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In case you haven't noticed, television is in the midst of another Golden Era. No, we're not kidding. Sure, the big four networks have all seen steady declines in viewership, there aren't many “water cooler” shows left that unite an office or coffeeshop with next-day conversation, and there are nearly as many “reality” shows as there are occupations. But all that misses the point. Television as a whole is more vibrant, more varied, better acted, and has much higher production values than at any time in the past.
Although cable and pay networks have been dominating the Emmys for several years and getting the lion’s share of social media attention, the “big boys” haven't been sitting idly by. Taking even a cursory look at the raft of new shows debuting next week showcases how the major networks have responded to the creative challenge—at the same time acknowledging the sea change in viewing habits.
Long gone are the days when a Cosby Show will get tens of millions of people to sit down in front of their televisions for a half hour every Thursday night. Today, a successful show is lucky to get into double-digit millions, but that's not a cause of concern. Instead, that's a case of rejoicing, as the “one-show-fits-all” mentality has finally been buried in Hollywood backlots.
In fact, only two new shows on the list show any promise of grabbing a truly broad audience. One stars one of the most-liked actors in the world, the other is a spin-off of one of the most successful films of all time. Michael J. Fox is the rarest of the rare in Hollywood—he was able to secure a full 22-episode season commitment for his new half-hour sitcom, The Michael J. Fox Show (Thursday, Sept. 26, 9 p.m.) without even having to shoot a pilot. NBC executives, once they were reassured that Fox's Parkinson's wasn't going to be an issue in filming, knew that he could deliver a home run for the network, which is in desperate need of a hit.
As for the big movie spin-off, can you really go wrong with a tie-in to The Avengers? Aside from having perhaps the longest show name in years, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (Tuesday, Sept. 24, 8 p.m.). focuses on the exploits of Agent Coulson, last seen (apparently) dying aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. heliocarrier. Advance buzz on the show (not even counting the near-fan riot at San Diego's ComiCon from people desperately trying to get glimpse of the trailer) has been as red hot as any show can be, and while the superhero genre has a decidedly mixed history on television, one discounts Marvel at one's peril.
But what about all the other new shows? Which are hot, which are best left unseen, and which are the sleepers that will carve out solid audiences? If we had those answers in hand, we'd be working as studio executives, but we don't lack for opinions.
Of the new shows we recommend, in addition to the two mentioned above, the intriguing combination of Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar in CBS's The Crazy Ones (Thur, Sep. 26, 9 p.m.) shows comedic promise, NBC's The Blacklist (Monday, Sept. 23, 10 p.m.) brings the always-odd James Spader back to TV as a criminal mastermind looking to chew up scenery as only he can, and while it has already debuted this past Monday, Fox's Sleepy Hollow has been picking up buzz with a suddenly omnipresent marketing push by the network.
That said, it's often very hard to see through marketing hype for the new shows to ascertain which ones are worth even setting up the DVR to record, but there are certain signs a number of shows will likely not be with us for every long. For instance, if you can't decide whether you are a police procedural or a sitcom (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), chances are you'll just alienate the audiences for both. Likewise, if your title is an insult (Trophy Wife) and features a “reformed party girl who finds herself with an insta-family after falling in love with a man with three manipulative children,” the mere fact you used “insta-family” in a press release should be grounds for immediate cancellation.
And let's not even mention shows with unimaginative titles such as Dads, Mom, and We Are Men. There are people who are getting paid to watch these shows. Let's hope they get their money's worth.
But to end on a positive note, there are lot of quality shows returning in the next two weeks, too. Solids hits such as How I Met Your Mother, Castle, The Voice, the always creepy Criminal Minds, The Big Bang Theory, Elementary, Blue Bloods, and The Amazing Race have built steady audiences and are filled with strong writing, acting and performances.
But let's say you only have one hour a week to watch television. In that case, please do yourself a favor and tune in to the best-written and acted show on the tube, one of the very few “sleeper” shows to find an ever-growing audience, CBS's Person of Interest (Tuesday, Sept. 24, 10 p.m.). Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel have been the core of a deeply fascinating look into the modern world of surveillance and government at the same time the real world has been dealing with the exact same issues and concerns. If you haven't already been watching this show, please start now. You'll thank us later.