s getting good.

“The level of mediocrity keeps rising, which in a way is a good thing,” says Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR. This year, aside from two shows to be named later, “I haven’t seen a show that made me think, ‘God, why did they do this?’” a category, according to Deggans, that more than a quarter of new fall shows fell into as recently as five years ago. “At least we’re at the point now where the networks know they can’t put on stuff that’s crap. They really have to bring it. Even their most mediocre stuff, they have to try and bring it.”

When the case is made for the present being a golden age of television, the evidence cited often hails from cable or premium over-the-top networks. But the critical takeaway on next fall’s new series may be that we live, at least when we watch broadcast TV, in an age of “meh.” Critical opinion on most new series splits often, with few consensus winners or losers emerging. Where opinions do coalesce, they are rarely strong (with the exception of those two previously mentioned offending outliers; don’t worry, we’ll get there).

But the four top TV critics from across the country surveyed for B&C’s annual Critics’ Roundtable do agree emphatically on one point—the old network habit of scrambling to copy what worked elsewhere is alive and well. And one show appears to have inspired more copycats than any other.

The ‘Scandal’ Effect

“Everyone is trying to figure out what in Scandal is resonating with the public,” Deggans says. “There are a bunch of shows that are trying to come at that show or clone that show in different ways.”

ABC, home to Scandal, is among those attempting to duplicate its success—and the network’s answer appears to be to hand over a big portion of real estate to series creator Shonda Rhimes. Thursday nights on ABC will now kick off with Rhimes’ stalwart Grey’s Anatomy before transitioning into Scandal, followed by a new Rhimes-produced series, How to Get Away With Murder.

“It’s one of those shows that’s kind of hard to tell whether it’s going to be a mishmash or if it’s going to be entertaining,” says Deggans, who warns that Murder’s lead character, played by Viola Davis, is less sympathetic than Kerry Washington’s on Scandal. But Deggans praises ABC’s slate as the most daring: “They’re taking big swings with some of their shows.”

ABC has also made huge forward strides in diversity. The net’s fall schedule features two new comedies— Black-ish and Cristela—with mostly minority casts. (A third such series, Fresh Off the Boat, is scheduled for midseason.) Deggans is cautiously optimistic about Black-ish, but warns that Cristela deals in easy stereotypes of a Latino family. Joanne Ostrow, TV critic for The Denver Post, is more bullish.

“I would say that Black-ish and Cristela are probably the comedies that have the best shot of succeeding,” she says. Ostrow has not-so-kind words for another ABC comedy, Selfie, from Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek. “The pitch meeting might have been more entertaining than the show, with someone saying, ‘I’ve got it! We’re going to do Pygmalion, you know, My Fair Lady, with social media!’”

Critics could barely muster words for another ABC comedy, Manhattan Love Story, with most choosing to make a dismissive noise and change the subject. Galavant, a musical comedy scheduled for midseason, earned points for ambition, but no one was willing to bet on it having a long future.

Back on the drama side, The Whispers and Secrets & Lies mostly inspired wait-and-see attitudes. Procedural Forever was mocked for its premise—an immortal medical examiner is great at solving crimes, and also at appearing naked and alive in New York City’s East River every time he “dies.” But some speculated that audiences might find the series appealing thanks in part to lead actor Ioan Gruffudd.

Deggans has high praise for American Crime, an ensemble drama that tells the story of how a murder case impacts multiple lives, from 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley. “It’s really well done, and I just hope the series can continue the quality of the pilot,” Deggans says.

Let’s All Be There—Or Not

While ABC got credit for its “big swings,” NBC appears to have whiffed, critics say.

“I’m still struggling with the thought they’re the No. 1 network,” says Scott Pierce, critic for The Salt Lake Tribune. “I can’t see any place that I think they’ve made themselves stronger.”

Most of NBC’s slate is subject to varying degrees of skepticism or scorn. Dramas Allegiance and State of Affairs are regarded as treading unspectacularly in the footsteps of Homeland, The Americans and, yes, Scandal. But either one— especially State of Affairs, which will premiere with The Voice as a lead-in—could find an audience. Friday-night supernatural drama Constantine is viewed as a dopey extravagance, an expensive-to-produce series airing on a night when few people watch television.

But none of those shows get the critical blood up the way that The Mysteries of Laura, a procedural starring Debra Messsing as a police detective and working mom, does.

