We watched over two dozen new pilots for the fall season, both dramas and sitcoms, and the overwhelming majority of each failed to capture our interest to one degree or another. But five shows shined above the rest.

Some of the disappointing dramas shared similar problems that ranged from boring characters to a reliance on melodrama or technology to set the tone of the show. But the biggest problem with these lackluster dramas boiled down to shows that featured more sizzle than steak; a cast of beautiful people with beautiful settings and engaged in over-the-top scenarios with flashy edits and nonstop musical scores all of which were highlighted by convoluted and/or contrived plots.

As for the sitcoms, none of them were funny enough for us to follow (and most weren’t funny at all), though The Great Indoors was borderline and the closest to latching a permanent slot on our Lab Rat DVR. But for the most part, this season’s sitcom offerings simply failed to provide a steady flow of organic laughs; either the situational comedy was too lean, or the multiple attempts at quips failed, or grew annoying as they seemed more like a desperate series of one-liners from a standup routine with little story backing them. Throwing out a bunch of standalone jokes with little relevance or context in regards to the storyline doesn’t necessarily make for good sitcom.

There were only five shows we found entertaining enough to add to our Lab Rat DVR. All five were dramas, which leaves us worried about the state of comedies these days. The five shows we added are listed below, starting with our favorite:

1.         THIS IS US                               NBC

This show surprised us most because we had little hope for it to begin with based on early trailers and promos which seemed to highlight melodramatic moments. We assumed this was going to end up as yet another of the multiple shows these days that rely on soapy, forced elements, contrivances, and bed-hopping.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

This is great drama in its purest form. An extended family is followed, based on three siblings (a pair of white twins and their adopted black brother) through their formative years as kids, as well as their adult lives, with flashbacks that are cleverly used to contrast and reveal the siblings at different stages of their lives. On top of that, their parents’ journey is also revealed in flashback, though the mother is also shown in present time in order to illuminate where certain troubles originated.

A good dose of legit comedy is served up to help tell their stories as is the use of “twists” which don’t feel forced; they’re not the contrived surprises that most modern shows attempt to use in order to create more conflict. Instead, these twists feel like organic turns that are completely believable and work on multiple levels.

Then there’s the acting:  so many great, believable performances by the cast that ultimately assist in the selling of various storylines, and succeed in selling the show’s emotional course. On that note, though most of the cast has been stellar, Sterling K Brown manages to go above and beyond, and stands out as the actor whose scenes we most want to see.

From writing to acting this is a masterclass on how to effectively execute a proper drama.

2.         PITCH                                      FOX

Pitch is the story of the first female athlete to break into an all-male professional league. Before viewing a single episode we assumed this would follow the path of so many other sports-related stories, that being of the underdog or prodigy that possesses extraordinary abilities that surpass the abilities of other pro athletes. And because the main character is female, we expected a Disney-like story of girl power despite the fact that most women can’t compete with male peers based solely on physiological differences. For sure, this was going to be a fantasy story.

And once again, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

The producers make a wise choice in regards to the female athlete’s particular skill. She’s a baseball pitcher and rather than having her throw a pitch as fast as a Major Leaguer, she’s instead a master at throwing a screwball. Why is this significant?

Because it sells the probability of female athletes competing with male athletes at the Major League level.

A screwball is a trick pitch. It doesn’t have to be thrown all that hard; instead, it needs to be thrown with a particular finesse, a particular twist of the arm that does not require extraordinary strength, though the motion can ruin a pitcher’s arm. Dozens of real-life pitchers have made a living in the Majors throwing the screwball which, if thrown correctly, confounds hitters.

And right there we can buy into the show’s premise. We can totally see a woman perfecting such a pitch and becoming efficient enough to compete at the Major League level.

Though the major hurdle of selling a believable premise is achieved, the show still has to provide a series of believable stories regarding Major League life, and in particular, what that life might be like for the first female pro. In that respect, Pitch succeeds in spades.

Ginny, the main character, is no phenom. She’s just another struggling minor-leaguer except that she’s female. Her Major League club, the real-life San Diego Padres, need to fill a roster spot, and partly based on the potential media attention, they bring up Ginny. The producers again make wise choices by not allowing her early outings in the Major Leagues to be overwhelming triumphs—she struggles, as most newbies to the Majors do, but she displays a consistency that is quite believable. Furthermore, the media attention that follows her creates equally believable challenges for her in her personal life as well as in the clubhouse. The soapy moments are kept to a minimum while the intricacies behind real-life baseball players’ relationships are exposed.

