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Fall TV Preview – The Best and Worst So Far

Fall TV Preview - The Best and Worst So Far

September, which means it’s time for a new television season. But the plethora
of new shows arriving this year can be equal parts gift and curse. Before you
start setting your DVRs and planning your premiere parties, here’s our
comprehensive guide to the best and worst shows for women this fall–as well as
five more where the jury’s still out.

The Best

1. Masters of Sex (Showtime): Lizzy Caplan playing sex researcher
Virginia Johnson, in a gorgeous-looking period piece from creator Michelle
Ashford and executive producer Sarah Timberman–do I really need to say more to
convince you? If not, Masters of Sex also has Michael Sheen playing Dr.
William Masters, fascinating gender role reversals in its romantic
relationships, and some of the smartest, steamiest sex scenes you’ll see
anywhere on television this fall. And most of all, the show is a welcome and
important break with the overwhelmingly male anti-hero stories that have
dominated prestige drama for a decade and a half, substituting scientific
curiosity and humor for violence and moral darkness. There’s ambiguity, for
sure–Masters of Sex would be boring if it didn’t aim to make you think–but
the characters’ dilemmas are ones contemporary women and men actually face,
rather than fantasies about cooking meth in the desert or running a New Jersey
crime family. Masters of Sex makes the ordinary seem extraordinarily

2. Mom (CBS): When we first meet Christy (Anna Faris), she’s crying
while making the rounds at her tables at the high-end restaurant where she
works as a waitress. “I think you’ll find our Napa Chardonnay to have
hints of vanilla and caramel with a silky-smooth finish,” she tells a
couple. “2004 was a great year for this wine. Not so much for me.” It’s
a silly gag, but it marks how promising Mom, which follows Christy as a
newly-sober single mother reluctantly reconnecting with her own mom, Bonnie
(Allison Janney), who’s also recently in recovery, that Faris pulls it off. By
turns goofy and astringent, Mom has real stakes, from Christy’s fragile
hopes to go back to school as a psychologist, to the possibility her teenaged
daughter might be pregnant, to the risks Bonnie poses to Christy’s sobriety and
hard-won calm. When Christy’s daughter Violet points out that she’d been dating
her boyfriend for a year, but “You only noticed when you stopped drinking,”
it hurts. And when Christy tells her AA meeting, “Mine taught me how to
beat a cavity search and still feel like a lady,” the laugh lands just as

3. Lucky 7 (ABC): Television doesn’t have a lot of heavier
women, working-class women, or women of color, and when characters in those
molds do appear, the shows they’re in are often unkind to them. But Lucky 7,
which follows a group of gas station employees who pool their money on a
lottery ticket and finally strike it rich, has all these kinds of women, and
treats them with sensitivity and complexity. There’s Denise Dibinsky (played by Lorraine Bruce, who starred in the British
original that Lucky 7 is based on) for whom the lottery win provides an
opportunity to stop trying to win the affections of a husband who ignores her,
and to start thinking about what will make her happy. Samira Lashari (Summer
Bishil) is an immigrant from Pakistan with hopes to rise from store clerking to
a career in music. And Leanne Maxwell (Anastasia Phillips) is a single mother.
Particularly given the rise of aspirational reality programming that paints
women as catty and materialistic, Lucky 7 is a nice change of pace,
exploring what happens when characters who have never had enough money suddenly
become financially secure, and what happens when characters who have growth
close through work lose their needs for the day job that initially brought them

4. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox): This police sitcom from the guys who brought
us Parks and Recreation, one of the most feminist comedies in recent
years, may be a star vehicle for Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher. But Braugher’s
character, NYPD Captain Holt, is one of the most intriguing gay characters we’ve
seen on television in a long time. Out before the department was ready to
really embrace a gay detective, Holt built a sterling service record, and when
the politics were right, finally got his own precinct, which he’s determined to
run perfectly, despite the antics of Samberg’s talented but goofy detective
Jake Peralta. In other words, he’s a black, gay Ron Swanson (the tough, libertarian
feminist played by Nick Offerman on Parks and Rec). And Brooklyn Nine-Nine
also boasts a terrific roster of young actresses, including relative newcomer
Stephanie Beatriz, who plays a terse, intimidating cop, Melissa Fumero as Amy,
Jake’s rival in the precinct, and Chelsea Peretti as the precinct’s secretary.
Let the crime-solving begin!

