The 2014/15 Season
Fall TV: Robert Bianco's Top 10 new shows to watch
By Robert Bianco, USA Today
is two for two this fall.
Batting a thousand, of course, may not be all that remarkable when you've only taken two swings at bat. But what does count as remarkable is that those two series, Jane the Virgin (Oct. 13, Mondays at 9 ET/PT) and The Flash (Oct. 7, Tuesdays at 8 ET/PT)
, are more than just home runs. They're the two best broadcast pilots of the new season. And that, mind you, on a network where the word "best" has most often been followed by "avoided."
New shows, to be sure, are the very definition of "works in progress": Some will build on their pilots, and some will collapse. But it's always better to start off well, and these two shows start off best.
Not entirely coincidentally, Jane and Flash encompass the season's two most important trends: an increase in diversity and an influx of comic-book-based shows. With its focus on a Hispanic girl and her extended family, Jane joins such shows as ABC's Black-ish, Cristela and the upcoming Fresh off the Boat in going beyond diverse ensembles to actually delving into the minority experience in America. As for Flash, it combines with NBC's Constantine, Fox's Gotham and ABC's midseason Agent Carter to swell the ranks of shows featuring DC or Marvel characters, now represented by Agents of Shield and Arrow.
Still, reducing Jane to a trend hardly does justice to an hour-long soap that is both the year's best new comedy — which isn't saying all that much — and best new pilot, which is. It's a series that also seems set to make a star out of Gina Rodriguez, who won most critics over with her performance.
Rodriguez stars as a virginal young college student and devout telenovela fan who becomes pregnant after an accidental artificial insemination. That's a shock not just to Jane but to the two devoted women with whom she lives: her strict grandmother and her wilder mother, who became pregnant at 16 by a man Jane doesn't know — but we do.
Based on a popular Venezuelan series,Jane uses its outlandish soap concept both to mock the form and to explore the appeal telenovelas have to their largely Spanish-speaking audience. (Jane's grandmother barely speaks English in the show.)
But at heart, Jane isn't a spoof; it's a sweet, funny show about a family struggling to find its way through an impossible situation while finding its way in America. And that's a struggle with which many can identify.
You're not really meant to identify with the struggle facing young Barry Allen, the fleet-footed hero at the center of the season's best new drama, The Flash. But you are meant to enjoy it, which is what may lift Flash above Fox's more ambitious but also more ponderous Gotham. There's a lightness to The Flash that's missing from most of TV's other superhero hours, and it makes for a welcome change.
For that, give some of the credit to Grant Gustin (Glee), who is easily appealing as the slightly geeky Barry. Spare some for the show's concept, which allows Barry to be happy with his powers rather than haunted by them.
And then give the rest to the Flash himself — if only because he isn't burdened by the sometimes crushing weight of fan demands faced by any new adaptation of Superman, Batman or Spider-Man. He can more readily slip under the radar — just like his network, at least for now.
If the promise of Jane and Flash hold true, that radar may have to readjust.
The Rest of the Top Ten:
3) Black-ish (ABC, Sept. 24, Wednesday, 9:30 ET/PT)
Anthony Anderson stars as a prosperous African-American executive who worries that his children are losing their cultural identity in a comedy that harkens back to those All in the Family days when shows had social goals to go with their comic ones. The pilot may not be as funny as the show will need to be to prosper, but for awhile, great intentions, and a strong cast led by Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne, may be enough. There may be better shows out there than Black-ish, but if there's one show that would improve TV just by working, this is it.
4) Gotham (Fox, Sept. 22, Monday, 8 ET/PT)
Welcome to Batman: The Early, Early Years, in a series that turns the spotlight on a pre-Commissioner Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie). In the course of a dark, rainy and sometimes surprisingly violent hour, this newly hired detective will cross paths with the men and women who will become Batman, Catwoman, The Riddler, Poison Ivy and The Penguin (in a particularly impressive turn by Robin Lord Taylor). He'll also encounter the excess hype and scrutiny that faces any show in the Dark Knight canon, along with the doubts of those who may wonder why they should watch a Batman show without Batman. Those may be the hardest villains to vanquish of all.
5) How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, Sept. 25, Thursday, 10 ET/PT)
For those who find Grey's Anatomy too staid and Scandal too wild, Shonda Rhimes offers a midway course: a hot-but-not-quite-boiling legal thriller driven by a murder mystery and fueled by sex. The wonderful Viola Davis stars as a law professor and practicing lawyer who uses her top students as clerks, giving them practical experience in the ways of homicide trials. As they may or may not be burying a person they may or may not have murdered, it's possible their experience became a bit more practical than the prof intended.
6) Madam Secretary (CBS, Sept. 21, Sunday, 8 ET/PT)
When the secretary of State dies, the president convinces CIA analyst-turned-college professor Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) to take the job. Elizabeth is bright, outspoken and incapable of being managed, to the dismay of her staff (including Tony winners Bebe Neuwirth and Patina Miller) and the delight of her husband (Tim Daly). The plot isn't always convincing, but Leoni most definitely is — and if nothing else, it's nice to see a show about a woman who is good at both her job and her personal life.
7) Forever (ABC, Sept. 22, Tuesday, 10 ET/PT)
Some premises are better left unexamined. Like, say, that of Forever, an entertaining twist on the standard TV detective story that stars Ioan Gruffudd as a New York medical examiner with impressive deductive skills. As well they should be: He's been honing them for more than 200 years, thanks to an act of bravery that left him immortal. Oh, he dies — multiple times in the pilot alone. He just keeps coming back to life, with Judd Hirsch at his secret-keeping side.
8) Constantine (NBC, Oct. 24, Friday, 10 ET/PT)
NBC joins the comic-book craze with Constantine, an adaptation of the Hellblazer series that inspired the Keanu Reeves feature film. Matt Ryan stars as a sharp-tongued Brit fighting to save the world from demons and rescue his own lost soul from their hellish homeland. The pilot was more enjoyable than that description might suggest, but the show is being reshaped — so someone clearly didn't think it was enjoyable enough.
9) Scorpion, (CBS, Sept. 22, Monday, 9 ET/PT)
This solid CBS procedural is based on a true story, but you can be forgiven if you spot some comic-book inspiration in its tale of a group of eccentric, poorly socialized geniuses who band together to fight high-tech criminals. Elyes Gabel stars as the chief misfit, with Robert Patrick as his government minder and Katherine McPhee as a waitress who serves as a "normal world" interpreter. Think of her as Big Bang's Penny and Gabel as a crime-fighting Leonard, and you won't be too far off.
10) Cristela (ABC, Friday, 8:30 ET/PT, Oct. 10)
ABC has a knack for finding talents, from Rebel Wilson to this season's Cristela Alonzo, who deserve their own shows. Unfortunately, as Wilson learned with Super Fun Night, the network doesn't always have a knack for shaping shows around them — leaving Alonzo with a loud, somewhat clumsy comedy that can best be considered a work in progress. Still, the work could be worth it: She's funny and the show's focus on a Mexican-American woman pushing past societal and family expectations is timely.