This show is funny, deep, and fascinating all at once. The performances are also top-notch starting with Kylie Bunbury as Ginny, and her co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Mike, the team’s catcher and team captain. The rest of the cast performs admirably as well, particularly Mo McRae and Meagan Holder who have become our favorite TV couple. Like This Is Us, Pitch uses comedy to help sell the drama, and provides a number of characters we not only want to follow, we actually care about them.

3.         TIMELESS                                NBC

Yes, another time-travelling story. But this one provides new twists to the genre that make for an interesting premise, despite its particular flaws.

With Timeless, a time-travelling capsule has been invented (though its purpose has yet to be declared) and is hijacked by a purported terrorist named Garcia Flynn (one of the best names created this season). Garcia’s rep is a bit misrepresented as he sees himself as a hero, and more importantly, a loving family man, rather than a terrorist. His family has been killed and he blames it all on a ruthless organization called Rittenhouse that operates in the shadows and was behind some of the biggest events in history. Garcia needs the time capsule to go back in history and eradicate Rittenhouse altogether so that they will never be able to kill his family so that he’ll be reunited with them again.

But in the infamous conundrum facing all time travelers, if he destroys Rittenhouse in the past, the result will make for glaring changes in the present time, some of which could be profound for most of humanity.

Fortunately, there’s a backup time capsule dubbed the Lifeboat. Homeland Security takes charge of the capsule and puts together a ragtag team of three to use it in order to thwart Garcia’s plans. The team includes Rufus, a computer geek and coder, who helped create the capsules and will serve as the Lifeboat’s pilot; Wyatt, a Special Forces operative who will do the dirty work required of any particular mission; and Lucy, a college history professor whose talents are needed to learn which specific historical events Garcia may alter, as well as to keep the team history-appropriate in their appearances and actions during their journeys to the past.

It’s a terrific setup, and the first episode, which brings everyone back to the day that the Hindenburg crashed, brought subtle changes to history which had immediate repercussions for Lucy in her personal life in present time. Right away we were captivated with the possibilities of all the changes which could be made in the past that would change the present.

But those changes of history never really materialized.

Instead, the first season, so far, has been a series of missions in which Garcia visits different time periods to thwart Rittenhouse while Lucy and her team chase him down and undo any changes he may have started. Though most of the episodes have been interesting due to the missions themselves as well as the various settings in the past, they have become quite formulaic and predictable. Several sidebars are in play regarding Rufus’ forced duplicity with Rittenhouse, Wyatt’s longing for his murdered wife, Lucy’s mysterious allegiance to Garcia, and Rittenhouse’s overall conspiracy, but they’ve barely made a dent in the show’s current formula.

If those sidebars are more intensely explored, and, more importantly, if changes are allowed to occur in the past that radically change the present, then this show will become one of the more fascinating of the season. As it now stands, it's still fairly interesting. But the mission-of-the-week recipe is growing old fast.

Whether fair or not, we’re rating this show as high as third for its potential to really break out.

4.         DESIGNATED SURVIVOR        ABC

As far as high-concept premises go, Designated Survivor had the best one of the season:  all the heads of government are killed in a terrorist attack and the lone cabinet official that has been set aside for such an emergency suddenly finds himself as the new President of the US.

Wait, what? Sign us up now for this show.

We had huge expectations and for the most part, we were rewarded with some fascinating explorations of a huge what-if premise, though the show eventually lost some of its luster because of its decision to offset the action with soapy elements that often zapped episodes of their energy.

Episode 1 was the best pilot of the season. In it, Tom Kirkman is a low-level cabinet secretary who has been appointed as the designated survivor—the member of the President’s cabinet who is secluded in an undisclosed location to assume control of government in the event that everyone above him is suddenly killed. That event comes to fruition at the President’s State of the Union address when an explosion kills the Prez, the Veep, most of cabinet and congress,  which leaves Kirkman as the new Commander in Chief.

The pilot does an amazing job in portraying how the events shake down, starting with the choice to show the Capitol Building (where the explosion takes place) from afar which creates a more shocking and realistic vibe than had producers opted for the more Hollywoodish exploitation of a giant explosion and the resulting carnage. The audience basically gets the aftermath of the explosion—and not the atrocity itself—which is likely the way we, the audience, would experience the event in real life.