Mysteries of Laura. Man,” says Deggans. He is speechless for a moment, then continues: “Debra Messing must have pictures of somebody.”

But Ostrow believes that the show could find an audience. “People are going to hatewatch The Mysteries of Laura, right?” she says. “The hate-watching thing is going to follow Debra Messing from Smash.”

Almost as despised is new comedy Bad Judge, starring Kate Walsh as a, well, bad judge.

“CBS already did Bad Teacher, and it failed miserably,” Deggans says, speaking of last season’s canceled midseason comedy. “Why would you go back to the well and do Bad Judge? If Bad Teacher is successful, then you look like you’re just ripping off Bad Teacher. And if Bad Teacher failed, which it did, then you look like you’re ripping off a show that failed.”

Another NBC comedy, A to Z, cited as evidence of a trend this season in romantic comedies, drew little enthusiasm. The lone bright NBC spot was another rom-com, Marry Me, from David Caspe, creator of former ABC comedy Happy Endings. Most critics were warm to the show, but not necessarily confident about its future.

Happy Endings was a great show that never found an audience,” Deggans says. “I could see Marry Me having the same problem.”

Batman and Other Orphans

Fox’s announcement in May, a mere two weeks after its upfront presentation, that entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly would step down from his position, rendered the network’s fall slate an orphan. Whoever moves into Reilly’s office will be able to benefit from what works without having to take ownership of what doesn’t.

The most likely boon to the incoming regime is the Batman prequel Gotham, perhaps the most anticipated series on any network this fall. But the pilot had not been shown yet to critics—much like last season’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at ABC, which had big buzz despite the lack of viewing. It went on to underperform in the ratings, though it was renewed.

Fox’s other big fall play is the unscripted Utopia, which will air on Tuesdays and Fridays, leaving room for only three non-Gotham scripted efforts in the fall. One of those will be the 10-episode miniseries Gracepoint, an adaptation of the U.K.’s acclaimed Broadchurch, about an investigation into the death of a boy in a small town. Gracepoint has generated early buzz thanks to the casting of David Tennant, who starred in the original, alongside Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn. But Backstage magazine’s Mark Peikert warns, “Gracepoint does that network thing of taking a gritty premise and making it as gentle as possible.”

Peikert is also cold on drama series Red Band Society, about a group of ill teenagers living in a hospital. Ostrow, however, “can see it’s going to be popular with the Fault in Our Stars crowd,” referring to this summer’s romanticdrama film about two terminally ill teens. “If you’re a teenager who cried through that movie and book, you might really enjoy it.”

Nobody, however, is anticipating enjoyment from the multi-camera comedy Mulaney, starring comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney. Reilly compared the series to Seinfeld at the Fox upfront. He may not have done the show any favors.

“It is a total Seinfeld rip-off,” Peikert says. “It may as well have come out in 1994.”

Playing it Safe

CBS has only five new shows on its fall schedule—and, like Fox, only one comedy. The McCarthys, a multi-cam about a young gay man and his working-class Boston family, was regarded as more in step with the CBS comedy brand than last season’s single- camera offerings, The Crazy Ones and Bad Teacher.

Among CBS’ dramas, NCIS: New Orleans and fellow procedural Stalker were viewed as so close in structure and tone to CBS’ existing, solidly performing dramas that opinions seemed irrelevant. The shows either will or won’t succeed based on how well they execute an established formula. Opinions on a third CBS drama, Scorpion, ranged from lukewarm to cold.

But while critics agreed that this fall lacks an obvious breakout hit, the one show all were high on was Madame Secretary, starring Tea Leoni as a woman who becomes Secretary of State through an unlikely series of events. The premise has more than a whiff of Scandal about it, but critics praised its execution.

“I like Madame Secretary,” says Pierce. “My reaction to it was there are parts of this that just look silly, but I think I’m going to love it.”

Meanwhile, the biggest surprise, it appears, comes from CBS’ junior corporate cousin. The CW earned high marks across the board for its two new shows, superhero adaptation The Flash and comedic drama Jane the Virgin.

“I got those [DVDs] a while ago, put them in a pile I was eventually going to get to and just kept putting it off,” Ostrow says. “Then, when I saw them, they were better than a lot of the bigger network shows.”