5. Sleepy Hollow (Fox): I never in a million years would have
anticipated putting a seemingly-inexplicable adaptation of Washington Irving’s
short story about colonial America set in the modern day on any sort of best
list. But Sleepy Hollow, which features Ichabod Crane as a former
Revolutionary War spy who wakes up in the present day after cutting the head
off a demonic warrior, and finds himself partnered with a local cop named Abbie
Mills (the always-welcome Nicole Beharie), is oddly compelling. Much of the
charm of the show comes from the back-and-forth between Ichabod and Abbie, who’s
alternately impatient with Ichabod and intrigued by him. In their initial conversation,
Ichabod’s totally confused by Abbie. “A female leftenant. In whose army?”
he demands to know once she gives her rank. “You’ve been emancipated, I
take it? From enslavement?” “Slavery has been abolished 150 years. It’s
a whole new day in America,” Abbie tells him wearily. But once they’re on
the road together, talking about the prevalence of Starbucks outfits and
digging up weird embalmed heads that were buried by witches, they make a great
team. None of this is to say that Sleepy Hollow makes sense. But it’s
far more entertaining than I expected.

The Worst

1. Dads (Fox): Where to start with this so-called comedy about two men in
early middle age whose fathers move home and begin making life hell for their
sons? Maybe with the fact that when Veronica (Brenda Song), the capable product
manager for the video game company run by a pair of doofus bros (Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green as Warner and
Eli) isn’t being asked to dress up in a sexy anime outfit to impress some
potential Chinese investors, she’s wearing nothing but see-through tops. Maybe
it’s the way that Vanessa Lachey, who plays Camilla, Eli’s wife, vacillates
back and forth between wild sex kitten and castrating shrew. Or the rampant
racism spouted by David (Peter Riegert)
and Crawford (Martin Mull). Green and the show’s producers tried mightily to
argue at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer that Dads
is meant to be sending up racism and sexism, rather than reveling in it. But
the way the studio audience laughs along with the rampant bigotry, rather than
in horrified response to it, makes clear that even if that’s what they
intended, Dads is failing miserably.

2. We Are Men (CBS): There’s a moment in this pilot about Carter
(Christopher Nicholas Smith), a man who gets left at the altar and moves into
an apartment complex where he finds a community of like-minded bros, where the
camera lingers on a rear view woman in a bikini and Carter explains in
voiceover: “She has nothing to do with this story, I just thought she
deserved a moment.” For a show about men supposedly liberating themselves
from the clutches of the women who have divorced them, caught them cheating, or
discouraged them from careers in high school basketball coaching, the freedom
Carter and his new friends find seems awfully depressing. Tony Shaloub, who
plays Frank, a much-divorced man who’s settled for sleeping with very young
Asian women, told me that “You see all this
anger, the men’s anger towards women, because I really believe that that is it’s
sort of misplaced. Their anger is really I believe it’s anger at themselves,
and that gets misdirected to their various exes and the women in their lives.”
I’d watch the heck out of a comedy that actually nailed that dynamic. But We
Are Men
, with its Asian-chicks jokes and ass shots, isn’t it. Men in search
of a sensitive comedy about their lives deserve better.

