Television

Fall's First Television Premieres May Make You Go 'Meh'

Four new shows launch Monday, including Young Sheldon.

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  • 'Young Sheldon'
    'Young Sheldon,' CBS

    Young Sheldon

    . CBS. Monday, September 25, 8:30 p.m.
  • Me, Myself, and I. CBS. Monday, September 25, 9:30 p.m.
  • The Brave. NBC. Monday, September 25, 10 p.m.
  • The Good Doctor. ABC. Monday, September 25, 10 p.m.

The hell with Charles Dickens. The new fall television season is certainly not the best of times, nor is it the worst of times (mostly, anyway, though CBS' 9JKL certainly gives pause). It is, perhaps, the most mediocre of television times since The Sopranos and Sex and the City established cable TV as a programming force in which a Nielsen rating of 35 could not be reasonably mistaken for the average IQ of the viewing audience.

Nineteen new series will debut on broadcast television between now and November 2. (Well, 18; The Orville, Fox's cartoon send-up of Star Trek, somehow slipped through security a couple of weeks ago, and if you're only learning this now, count yourself lucky.) And they are nothing if not diverse.

There are American Special Forces troops in Syria (NBC's The Brave), American Special Forces troops in Liberia (CBS' Seal Team), and American Special Forces troops in America (The CW's Valor). There are remakes from the 1970s (CBS' S.W.A.T), remakes from the 1980s (The CW's Dynasty) and remakes from the 1990s (NBC's Will & Grace, less a remake than a desiccated zombie clawing its way back out of the grave, since it features the same cast). There are mutants battling a fascist military government (ABC's Marvel's Inhumans) and mutants battling a fascist civilian government (Fox's The Gifted).

What there is not is a surefire breakout hit. (Though, to be honest, my track record on picking hits is almost as bad as that of actual network programmers. When I started writing about television in 2002, I never dreamed Survivor and The Bachelor would still be with us 15 years later, or I might have stopped right then and there.) Even DVR-worthy shows were spotted less frequently than virginal Kardashians. Wading through the pilots reminded me of the 2008 fall season that followed a five-month writers' strike that resulted in a lineup pockmarked with shows like Stylista, which made me want to eat the brains of pretty people, and the remake of Knight Rider, which made me feel like my own brain was being eaten.

Why things went so badly this year, I can't tell. One argument that will doubtless be advanced is that so-called peak television—the glut of production triggered by digital services like Netflix and Hulu joining the business with broadcast and cable channels—has stretched the Hollywood talent pool too far. That doesn't make sense to me; the biggest bucks, generally speaking, are still in broadcast TV, which should ensure that it gets the top talent.

Whatever the explanation, this is the couch-potato diversion we have chosen. All that's left to us is to clench our remotes tightly in our teeth as we ride boldly and well into the jaws of video banality.

The fact that NBC's The Brave is just one of three new series about U.S. combat operations in the Islamic world is, unfortunately, probably less a marker of television's follow-the-leader mentality than a depressing reminder that we've been at war there for 16 years, through three presidencies, and seem no closer to the end of the chapter than we were at the beginning.

Of course, that wouldn't be true if these TV troopers were unleashed over there. As movies like Hacksaw Ridge have grown more gruesomely honest about the quantity and quality of battlefield deaths during wartime, TV has gone the opposite direction. The Brave guys—err, persons; gender integration of combat units is a lot further along on television than it is in the Pentagon—are all but impervious to bullets and bombs.

And because of all their high-tech toys that can look and listen though walls, in most armed encounters, they mostly have inflicted Custerian body counts before the enemy even knows they're there. Just as prospective jurors are now cautioned that real-life police forensics lag well behind those of the CSI supergeeks, we may soon have a reality-check officer installed at each military recruiting station, explaining that, well, yeah, you might get killed. Really.

Of course, we're supposed to pretend that The Brave isn't all about the bang-bang. The show's novelty element is that it's a two-pronged story, in which the knuckle-dragging Special Ops grunts (led by Under the Dome's Mike Vogel, who admittedly gives pretty good macho swagger) are under the command of a DIA deputy director (Anne Heche) and two analysts back in Washington

Series creator and producer Dean Georgaris, whose judgment in these matters must be assessed in light of his coauthorship of the lunkhead screenplay for the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, seems to think this introduces a new line of creative tension. Weigh that against the opinion of the retired CIA operations officer who, when I asked him what he thought of the Tom Clancy books featuring fearless CIA analyst Jack Ryan, laughed. "Those analysts don't do shit," he cackled.

