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10 Fall Shows To Be Excited About, 10 To Give A Chance, And 4 To Avoid

There are some pleasant surprises coming this year — and yes, some disasters. Here are the fall 2014 shows of distinction, good and bad, in handy chronological order!

Be Excited: The Chair


Anna Martemucci


Shane Dawson

Starz, In Progress, Saturdays at 11 p.m.

This 10-part documentary series is not for everybody; it definitely tilts toward film nerds. Its conceit is that two first-time directors, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, each get the opportunity to direct a feature from the same script (that they can change) on a $600,000 budget. In Pittsburgh, in the middle of winter. The competition aspect is hazy to me — somehow, one of them will "win" based on audience feedback and will get $250,000. But that is irrelevant. Having watched the first half of the season (Starz has made five episodes available On Demand), I'm obsessed with this show! The two directors' sensibilities are opposite: Martemucci has a traditional indie background, and went to NYU for screenwriting; Dawson is a self-made YouTube star, with an early John Waters grossout sensibility. Seeing their different artistic choices is fascinating, of course. But there's so much more to love here, like watching the crazy gender dynamics at play in Martemucci's deferential, consensus-building approach (especially when her filmmaker husband is around), and wondering whether Dawson is so reliant on the fans he already has that he'll never get out of the YouTube bubble. The Chair also breaks the fourth wall often, with both directors talking about how the show's cameras make their jobs more difficult. And if you have seen the show's creator, Chris Moore, on the similar Project Greenlight, you know that every time he talks, it's fun to listen. If I have one complaint about The Chair, it's that, because the city of Pittsburgh and some of the city's businesses are funding both the show and Martemucci and Dawson's films, it sometimes comes off as … well, a weird ad for Pittsburgh. (Even though everyone is clearly so freezing all the time that they wear coats and scarves indoors.) But that complaint is strange and unique, and I've never had that thought before while watching a TV show, so it's almost a compliment. Love you, The Chair!

Avoid: The Mysteries of Laura

KC Bailey / NBC

NBC, In Progress, Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

A disaster in every way. This hour-long mystery/comedy starring Debra Messing as an overworked New York detective who is also a mom is my pick for the worst show of the new season. The entire exercise is dated and cartoonish: Did you guys know that it’s hard to juggle a career and parenthood? If you’ve never heard that… well, you still won’t laugh at this show. Laura’s two pre-K-aged sons are, I think, meant to be cute scamps who make her life hard, but are loveable in the end. As a parent of two sons roughly the same age, I instead saw budding spree killers (lots of kids-with-guns jokes, which are always hilarious post-Columbine and Newtown), and perhaps even serial killers (a school official recounts that they hurt a rabbit, which is also supposed to be funny). Speaking of cringe-inducing jokes, The Mysteries of Laura is also blithe about cops being careless about shooting suspects; the opening setpiece is supposed to make Laura look like a badass, but instead, I wanted her kicked off the police force. I can only assume that Messing loves to work, and for that I cannot fault her. But her choices, Smash included, are beginning to look insane. This show did well in its premiere after the America's Got Talent finale, but if there is justice in the world, it will not last.

Be Excited: Red Band Society

Alex Martinez / Fox

Fox, In Progress, Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

Every TV season, there's a show I fear will bomb, and this year, my worries focus on Red Band Society, which already premiered to weak ratings. It's not OK! Red Band is a well-drawn teen ensemble drama; a compelling enough medical show; it has an element of magical realism (the narrator is a boy in a coma); and two of its three adult stars, Dave Annable and Octavia Spencer, are charming. (I'm confused by the Griffin Dunne character, a zillionaire hypochondriac, who is also encamped at the hospital; it's not a terribly negative confusion, nor must it be permanent.) Put simply, this hopeful show about the lives of sick children moved me, and I cried. I hope you watch it.

Be Excited: Madam Secretary


CBS, Sundays at 8 or 8:30-p.m.-ish (after 60 Minutes and after football) (Starting Sept. 21)

I have Good Wife-like hopes for Madam Secretary, and obviously CBS does too, which is why it's pairing them. I am, however, concerned about the time slot for this show. Getting a football boost could be a plus for it, but Sunday nights for CBS are a mess during the fall, with starting times being slippery and shows, consequently, being difficult to find or record due to said football. On the show, Téa Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, the newly anointed Secretary of State, who not only has to solve the world's problems — and there are many! — but is surrounded by a murderous conspiracy. She's also married (to Tim Daly), and has kids, but let's hope this show avoids stereotypical pitfalls about women with powerful careers and how horrible their home lives are. Madam Secretary was created by Barbara Hall, who also created the underrated, cut-short Joan of Arcadia, which managed to de-politicize the idea that God exists and talks to people. I'm curious how much Hall will be able to walk that tightrope with Madam Secretary — Elizabeth is supposed to have an "apolitical" approach, if that's possible. Will that be something we want to watch with world events? I'm interested to see!

Give It a Chance: Gotham

Jessica Miglio/Fox

Fox, Mondays at 8 p.m. (Starting Sept. 22)

The expectations for Gotham, a Batman prequel of sorts, are as high as they get. Lower yours now and you might enjoy the pilot more than I did. Less the origins of Bruce Wayne and more so one of young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) — the cop who will eventually ascend to Gotham’s police commissioner and be Batman’s ally — Gotham sets up a dour story of villains and a listless hero in Gordon. The show seems to want to live in the gray, which is fine: But does it have to literally look gray? Everyone seems like they’re checking boxes here, and the show really needs McKenzie to perk up. Still, I have hope. Creator Bruno Heller’s show The Mentalist has had a fun spark (and a fun hero) for years, and his other series Rome achieved an ambitious, riveting sprawl. It can happen to Gotham too, I know it. Especially if the show follows the lead of Robin Lord Taylor, who plays Oswald Copplepot (the Penguin). His wild-eyed spirit with a shade shy of camp is the show’s best creation, and should be its roadmap.