3. The Millers (CBS): It’s not so much that this family sitcom about
children who find themselves burdened with their parents when they divorce, is
offensive. It’s mostly that it takes Margo Martindale, a tremendously gifted
actress who has nailed wildly innovative roles in shows like Justified, where
she played a Kentucky crime boss, and The Americans, where her steely
fortitude as Granny, a Soviet spy-handler, makes her tough enough to stand up
to a beating from an enraged Kerri Russell–and reduces her to a farting
grandma with a Dirty Dancing fixation. Maybe her character will smooth
out, and the trials of being a newly-single woman in your sixties will get
treated as something other than an excuse to mock an older woman for not having
mothballed her sexuality. But right now, The Millers feels like it’s
trying to put on a clinic explaining why people think multi-camera sitcoms are
juvenile and unserious.

4. Welcome To The Family (NBC): A clash of classes and cultures, this
sitcom ponders what would happen if a Latino valedictorian (Joseph Haro) from
an upwardly mobile family got his dummy party girl honey (Ella Rae Peck)
pregnant just as they were finishing high school and headed off to college. The
constant attempts to communicate just how airheaded Molly is lends the entire
show a dislikable air. How are we supposed to care about the parents who raised
her (a wholly wasted Mike O’Malley and Mary McCormack) to be self-absorbed and
careless. And why, exactly, are we meant to think that ditching their college
plans, getting married as teenagers, and raising a baby is supposed to be good
for these kids? Throw in some Firey Latino stereotyping, and a lot of bad sex
jokes, and stick a fork in this one.

5. Betrayal (ABC): I hate to say a bad word about any project
that director Patty Jenkins is involved in, so let me begin by saying that the
pilot for Betrayal looks very lovely indeed. But beyond that, Betrayal
feels like a signal that ABC’s somehow lost its way. If you want to make a sexy
drama for women, you’ve got to do more to convince us that Sara (Hannah Ware)
and Jack (Stuart Townsend) are irresistible to each other than having her give
him picture framing recommendations, and writing them some dialogue about how
they both like water. And ABC would do well to remember the lesson of Scandal,
which is that it’s nice for your female main character to have things to do,
rather than simply becoming a pawn in larger games played between powerful men.
Right now, Sara’s pulled into a conflict between her lawyer husband and Jack’s
powerful father by coincidence, and the frame for the pilot shows her being
bundled, seriously injured, into an ambulance. A network that constantly touts
its affluence female audience should be able to do better than this.

And Five We’re Waiting On

1. Super Fun Night (ABC): We badly want Australian comedienne Rebel
Wilson to find her place at the center of the screen after great supporting
turns in Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect. But in this sitcom about
a group of nerdy friends who try to expand their social lives, she beats up on
her own character so hard that it’s painful to watch.

2. The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC): On the plus side, there’s Breaking
‘s Betsey Brandt as Annie, the sharp teacher wife of Mike Henry (Michael
J. Fox), a newscaster who quit because of his Parkinson’s Disease, but is
considering getting back in the game. In the minus column? The show isn’t
actually funny through its first three episodes, and Mike’s sister is a
delusional social climber, while his daughter is a self-righteous nag.

3. Back In The Game (ABC): Michelle Betts stars as Terry
Gannon, a single mother moving back in with her father (James Caan), who finds
her place in her new community as the coach of an underdog baseball team. There’s
promise in Terry’s partnership with a loopy, wealthy woman with a potentially
gay son, but the show needs to figure out how it’s going to generate storylines
week to week.

4. Trophy Wife (ABC): Much funnier than its title would suggest,
this sitcom from writers Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins stars Malin Ackerman as the third wife of
Bradley Whitford. But instead of painting Ackerman’s Kate as a gold digger, or
her predecessors as shrews, it’s clear that Whitford’s Brad is the person with
problems. And watching Kate try to be a good stepmother to teenagers long
before she’s ready suggests that this could develop into a charming and
unconventional family comedy.

5. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC): Joss Whedon’s given us
plenty of terrific female characters in the past. But his latest venture in the
Marvel Universe features a flatly-written hacker (Chloe Bennet), a cutesy girl
scientist, and an Asian martial arts expert who almost never speaks. I want to
give him the benefit of the doubt, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will need
to get stronger in its first outing if it doesn’t want to feel dangerously

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