Kirkman is faced with the humbling and daunting prospect of not only becoming the nation’s unelected President, but he has to assume powers because of an attack that could tear the Union apart. Subsequent episodes explore the challenges he faces, not least of which is the fact that he was in line to be fired before the explosion which brings into question his legitimacy. There’s also an FBI investigation that initially is led to believe a Middle Eastern terrorist is behind the attack, but evidence later suggests that the lone Congressman who survived the explosion might actually be behind it. Further problems arise in the form of new immigrants and a governor who decides that his state should become autonomous considering the questions behind Kirkman’s legitimacy. All fascinating explorations.

But then the soap rears its ugly head. There’s Kirkman’s son who had peddled drugs on the side before Kirkman became President, and later, the question is raised as to whether he’s Kirkman’s biological son at all. The First Lady is a crusader for immigrants which could make for interesting storylines in a different type of show, but for one as intense and deeply rooted in espionage and conspiracy as this one, her concerns come off as trivial pandering to real-life political debates. They were too on-the-nose, but had they been more subtle, they would’ve come off as more believable concerns given the premise of the show.

The lead investigator, Hannah, was also romantically involved with one of the married Congressmen who was killed in the attack, while her boss is compromised when his son is kidnapped by forces involved in the attack.

If these soapy, hokey elements can be reeled in and allow the main dilemmas of the attack’s aftermath to take their course, this could become a series on par with 24, which it has been repeatedly compared to already, though it has so far failed to equal.

All that aside, Designated Survivor is still a fairly compelling thriller.

5.         SHOOTER                                USA Network

Shooter is another show with a highly intriguing, high-concept premise:  one of the world’s greatest snipers is framed for an assassination and goes rogue to prove his innocence. Perfect. We’ve got a sort of Fugitive element that involves a highly-skilled killer who uses everything he’s been taught to evade and defeat those who trained him. The show largely delivered on its premise for the first seven episodes, but the final three were especially lackluster.

Bob Lee (as on-the-nose a name as we’ve heard for any character this season) is a retired sniper living a quiet life in Washington State with his beloved wife and young daughter. He scored more kills in the theatre of war than anyone in history and his skills are now needed to thwart a possible assassination. His former commander, Isaac, visits him for help:  the Ukrainian President will soon visit the American President in Washington State, and Isaac wants Bob Lee to predict how a potential sniper might plan a hit during the motorcade. Bob Lee lends his support by surveying the route of the motorcade and making very specific calculations as to how the assassination might be pulled off.

But the assassination goes down anyway, despite Bob Lee’s counter-planning.

The Ukrainian President is killed and Bob Lee is elaborately framed for the murder as part of a conspiracy that involves Russian operatives in cahoots with elements of the US government which include Isaac himself. Bob Lee is initially captured but cleverly escapes and goes on a crusade to clear his name while protecting his family from afar. FBI special agent, Nadine Memphis, starts out as a black-sheep on the investigation but eventually is the only one who suspects that Bob Lee has been set up and eventually joins forces with him to pursue the truth.

A lot of left turns are made in regards to the secret investigations run by both Bob Lee and Nadine, a lot of which involve nefarious Russian operatives, as well as an overall US government conspiracy. The tension and intrigue build throughout the first seven episodes, as the main five or six characters are fleshed out thoroughly and the conspiracy becomes more complicated, but then the final three episodes devolve into hokey, convenient contrivances.

Despite its shortcomings, Shooter presented enough compelling material to warrant mention on this list. And the performances of Omar Epps as Isaac, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Nadine were absolutely captivating, and should help make for an interesting second season.

*****

If there’s one shared element in the shows we preferred this season it’s a very compelling premise that was executed (for the most apart) extremely well. The one exception to this trend happens to lie with our favorite newbie, This Is Us, which had a premise that wasn’t all that novel or appealing, but managed to captivate us more than the others nonetheless.

Maybe a better example of shared elements for these shows would be believable setups that were executed (usually) with seemingly organic turns and extremely gripping performances from the cast, with a minimal amount of contrived, soapy storylines or asides.  

 


Comments

TV is necessary of house and we watch the TV for many shows. It gives funny shows and i also watch it because it makes me happy. So funny and sit come are not real but it gives real smile on our face.

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