If the superpowers of the soldiers in The Brave are predictable, those of Shaun Murphy, the young, brilliant and autistic surgeon who's the title character of ABC's The Good Doctor, are depressing—because they reflect the collective judgment broadcast television bosses that their viewers are bigoted halfwits. Netflix's Atypical manages to be entertaining and insightful by focusing on an otherwise-ordinary teenager trying to overcome the barriers of his autism to cope with ordinary teenage problems. But at the broadcast nets, it's: Sure, guys, we could have a lead character who's autistic. But only if he's a total genius, because otherwise, he's just weird.

So Murphy (played heroically well, amidst the show's chaotic melange of cliche and outright idiocy, by Freddie Highmore of the A&E series Psycho) is not just an incredible surgeon with eidetic memory of human physiology, but a medical MacGyver who can drain fluid off a dying heart with a boxcutter and a bottle of bourbon.

His enigmatic demeanor serves him well in ignoring the truly awesome array of Grey's Anatomy outtakes cascading around him, including a chief surgeon and hospital director who hate one another, a staff with the arrogance of Hitler in Paris, and residents boinking in every supply closet. ("We don't have a relationship, we have sex," as one primly corrects another.) So the Democrats are right: There is something worse than Obamacare.

Shaun Murphy, in the view of some, is not the only autistic character getting his own show on the season's opening night. Many viewers (including a number in the autistic community) suspect that his OCDishness, his tenuous grasp of sarcasm, and general lack of empathy mean that Sheldon Cooper, the nerdiest of the nerd astrophysicists on CBS' long-running hit comedy The Big Bang Theory, has Asperger's syndrome. The show's producers refuse to even discuss the subject, so there's been no definitive answer to whether he's mildly autistic or simply eccentric.

One thing everybody will be able to agree on, though, is that the 9-year-old version of Sheldon in the Big Bang spinoff Young Sheldon is not ready for prime time or even the pre-dawn hours of a public-access channel. This prequel about Sheldon's childhood in rural Texas, surrounded by an uncomprehending family and a hostile town, is hideously misconceived.

Iain Armitage, the accused bully in HBO's Big Little Lies, does his best to play a kid version of the character that Jim Parsons has carefully crafted over more than a decade on Big Bang. But it's an impossible task.

Lines like "Jane Goodall had to go to Africa to study apes; I just had to go to dinner" are funny when delivered by Parsons to adult friends who can fire right back. Coming from a 9-year-old to his parents and siblings, they just sound cruel.

Likewise, it's often amusing to hear the Big Bang characters remember a childhood of getting wedgies and being stuffed in trash cans. But hearing Sheldon's twin sister (the hilariously bitchy Raegan Revord) matter-of-factly warn him the night before he starts the ninth grade that "you're gonna get your ass kicked in high school" will chill your soul. Did no one at CBS with an actual human heart watch this pilot before the network bought it?

The other new CBS sitcom, Me, Myself, & I, is easily the best fare of the night, and not just because the bar set by the rest of the shows is so low that a midget ant couldn't get under it. The story of a man reinventing himself after each of three personal catastrophes—as a teenager, in middle age, and as the Social Security checks start coming—is a funny, charming, and optimistic tale of rolling with the punches.

The 14-year-old version of Alex, whose principal joy in life is watching the Chicago Bulls play basketball (Jack Dylan Grazer, It) is upset when his single, flight-attendant mom marries a Los Angeles-based pilot, forcing him to leave his friends and settle among Laker fans.

That turns out to be a relatively petty concern compared to that of 40-year-old Alex (former Saturday Night Live regular Bobby Moynihan), an inventor whose life goes to pieces when his wife leaves him for another man and threatens to take his daughter along.

But the biggest gut-punch of all comes when 65-year-old Alex (John Larroquette, Night Court) must face his mortality after a heart attack.

Me, Myself, & I cuts effortlessly back and forth among its various timelines, much as last year's big NBC's hit This Is Us does. (The irritatingly obvious derivation from This Is Us is just about Me, Myself, & I's only real flaw.) Recurring characters—including a might-have-been girlfriend (Sharon Lawrence, Rizzoli & Isles)—weave in and out of his life, often watching his back, sometimes just spreading chaos.

Their cumulative effect is summed up by the story with which his Lakers-fan stepfather seems to taunt him: That his favorite basketball player, Bulls star Michael Jordan, missed about a thousand baskets each season. But he made about a thousand, too, protests Alex, which leads him to the real point of the story: "Keep shooting."

It's a lesson that, I'd guess, is pretty close to the heart of the show's creator and writer, Dan Kopelman, who has been involved with some of the most wretched sitcoms in the history of television. (If you don't remember 2006's Big Day, you just proven the existence of a just and merciful God.) If there was a Grauman's Chinese Theater Of Television Catastrophe, Kopelman's footprints would surely be out front in cement as one of the co-producers of Emily's Reasons Why Not, which ABC canceled after exactly 22 minutes of air time. But he kept shooting, and that sound you hear in the background of Me, Myself, & I is a pure swissssssh.