The New Fall Shows Are Opting For Comfort Over Relevance
Streaming and cable may have gotten political, but the big networks are betting that in the Trump era, viewers want the familiar.
In late-night, being politically engaged and enraged has allowed the once faltering Stephen Colbert to challenge Jimmy Fallon in ratings, and on streaming, series like The Handmaid’s Tale and Dear White People have garnered significant attention for tackling issues of gender and race.
But, at least for this forthcoming season — the first since President Trump was voted into office — network TV appears to be heading in the other direction, toward the safety of the already known or the feels-like-you-already-know-it.
At least that’s what was suggested by the first round of new shows announced in the past week. The big networks — ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC — all held their upfront presentations in New York City this past week, glitzy annual events where new series and fall schedules are presented to advertisers, who are treated to footage and appearances from talent.
What was unveiled were programming choices that seemed designed to evoke the familiar — sometimes literally. One of the biggest surprises the week had to offer was that the previously announced Roseanne return would go to ABC for an eight-episode season to air in 2018. “There’s really no one better to comment on our modern America than Roseanne,” ABC president Channing Dungey said in a statement about the show, expressing the kind of “now more than ever” sentiment with which all kinds of content has been anointed ever since Trump’s win.
In this case, though, it's not clear exactly what Dungey meant by that. No one better because the original Roseanne, which ran from 1988 to 1997, was progressive in its tackling of issues like LGBT representation and abortion? Because it’s a portrayal of the white working class that became so central to the election? Because of Barr’s present-day stance as someone who made a Green Party presidential candidate bid and who told the Hollywood Reporter that "we would be so lucky if Trump won. Because then it wouldn't be Hillary”? Or is it just because we’ve heard from Barr before? As with all network presidents, Dungey is unlikely to give a clear answer (particularly in the wake of all the flak ABC got for canceling the conservative-leaning Last Man Standing).
But she did did share, in a conference call with press, that what “the mood of the country has told us is that television is a little bit of an escape,” which speaks to the nostalgic tendencies seen all around. Roseanne isn’t the only show arising from the grave — Will & Grace is also back this fall with its original cast, a fact heralded with a video that confusingly suggested that Eric McCormack’s Will and Debra Messing’s Grace existed in the real world, while Karen (Megan Mullally) and Jack (Sean Hayes) somehow did not. Then there are the reboots and remakes, like The CW’s Dynasty, a new take on the ’80s Aaron Spelling primetime soap, and CBS’s S.W.A.T., based on another Spelling show, as well as the 2003 movie of the same name it inspired.
There are prequels like Star Trek: Discovery, which will stream on CBS’s digital subscription VOD service CBS All Access, and Young Sheldon, which will follow the long-running Big Bang Theory it plays off of, exploring the childhood of Jim Parsons’ persnickety genius Sheldon Cooper.
And then there are the shows that merely feel like something we’ve seen before. Seth MacFarlane’s Fox sci-fi satire The Orville is reminiscent of Galaxy Quest, while NBC’s Rise, with Josh Radnor and Moana's Auli’i Cravalho, looks like a more serious Glee. The Fox airline comedy LA to Vegas has Dylan McDermott doing what appears to be a Will Ferrell impression, while ABC’s The Gospel of Kevin comes across as a sibling to Joan of Arcadia, Eli Stone, and My Name Is Earl in its regular-joe-gets-a-divine-mission setup. There are two medical series about brilliant doctors who have a harder time socially: One, ABC’s drama The Good Doctor, which stars Freddie Highmore as surgeon with Asperger’s, is actually from the creator of House; the other, Fox’s The Resident, is just House-like, with Matt Czuchry as a tough truth-teller mentoring an idealistic newcomer (Manish Dayal).
Mark Feuerstein’s autobiographical CBS sitcom 9JKL resembles Everybody Loves Raymond. ABC’s Deception (magician) and CBS’s Instinct (writer/professor) fall into the well-established formula of unlikely consultants helping to catch criminals — see The Mentalist, Castle, Lucifer, and on and on. And in the most centrally backwards-looking (but intriguing) concept of them all, Justin Theroux and Jimmy Kimmel will have a live ABC special in which stars read classic TV scripts from the likes of Norman Lear and James L. Brooks.
This is not to say these shows, considered on the very early basis of their network-provided cutdowns and loglines, look bad. In fact, the most-watched trailer from the bunch, for Fox’s X-Men drama The Gifted, manages to give off a serious whiff of Heroes while also looking like a promising small-screen superhero saga. But there’s a general conservatism in the announced aims of so many of these new series — not politically so much as in terms of ambition.
While hardly daring, steering into strengths may be the smartest move for networks that haven’t been able to compete with the freedoms of cable and streaming. Especially at a time in which ratings are lower than ever, the TV equivalent of comfort food has a powerful pull.
Of course, there are still the odd blips in the lineup of shows with potential to do more than offer entertainment and escape — like ABC’s The Mayor (Brandon Micheal Hall), which flips the script on the idea of a Trump-style outsider winning a campaign by having a struggling rapper find himself in office after a publicity stunt goes a little too well. Or The CW’s Black Lightning, with its superhero turned principal turned superhero battling gang violence. And then there’s that S.W.A.T. reboot, which in its surprising trailer acknowledges that the whole cops-kicking-ass premise of the original hasn’t aged so well, and gives glimpses of a police shooting of an unarmed black teenager and a protagonist (Shemar Moore) focused on rebuilding trust with the community.
Of course, it also involves running around with massive guns and shooting what looks like a rocket launcher. You can’t go too far off book, after all — you’ve still got to give the people what they want.