BY INKOO KANG
There's more television today than at any other point in the medium's history, but there's a good chance you're stuck in a TiVo rut. That's because, with a handful of exceptions, this fall has delivered a truckload of mediocrity and dead-on-arrival trends. (Goodbye, "rom-sit-coms" like the already canceled A to Z and Manhattan Love Story. Farewell, hopefully forever, comedies about women whose defining characteristic is their poor job performance, like spring's Bad Teacher and autumn's Bad Judge.)
Fortunately, there are a few new shows with fresh perspectives, novel conceits, encouragingly diverse casts, and/or deep emotional undercurrents worthy of your Hulu queue. And, of course, there are the season's letdowns -- not necessarily the worst the small screen has to offer, but the ones that suffer the greatest lapse between expectations and execution. Here are this fall's five best new series -- and its five biggest disappointments.
Best New Shows
Transparent Amazon's flagship series is hands down this season's finest (and most binge-bait-y) show: a profoundly moving, funny, sexy, wistful, and intelligent revolution of the half-hour format. Representation issues aside, Jeffrey Tambor is flawless as Maura, a heartbreaker and an inspiration, whose late-in-life transition from man- to womanhood ("My whole life, I've been dressing up like a man") sparks existential crises in her sex-obsessed, selfish-to-the-point-of-self-destructive adult children: sanctimonious mother-of-two Sarah (Amy Landecker), needy music agent Josh (Jay Duplass), and aimless perma-student Ali (Gaby Hoffman). Judith Light co-stars as Maura's ex-wife, the other matriarch of this close but sharp-tongued family that never let their slim chances at happiness keep them from reaching for everything. (Amazon, all episodes made available for streaming on September 26)
Jane the Virgin If Transparent is the fall's best new show, Jane the Virgin is its most charming. Starring indie darling Gina Rodriguez (Filly Brown) as 23-year-old waitress Jane, this smart telenovela parody improves upon big sister Ugly Betty by grounding its madcap plot twists in recognizable emotions and detailed, consistent characterization. A medical mix-up lands a stranger's sperm inside sex-averse Jane, except it's no stranger after all, but her former flirting partner Rafael (Justin Baldoni), who also happens to be her married, now-infertile boss. Jane's desire to do the right thing by everyone involved -- she's keenly aware this is Rafael's last chance to have a biological child -- overcomes the series' seeming social conservatism, which fades with each new installment in favor of a rather nuanced, if not strictly progressive, sexual politics. (CW, debuted October 13)
Black-ish One of the fall's most popular new shows, Anthony Anderson's Black-ish is the natural successor to Will Smith's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (And yes, it's really taken this long for an heir to take over The Fresh Prince's throne.) In its best episodes, like "The Nod" ("It's the internationally accepted yet unspoken acknowledgement of black folks around the world…to let each other know, ‘I see you, bro' ") and "Crime and Punishment" (about intergenerational clashes about spanking), Black-ish achieves its ambitious mission: to question with thoughtfulness and humor how to raise upper-middle-class black children who are conscious of their forebears' struggles. The show also deserves credit for allowing co-stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne to share the spotlight, respectively, as the refreshingly zany mom and the hilariously cantankerous grandpa. (ABC, debuted September 24)
Selfie This update of Pygmalion overcame one of the worst pilots of the fall season to become a surprisingly witty look at millennial culture. Karen Gillan is dazzling as the motor-mouthed Eliza Dooley, a sales rep with thousands of social-media friends and followers but no one to take care of her when she's laid low by the flu. Representing the anti-youth POV is prematurely grouchy Henry Higgs (the always amiable John Cho), who in turns borrows some of Eliza's joie de vivre and tech savvy to cobble together a life outside of work. Unfortunately, the low-rated sitcom will likely be canceled soon, which will deprive us of gems like this brilliantly wry exchange at a nerdy book club Eliza attends in a Goodwill dress: "Sorry if I smell like dead people." "That's how you know it's vintage!" (ABC, debuted September 30)
