There's a scene in a feeble, weirdly out-of-date sitcom called Welcome to The Family that nails the discombobulated state of comedy in the U.S. culture today. A character says: "When did this become about me having issues with Latinos? I have an issue with that Latino."
The show posits neighbourhood tensions between the Yoders and the Hernandezes as ripe for laughs – uptight Anglos plus laid-back Latinos add up to culture clash. Teen Yoder daughter falls for hunky teen Hernandez son. You'd think it was Romeo and Juliet, and the two families were sworn enemies; it's all so retro, you would never know there is a black president in the White House.
There are countless scenes in Fox's Almost Human, ABC's Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The CW's The Tomorrow People that dwell on the pros and cons of humans who have super powers and cops who are half-robots. The upshot is that the world's problems (or the USA's problems) might be solved if only everybody thought of the world (or the USA) as a video game.
The new fall season on American TV, both network and cable, is a mess of ideas, some noble and some freakishly bad. That applies to both the fictional content and to the broader strokes of television as an industry. With more that 50 new series airing, there are more than the usual number of boneheaded decisions.
If there's a loose, overriding theme to the new shows, it's generational conflict. This is in contrast to last season, when paranoia and pessimism were the connecting motifs in such shows as Revolution, The Following, 666 Park Avenue. This season stumbles into existence with a plethora of comedies and dramas about parents moving in with their kids, and vice-versa. And from the wacky comedy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox) to the serious conspiracy thriller The Blacklist (NBC), there is tension between old-timers and youth. Kids today don't understand the seriousness of things.
Facing stiff competition from cable and other digital platforms, the mainstream networks are endeavouring to adapt. Some new series do indeed look like video games aimed at a young audience. Others will be short-run dramas. ABC's Betrayal will, like Fox's The Following and CBS's Under the Dome, have about half the number of episodes of a season-length drama. The issue isn't only cost: It's easier to maintain a higher overall production standard with fewer episodes.
As often, the seriousness tends to reside in cable shows, of which there are fewer during the fall. But across the networks, there are escapist shows that deliver both insight and enjoyment. There are awful sitcoms that illuminate cultural preoccupations, and there are returning cable and network series that will either flourish or wither in quality. This is a great time for television, and from the vast array, something always emerges to bring us both solace and understanding.
Here's a guide to what's coming. But be aware: It's not a comprehensive list, and it deals with U.S. networks and cable only.
SHOWS TO WATCH
Masters of Sex (Sundays, TMN/Movie Central, starts Sept. 29)
So a gynecologist and a former nightclub singer begin research into sex, all in the name of science. That synopsis has a measure of truth, but it doesn't do justice to the richness of this series based on the vastly complicated lives and work of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). The wonderfully acted 12-episode period drama is funny, provocative, poignant and compelling. Where did today's understanding of arousal come from? From decades of observations and laboratory work by these people.
The Michael J. Fox Show (Thursdays on NBC, Wednesdays on Global, starts Sept. 25)
Returning to TV, Fox deftly and cannily plays twist on himself – a TV news reporter who returns to work years after leaving to deal with Parkinson's disease. What's impressive is the wit – there isn't an ounce of maudlin here. A key ingredient is the plot twist that his family is sick and tired of him being at home. There's sly, dry wit at Fox's expense, and Betsy Brandt (Marie Schrader on Breaking Bad) is gloriously sharp as Fox's wife. The pilot has the feel of a series already long in production that's smoothly, sweetly funny.
The Blacklist (Mondays, NBC/Global, starts Sept. 23)
The reason to watch is James Spader. He's in excellent, bristling form as a long-missing master criminal who turns himself in to the FBI and offers to help catch terrorists on one condition: He only works with rookie agent Liz Keen (Megan Boone), who is mystified by his interest in her. Much rapid action, killings and bombings happen in the first episode. This is a curious concoction – part Homeland-lite and part Silence of the Lambs. But Spader, in the early going, is fabulous to watch.
