Television

Fall's New Primetime Shows Launch with an Inconsequential Whimper

The crumbling remains of network premiere season tumble out of the gate Monday.

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  • Bob (Hearts) Abishola. CBS. Monday, September 23, 8:30 p.m.
  • All Rise. CBS. Monday, September 23, 9 p.m.
  • Prodigal Son. Fox. Monday, September 23, 9 p.m.
  • Bluff City Law. NBC. Monday, September 23, 10 p.m.

For years, observers (though not many participants) have wondered when broadcast television would get rid of its annual fall rollout of new shows. Cable TV manages to do without it. And with programs debuting all year round, the broadcast model no longer leans on it.  Sinking all those promotional resources into a single, highly competitive week doesn't make much sense.

The answer to the question of when broadcast TV will wise up may be, it already has. There are only 22 new shows this season, split among among five networks. And if you start eliminating spinoffs (Mixed-ish, meet Batwoman) and remakes (Nancy Drew, meet Kids Say the Darndest Things), well, it seems the fall rollout already has one desiccated foot in the grave.

If all this is making you feel like you've just been chatting with Debbie Downer, just wait until you've seen some of the shows. Lesbian vigilantes! Self-actualizing choirs! Middle-aged daters! A guy falls in love with his nurse but she's Nigerian! If this TV season had a battle cry, it would be "Death to all American brain cells!"

Monday, the first season's first day, is wretchedly typical. You can choose from that  unfunny-as-it-sounds falling-in-love-with-a-Nigerian sitcom (admit it, you thought I was making that one up); two smugly self-celebratory progressive dramas; and a cop drama about a son of a serial killer who becomes a cop who hunts serial killers that's so weirdly stupid that it might actually be good. Or, then again, just weird and stupid.

The serial-killer saga is Fox's Prodigal Son, starring Tom Payne (The Walking Dead) as Malcolm Bright, an NYPD profiler, and Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex), as his physician pop Martin Whitley, better known as "The Surgeon" for the skill with which he carved up a score or more of his victims. Malcolm was about 10 when his father was arrested.

When Prodigal Son begins, he's 30 or so, and the two have been estranged for a decade.  But back when Malcolm was a wee college lad learning the criminology biz, he used to go by the criminal nuthatch where his Lecter-esque dad was locked up to pick up some tips on serial killers and trade the newest Jeffrey Dahmer jokes.

"It's so much fun to talk shop!" exclaimed his father on one of these festive afternoons. But you know how rebellious kids are. Eventually Malcolm walked out, never to return—until now. A copycat killer is reenacting some of The Surgeon's greatest hits.

Not everybody thinks these consultations are a good idea. The FBI fired Malcolm rather than let him return. "We're afraid you might suffer from certain psychotic inclinations, not unlike your father's," explains a kindly supervisor. It's not out of the question: Malcolm takes half a dozen pills each day to control palpitations and night terrors, unsuccessfully. Could it be that, as a little boy, he knew more about his father's after-hours work than he let on?

However unlikely, Prodigal Son's premise is not uninteresting. (Something quite similar worked pretty well for Showtime's Dexter for eight seasons, after all.) And the show's later scenes have some real power.

But the early going is badly undermined by frequent and hammy flashbacks to childhood scenes between Malcolm and his father. The result is a campy tinge that often makes Prodigal Son play like dinner-theater melodrama.

Even so, it's practically Playhouse 90 compared to its Monday competition. CBS's All Rise and NBC's Bluff City Law are nominally different legal dramas, but I'm surprised their unctuously noble lefty characters are cut from such identical cloth (union-milled and -cut, of course) that I'm surprised they don't get confused and wander into one another's courtrooms to deliver their pompous homilies.

For instance, on All Rise: "There's a constitution to protect!" barks newly appointed Judge Lola Carmichael (Simone Missick, who lately has been playing one-armed superhero Misty Knight in the Marvel Comics TV shows) on her way to her courtroom

Now compare that to Bluff City Law: "The world's running out of heroes!" shouts attorney Elijah Strait (Jimmy Smits) at his lawyer daughter Sydney (Caitlin McGee, You're the Worst), demanding that she stop defending corporate clients and join his poverty-pimping team of class-action warriors.

All Rise is set in Los Angeles, though as much as it makes of Judge Carmichael being black, you'll be forgiven if you think it's actually 1955 Mississippi. Its main conviction seems to be that judges should function not as neutral arbiters of the law but as assistants to defense lawyers and that empathy, rather than evidence, should govern judicial outcomes.

Bluff City Law takes place in Memphis, where Sydney Strait repents and joins the family firm, only to spend every break in the courtroom crying in the bathroom because she just cares so damn much for her new clients, unlike the Darth Vader corporations she used to represent. She and her partners hold hands, exchange little Post-it notes with messages like "Change The World!" and daintily dab their faces with tissues to absorb the integrity oozing from their pores. This is all less enthralling than it sounds.

So is Bob (Hearts) Abishola, an improbable whiff from the shop of Chuck Lorre, whose producing credits include The Big Bang TheoryMike & Molly and Two and A Half Men. Why he thought this show was, well, a show, is the biggest television mystery since who-shot-JR.

The premise of Bob (Hearts) Abishola is simple: A white Detroit shoe manufacturer (Billy Gardell, Mike & Molly) has a heart attack and wakes up in love with his Nigerian ER nurse (Folake Olowofoyeku, Transparent).

What happens after that is, pretty much, nothing. They have zero chemistry. They do not go on a date. They do not say anything funny. Though the laugh track does go bonkers when Olowofoyeku asks Gardell, "Would you like me to insert a catheter in your penis?" At least, I hope it was a laugh track.

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