- Magnum PI. CBS. Monday, September 24, 9 p.m.
- Manifest. NBC. Monday, September 24, 10 p.m.
- FBI. CBS. Tuesday, September 25, 9 p.m.
- New Amsterdam. NBC. Tuesday, September 25, 10 p.m.
The rollout of the fall broadcast TV season was, once upon a time, all glitter and gala. Thirty new shows (on just three networks!), a special issue of TV Guide, three times its usual size and stuffed with glamorous color studio photography of all the stars, and a dazzling array of novel ideas. A newspaper reporter who rooms with a secret Martian! A guy with a docile and very buxom female robot! The genetically groundbreaking concept of identical cousins! A dead mom who comes back as an antique car! (I said the ideas were dazzling, not necessarily good.)
These days, the rollout feels more like the series finale of The Walking Dead, with rotting zombies sharing the screen with a handful of survivors so terrified and beaten down that they've lost their minds. Of the 20 or so new shows (on six networks!), more than half are remakes, reboots or rapacious rip-offs. There hasn't been such a mass uprising of the dead since Mayor Daley stopping overseeing Chicago elections.
Hollywood has always robbed its own graveyards, of course, though rarely with such profligate abandon. The really appalling thing about the 2018 fall season is how stupidly tepid most of it is. Shows about neurotic moms and grumpy dads are not just clichés but clichés old enough to be closing in on Social Security.
Overall, this is the worst lineup of new shows since 2008, when a long strike by the Writers Guild led to a schedule so dismal that when CBS canceled one (The Ex List, in which a woman, on orders of her psychic, systematically re-dates all the guys she's dumped over the years) after four episodes, it went ahead and made six more because there was nothing to replace it with.
Technically speaking, the new season got underway a couple of weeks ago when with the debut of Fox's ruined-life sitcom Rel. But the real action starts on Monday with a couple of dramas—one a remake, one interesting and yet with some elements that will terrify you, and not in a good way—and continue for a month, when The CW debuts the third, yes third, incarnation of its teen fangbanger drama The Vampire Diaries. (Has nobody over there got a wooden stake?) Believe me, you'll have lost interest long before that.
The show that looks intriguing during the first big week of the rollout is NBC's Manifest, which is the epitome of what Hollywood calls high-concept story-telling. A plane takes off from an airport in the Caribbean one afternoon and, despite a little rough weather, arrives seemingly intact in New York ... five and a half years later. (Call the Reason switchboard to vote for which airline gets a punchline inserted here.)
If that sounds weird but not particularly threatening, a few minutes of Manifest will change your mind. During the time the passengers were missing and assumed dead, children grew up and, often, away. Parents died, leases expired, landlines disappeared, mortgages lapsed, careers ended, marriages crumbled, romances withered. (The first episode doesn't even try to grapple with the meta-changes: Imagine Barack Obama was president when you got on a plane, and Donald Trump when you got off.)
Among the victims caught in this temporal nutcracker is the Stone family. Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh, not so convincing as a bloodless CIA operative in The CW's Valor last season but excellent as a confused and bitter cop here), gets her job with the NYPD with no problem. But her cop fiance has married her best friend. Her brother Ben (Josh Dallas, Once Upon A Time) get some great news: The leukemia that was almost certainly going to kill his young son is now possibly curable. (In an odd coincidence, the cure is the result of research done by a scientist who was on the plane with them.) But his grief-stricken mother has died.
As the family tries to sort out all this emotional whiplash, there are disturbing undercurrents running through the story. One is the extreme government interest in exactly what happen to the plane, understandable but oddly intense. Another is that the survivors—at least some of them—start literally hearing voices in their heads that seem to suggest they've not got at least vague precognitive abilities. Exactly what happened up there in the air, and who or what caused it, is turning into an obsession for the Stones.
Fraught with hints of conspiracy both secular and spiritual (Who messed with the plane? God or the CIA? And whatever the answer, what was the motive?), Manifest bounces around like a pinball machine with bumpers marked "sinister," "heartbreak," and "redemption," and scores high whichever one it touches.
But when watching, it's impossible to forget some other high-concept shows that began with mysterious misdoings aboard an airliner, like the crash of Oceanic 815 that launched Lost and the plane from Germany that landed with everyone aboard melted into a messy glop in the first episode of Fringe. (The synchronicity in Manifest's character back stories, and its occasional numerological cross-references, give it a particularly distinct echo of Lost.)
Both those shows eventually turned into criminally incomprehensible mashups of time travel and alternate universes as their creators tried to slip out of the nooses they fashioned themselves by launching a show long on concept and short on plot planning. If Manifest's producers (led by Jeff Rake of The Mysteries of Laura) don't have a detailed outline of where the show is headed, the destination could well be infuriating disaster.
A couple of other shows debuting on Monday and Tuesday nights don't just have echoes of past programming, they're remakes, all of which miss the point of the originals.
Magnum P.I. is an updated but fairly faithful recreation of Tom Selleck's popular 1980-88 detective series. Alas, the 1980s version had a couple of things going for it that this newbie doesn't. One is Selleck, who in his first major role somehow managed to be wry and macho at the same time. The newbie, Jay Hernandez (Scandal) comes across more like Tom Berenger in The Big Chill, playing a wimpy actor in a Magnum-like show.
The other was timing. The first Magnum came along in 1980, just as America was making an abrupt right turn electing Ronald Reagan. It was created by Don Bellisario, one of Hollywood's few conservatives and perhaps even more relevantly, one of its few military veterans. (While serving in the Marine Corps during the 1950s, Bellisario even had a memorable encounter with Lee Harvey Oswald.)
Bellisario wrote his Magnum character and friends as unapologetic Vietnam vets. (In one episode, Magnum encountered a Soviet torturer from a POW camp and cold-bloodedly executed him.) It was a sharp break with Hollywood, which for years had been portraying Vietnam vets as either broken and suicidal, or psychotic and murderous.
And it turned Magnum into a cultural touchstone.
Photo Credit: 'Magnum P.I.,' CBS