Mom (Mondays, CBS/City, starts Sept. 23)
This sitcom explains why a vast audience still watches network TV. It's slick, dumb, predictable and funny. It comes from the mind of Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men, Mike and Molly), so you know what you're getting – sharp and sometimes crude jokes that push buttons. Anna Faris plays a recovering alcoholic, a single mom trying to pull her complicated life together. Mostly, she has bitter arguments with her acid-tongued mother (Allison Janney), and that makes good, generational comedy.
Sleepy Hollow (Mondays, Fox/Global, starts Sept. 16)
A crazy take on Washington Irving's short story casts Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) as a soldier sprung through time, from the American Revolution to today, pursued by evil figures that include the Headless Horseman. He teams up with a sheriff (Nicole Beharie) to fight evil and, hopefully, bring his wife from the past to the present, too. Wildly imaginative, it has an intriguing subtext as Crane observes the 21st-century version of the country he fought to create.
Hello Ladies (Sundays, HBO Canada starts Sept. 29)
Cringe comedy at its most raw and, occasionally, poignant. Stephen Merchant, who worked with Ricky Gervais onscreen and off in so many projects, plays a tall, clueless English guy trying to find love and fun in L.A. The portrait of the city's shallowness is as vicious as the mockery of men's delusions.
SHOWS WITH PROMISE
Hostages (Mondays, CBS/CTV, starts Sept. 23)
One of those so-called high-concept series, this thriller begins with a situation meant to hook you instantly: A surgeon (Toni Collette) is about to operate on the U.S. president when her family is taken hostage by an ex-FBI agent (Dylan McDermott) with nefarious plans. The pilot creaks, but the plot twists offer potential for OMG entertainment.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays, ABC/CTV, starts Sept. 24th)
Heavily-hyped, this sort-of spinoff from Marvel's The Avengers movie franchise comes from Joss Whedon, who made marvellous TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Here, a "team of highly skilled agents investigates extra-normal and superhuman people and events worldwide." Superheroes and aliens are involved. It has wit and visual panache, but some will rightly dismiss it as kid's stuff.
The Crazy Ones (Thursdays, CBS/City, starts Sept. 26)
Robin Williams is back on series TV playing a crazy/sensitive genius heading up a Chicago ad agency with his daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar). The disappointing pilot rarely allows Williams to let his manic comedy flow, but the chemistry with Gellar is good. And if Williams is given freedom, this could be smart, funny, escapist comedy. Maybe.
Trophy Wife (Tuesdays ABC/CTV, starts Sept. 24th)
A former party-hearty young woman (Malin Akerman) falls for an older guy (Bradley Whitford) and becomes his third wife. She also becomes step-mom to his three kids, and tangles with his ex-wives and their families. Akerman is the key here – she's very funny and goofy, and if the screwball aspects continue, the show can have great charm.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Tuesdays, Fox/City, starts Sept. 17)
Some critics say it's like Barney Miller, but it is more surreal than that. In a Brooklyn cop shop, a young, nut-bar detective (Andy Samberg) clashes comically with a straight-laced, by-the-book boss, played by the great Andre Braugher. Your tolerance for madcap might be stretched, but the silliness is a pleasure.
AVOID AT ALL COSTS
We Are Men (Mondays, CBS, starts Sept. 30; Sundays, Global, starts Sept. 29) is about four new bachelors (Tony Shalhoub, Jerry O'Connell, Kal Penn and Chris Smith) recovering from divorce while living together in an apartment complex where the cool gals gather. Meant to mock male self-indulgence. Instead it's just creepy.
Dads (Tuesdays, Fox/City TV, starts Sept. 17) might be rescued if it is totally revamped from the pilot, which is utterly crass. From Seth MacFarlane, it's a sitcom about two video game developers (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) whose lives are disrupted when their dads (Peter Riegert and Martin Mull) move in with them. Loads of talent here, and utterly wasted.