The Chair Though it's framed as a reality competition between two first-time directors, each adapting the same script according to his/her sensibilities, The Chair is really a study of artistic success and the innumerable obstacles that can get in the way thereof. This fascinating experiment in filmmaking isn't just about the differing visions between Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, though, but about issues concerning the future of independent cinema itself: old media versus new, questionable funding opportunities like product placement, movies as brand extension, the recurring issues of gender. The overconfident Dawson and the neurotic Martemucci make for fascinating (if not particularly likable) subjects faced with new challenges like leadership and collaboration. The competitive aspect is a foregone conclusion -- Dawson's 10 million YouTube subscribers will most certainly elect him the winner by a huge margin -- but the stakes still seem sky-high, especially since Zachary Quinto, who fulfills the Tim Gunn role along with American Pie producer Chris Moore, recently declared Dawson's film "egregiously offensive" and took his name off that film. (Starz, debuted September 6)
Most Disappointing Shows
Marry Me The rom-com formula of keeping apart two people clearly meant for each other was translated for the small screen decades ago through the "will they or won't they?" trope. Thus all the heraldry of the "rom-sit-com" this fall season seemed overblown -- an assessment all but confirmed when Marry Me arrived last month. Boasting a more experienced cast than the other two examples of its genre, this irritating, contrived, tone-deaf mess tried to make us care about whether a long-term, cohabiting couple (Casey Wilson and Ken Marino) would walk down the aisle or not. The majority of Americans who aren't married would agree: Let's annul this fiasco. (NBC, debuted October 14)
The Affair Also squandering its more-than-capable central pair is Showtime's Montauk-set he-said-she-said adultery drama, which has progressed ploddingly and failed to make the most of its bifurcated format, with novelist Noah (Dominic West) recalling his side of the story and waitress Allison (Ruth Wilson) her side in a possible murder investigation. It doesn't help that Noah is a cliché to his bones, a middle-aged father of four who sees himself as a "good guy" seduced by a blue-collar seductress, or that he comes across as such a creep in Allison's telling that we're rooting against the inevitable. (Showtime, debuted October 12)
Mulaney Brilliant comic John Mulaney belongs in the history books -- as a textbook example of how stand-up doesn't necessarily translate to sitcoms. The pilot lifts many of its jokes nearly verbatim from his New in Town special, but the gags are inserted into the new scenes awkwardly, even carelessly, while the spontaneity in Mulaney's delivery disappears completely. Nor can the comedian make up for his suddenly unfunny stories with acting chops; he could take an emoting lesson or two from Keanu Reeves. The multicultural cast, including Seaton Smith and Nasim Pedrad as a fellow comic and a "crazy" personal trainer, respectively, also inadvertently highlights how much of Mulaney's comedy is dependent on mimicking women and people of color. That's how bad Mulaney is: The show retroactively mars the stand-up source material. (Fox, debuted October 5)
Cristela Also built around a comic is the Friday-night throwback Cristela, which would have fit in perfectly alongside Family Matters on ABC's TGIF programming block of yore. Cristela Alonzo faces the opposite problem that John Mulaney does; she's so astoundingly entertaining on her namesake show -- gregarious with a hint of bite, able to take the hoariest punchlines and make them funny again with a thudding, deep-throated delivery -- that the series ends up an exercise in frustration. She's clearly above the square scripts with insult-hurling family members and wacky, barging neighbors (Gabriel Iglesias), and yet it's obvious the TV-raised Alonzo relishes the multi-cam form. Fortunately, enough thorns (she calls cheerleading part of "the great Texas tradition where girls learn they're not quite as important as boys") are embedded among the hugs to stick it out on a slow night. (ABC, debuted October 10)
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How to Get Away With Murder There's just not enough Viola Davis in the newest show from Shonda Rhimes. Davis is as magnetic as ever as law professor Annalise Keating, who discovers her husband's affair while conducting one of her own. Too much of the running time is wasted on her student protégés, not a one of whom stands out as a compelling character, even when they're trying to cover up a murder. The frequent flash-forwards to their struggle to burn a dead body on the busiest day on campus, combined with the already ADD-rewarding editing, take away even more screen time from Davis, and those scenes' sense of urgency lacks the passion or the humanism to make us care. As a series with Rhimes's name attached to it, Murder does offer thrilling moments of gender, racial, and sexual diversity, as when a male law student performs analingus on another man during a bar hookup in the pilot or when Davis removes her wig just before bed (apparently at the actress's behest). But sometimes an hour is just too long to wait for progress, and in the era of infinite content, smart TV-watching means knowing what to catch up on via clips and memes the next morning. (ABC, debuted September 25)
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.