Not every new show of the 2013-2014 network television season has gotten its chance on air yet — J.J. Abrams’ “Almost Human” premieres this Sunday on Fox, and there’s still the slate of midseason series set for early next year. But we are deep enough into fall that others, like “Ironside,” “Lucky 7” and “Welcome to the Family,” have already been canceled. It’s not been an easy season for the big networks — once dominant in the ratings, they’ve seen their numbers chipped away over recent years, and of late they’ve been regularly outdone by cable hits like “The Walking Dead” and “Duck Dynasty.”
More pressingly, as TV changes and the number of ambitious dramas and edgy comedies on not just cable but also new outlets like Netflix and Amazon grows, the big networks have struggled to keep up in terms of quality, with many of this year’s new series looking particularly old-fashioned or stale in the face of so much competition. Not every series is going to be “Breaking Bad,” but that’s sure not a dire thing — there’s still space for episodic dramas or workplace comedies, for comfort food and domestic hijinks. While cable aims for bleakness and grand scope, here’s a shout-out to five new series from the current season I’m still watching and am sticking with as long as their networks stick with them, because sometimes you need goofy cops and supernatural crime solving.
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” ABC
I’ve written about why I’ve found the Marvel spin-off series to be mildly disappointing, despite the involvement of geek TV king (and “Avengers” director) Joss Whedon. But the ABC drama is still watchable, and often feels just on the verge of finding its groove, especially in the most recent episodes as it’s attempted to flesh out its characters beyond the basic types of “stoic” and “kooky.” Being part of the brand that’s currently ruling popular culture has been a mixed blessing for ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which has initially seemed more concerned with fitting itself into an already established (and better funded, movie star-filled) corporate/cinematic universe. At least Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, the main carryover, is an intriguingly quirky protagonist packing a mysterious recovery — was he resurrected? cloned? — and an even-keeled outlook at the comic book-style craziness his team regularly encounters. The show’s also included some unexpected takes on developments that looked to be going in a more clichéd direction, like exposing Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) secret agenda quickly rather than drag that out over the season, and complicating questions about following the rules versus breaking them.
One of this season’s solid hits, this crime drama from Jon Bokenkamp (“The Call”) is too silly to be taken seriously, but is frequently deliciously schlocky thanks to one of TV’s weirdest conceptions of what the FBI is like and a giant ham sandwich of a performance from James Spader as dangerous criminal turned informant Raymond “Red” Reddington. Red is a gentleman villain, a fixer with ties to everyone and ice water in his veins. He has an impossible familiarity with every terrorist, assassin and other type of felon on the international circuit — his Christmas card list must be epic — and yet he’s ready at the drop of a hat to help out rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), though the connection the two have is only slowly being revealed. The producers of the show have denied similarities to “The Silence of the Lambs,” but the central relationship has the same appeal, that of the all-powerful monster brought over to the forces of good through his courtly attachment to a young woman. And while casting Tom Noonan as a guest baddie hardly helps the show get away from the Hannibal Lecter comparisons, he was enjoyably sinister as the adorably named corpse disposal artist “The Stewmaker.”
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Fox
The odd thing about “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is that it’s Andy Samberg, the show’s biggest star, its SNL alum and occasional movie star, who’s been the weakest link. Samberg isn’t bad as talented goofball Detective Jake Peralta, he just seems to be in a much broader, more exhausting show than the rest of the cast, his character more cartoon than man. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is a workplace comedy, and the work being done happens to be crime fighting — the cases are just there to support storylines involving which of two local bakeries makes the best pie, or who’ll win out in a bet involving whether or not Peralta can steal Captain Ray Holt’s (Andre Braugher) Medal of Honor. Samberg has toned it down a bit as the show’s gone on, and his dynamic with the ferociously deadpan Braugher is always a pleasure. The show seems best suited to be a genuine ensemble that allows for some of the other very entertaining characters, such as Stephanie Beatriz’s scowling Detective Rosa Diaz and Terry Crews’ macho but sensitive Sergeant Terry Jeffords, to also have time in the spotlight.
“Sleepy Hollow,” Fox
Many critics’ favorite guilty pleasure of the season is a little more aware of its own outrageousness than entirely works for me, but it’s certainly taken a premise that’s completely out there and committed to it, and has already earned a second season renewal. Tom Mison plays Ichabod Crane, who dies in 1781 fighting apparently supernatural beings during the Revolutionary War, only to be revived in the present day as the Headless Horseman he battled, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, also returns. Nicole Beharie (“American Violet”) is Lt. Abbie Mills, the matter-of-fact modern day cop saddled with warding off the end of the world with Ichabod, and there’s a witch in there too. The horror-comedy cases of the week are fine, but it’s the moments in which Ichabod experiences culture shock that are the show’s most lovable, as when he got outraged about the amount of sales tax slapped on his purchase of a doughnut — “How is the public not flocking to the streets in outrage? We must do something.”
“Trophy Wife,” ABC
Kate Harrison (Malin Akerman), isn’t really a trophy wife, an ornamental element to be doted on and flaunted, much like a sports car. She’s the third and, yes, youngest of lawyer Pete Harrison’s (Bradley Whitford) spouses, but she’s a legit stepmother learning to take part in caring for her husband’s three children, and she’s also a legit mess trying to grow up and figure out what being an adult is like. And Marcia Gay Harden’s Dr. Diane Buckley isn’t just the ball-breaking first wife, and Michaela Watkins’ Jackie Fisher isn’t just the flaky second. “Trophy Wife” is actually a funny and surprisingly wise portrait of a modern blended and reblended family, and it’s generous with its characterizations of its three main women while allowing them to be flawed and to have to work at their relationships with one another. Åkerman’s a charming lead and Harden’s entertainingly formidable, but it’s Watkins who’s become the show’s secret weapon as an oblivious womanchild with a good heart and boundary issues. “Trophy Wife” is, under the hijinks, earnest about the messiness of learning to incorporate people you’re suddenly tied to but may have nothing in common with into your life.