Although new television programming comes our way all year long in the modern, multiplatform digital world, there’s still something comforting and even a little exciting about the traditional fall TV season. It’s a time when the broadcast networks plant their blue-chip product and hope to harvest the highest possible viewership. Not that cable channels and streaming services haven’t gotten into the act, too.
Some of the big guns are already trained on American audiences. September saw the returns of the megapopular CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, with its cadre of aging nerds, now a few years beyond their loveable and cute expiration date; FOX’s Empire, the over-the-top, hip-hop soap opera (hip-“hopera”?); ABC’s Modern Family, the inclusive and strident domestic comedy; and such warhorses as the animated FOX perennials The Simpsons and Family Guy, and current iterations of the indefatigable procedural dramas NCIS on CBS and Law & Order on NBC.
If I believed in the supernatural, I’d thank the spirits of network TV pioneers Sylvester “Pat” Weaver and William Paley that there are more exciting debuts in store, especially for those of us who delight in genre offerings. I don’t mean Once Upon a Time, with its heavy-handed shoehorning of characters from fairy tales and classic fiction into the “real” world; or the hit-and-miss social allegories of Marvel’s spy-fi series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — both having already had season premieres on ABC last month. I’m a little more excited by new episodes of AMC’s ever-violent zombie thriller, The Walking Dead (Oct. 23) with a cast-changing mystery death (or deaths) to be revealed; and the lively quartet of interlocked superhero shows on the CW: The Flash (Oct. 4); Arrow (Oct. 5), Supergirl (Oct. 10); and Legends of Tomorrow (Oct. 13), which will actually be doing a couple of crossovers in the coming months.
OLD AND NEW WORLDS
Are you eager for something different but familiar and somehow timely? On Oct. 2, HBO is delivering Westworld — a serialized, updated TV adaptation of author-filmmaker Michael Crichton’s 1973 science-fiction feature about a high-tech, android-populated fantasy resort. It’s the second TV series collaboration between producer J.J. Abrams and producer-cowriter-director Jonathan Nolan after the canceled, woefully underrated, frighteningly prescient cyber-drama Person of Interest, and that bodes well.
As for other cable TV gems, I can recommend two shows that are back on the Starz channel, also starting Oct. 2: Blunt Talk, the often embarrassing yet brutally funny escapades of a pompous, hedonistic talk show host portrayed by the elegant Patrick Stewart; and Ash vs. Evil Dead, the gory and goofy horror comedy built around square-jawed and willfully ridiculous leading man Bruce Campbell.
And nowadays you can count on the streaming services to embrace daring projects and render good quality. So we have Amazon’s award-winning gender-fluid family dramedy Transparent, which dropped a third series of episodes on Sept. 23; and Woody Allen’s first foray into serial TV, Crisis in Six Scenes, available from Amazon as of Sept. 30. Not to be outdone, Netflix chose Sept. 30 to bring out its latest gritty Marvel Comics-inspired effort, Luke Cage, featuring the adventures of an indestructible social justice warrior from Harlem; and Oct. 21 will see the highly anticipated return of the brilliant, bleakly satirical sci-fi anthology Black Mirror from British creator-writer Charlie Brooker.
‘WORST’ CASE SCENARIO
Last but decidedly not least, the FXX series You’re the Worst — created by Stephen Falk — is the most mean-spirited and honest half-hour comedy (with the occasional blast of unexpected drama) presently on American television. The third and latest season of 13 episodes is not even halfway over. If you haven’t seen it and intend to watch it, start at the beginning of its first set of installments wherein the main characters — Jimmy (Chris Geere), a smug, egotistical novelist from England, and Gretchen (Aya Cash), a reckless, distrustful publicist for a rap group — meet and develop a relationship that’s initially based on copious drinking and meaningless sex. They raise hell in and around L.A.’s oh-so-cool Silverlake district with their respective best friends, Edgar (Desmin Borges), a broke Iraq War veteran who sponges off Jimmy and struggles with PTSD, and Lindsay (Kether Donohue), a materialistic woman with a big appetite and an affluent, boring husband. Any investment in the show will pay increasing dividends, especially when a dark and unexpected curve is thrown at the audience in the middle of the second season. To say more would be a betrayal, even with a spoiler alert.
It plays a bit like a 21st century rom-com take on Seinfeld with four painfully frank and flawed urban comrades in multiculti Los Angeles instead of the latter’s foursome of wacky city dwellers in 1990s Manhattan. More to the point, three of the friends on You’re the Worst are heedless Millennials in search of easy sex, booze, parties, media events, and other cheap pleasures, in a coarser, somewhat hipper, explicitly sexual (cable!), and contemporary reflection of the selfish Seinfeld gang.
When it’s going for laughs, You’re the Worst is a prime example of the comedy of discomfort — a style of writing and performing that has become a staple of the smarter and funnier British sitcoms, particularly Peep Show and the original version of The Office. Generally, characters confront plausible situations and make terrible decisions, often of a self-sabotaging nature and usually to amusing ends. But You’re the Worst isn’t afraid to go to darker places, and not just for shock value. At times like these, any laughter is of the nervous variety — and it’s surprising how much you can care about the well-being of these often awful people.