Give It a Chance: Scorpion


CBS, Mondays at 9 p.m. (Starting Sept. 22)

Elyes Gabel (one of Dany's bloodriders from Game of Thrones, people) plays Walter O'Brien, a former child hacker and current adult genius, who has surrounded himself by other geniuses on the margins. Each one has a special skill, and the group ends up conscripted by the Department of Homeland Security. Oh, also, Katharine McPhee plays a waitress and mom of a brilliant kid — yet another unlabeled autistic character on television — and the two of them become part of the crew. This generic thriller shouldn’t have worked for me, but, at least in the pilot, it really did. Gabel is an unexpected leading man, and not only because he's not white: He's intense, but not flashily so, and exudes intelligence over everything else. McPhee's character should feel tacked on… but somehow, she doesn't. And I really liked the relationship between Walter and the kid. The action was also good. Please keep surprising me, Scorpion!

Give It a Chance: NCIS: New Orleans


CBS, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (Starting Sept. 23)

In terms of viewers, the NCIS mothership is the most-watched drama on television. Since the dawn of man, it has commanded a huge audience, and even in an era of endtimes erosion on network television, it is incredibly popular. When I watch it, I totally get why: The cast is great, and the stories are addictive. Who among us hasn't gotten on a JetBlue flight, turned on USA, gotten sucked into an NCIS marathon, and landed five hours later? It's a part of life. And yet, I've never felt the same way about its first spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles. So which category will NOLA fall into? It will take awhile before the cast's chemistry determines it for me, but I always like both Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder. If history proves to be a guide, these actors will get plenty of time to gel.

Give It a Chance: Black-ish


ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30.p.m. (Starting Sept. 24)

When I saw the cutdown of Black-ish, the conceit of which is that Anthony Anderson's character, an upper-middle class father who fears that his family is losing its black identity, I feared that the show would be Anderson yelling in that upper register of his for 22 minutes. And there is a little of that. But I found Black-ish to be more nuanced actually; it has some real things to say about assimilation and, perhaps unexpectedly, capitalism and marketing. And Tracee Ellis Ross (who plays his wife), Laurence Fishburne (his father), and the kids all made me laugh a few times. Black-ish gets the great post-Modern Family spot that has somehow birthed zero hits for ABC. Maybe this family comedy with a hint of an edge can break that curse?

Be Excited: How to Get Away With Murder


ABC, Thursdays at 10 p.m. (Starting Sept. 25)

On the batshit scale on which WTF TV is measured, How to Get Away With Murder begins at an 8 (out of 10 possible batshits). That's high for a pilot! The new ABC drama, created by Peter Nowalk, a graduate of Shonda Rhimes' Grey's Anatomy and Scandal — which serve as the show's Thursday lead-ins — has Viola Davis at its center. The formidable Davis plays an intimidating, morally compromised law professor who is also a cutthroat defense attorney, with her students, legal staff, and husband comprising the rest of the cast. Also, she has secrets! There's a ton happening in this setup, with a flashback murder plot reminiscent of Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History, infidelity, a whole other murder (maybe?), classroom scenes, and courtroom histrionics. We will see how this unfolds! For now, let's applaud Rhimes (the show’s executive producer) for overseeing an entire night of television.

Be Excited: Transparent


Amazon Prime; all 10 episodes will go up on Friday, Sept. 26.

Writer/director/producer Jill Soloway's Transparent — a product of Amazon's novel pilot bakeoff process — is the service's first great show. Transparent is the story of an upper-middle class, Jewish family in Los Angeles in which patriarch Mort (played by Jeffrey Tambor) slowly comes out to his three adult children as a transgender woman. Not only is Tambor the best he's ever been here — and he really is, and he will be nominated and win awards for this role — but the show manages to maintain a difficult tone. It veers from class-based farce to deep character study to moving drama — and then it makes you laugh out loud again. Jay Duplass, Gaby Hoffmann, and Amy Landecker play the kids, and their stories, both separate and together, are well-drawn. Transparent is also a significant leap forward in the representation of queer stories (and not only in Tambor's character). Watching this beautifully shot show feels like watching a gripping, real, hilarious indie movie. Except we may be lucky enough to see these people's lives unfold for years. How great would that be?

Give It a Chance: Selfie


ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (Starting Sept. 30)

Selfie's opening scene is so truly repellant that, should you watch it having read this list, you might think, as you change channels in disgust, That BuzzFeed person is an idiot. Because it's possible I'm being overly generous here. Yes, there is a tonnage of vomit in that opening scene, and I nearly stopped watching Selfie myself(ie). I really don't know what Emily Kapnek, who created this show (and who also created the clever Suburgatory) was thinking there. I guess it makes the show stand out — in the worst way possible. Here's the point: After that scene, I began enjoying Selfie, mostly because of John Cho, who plays the angry Henry to Karen Gillan's shallow Eliza. (Selfie is inspired by George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion). I'm not sure how long a makeover comedy can last with this conceit, but I will stick with Selfie to see how it develops. Yes, I realize this write-up is faint praise! It's hard to get past the vomit. But I'm going to try.

Avoid: Manhattan Love Story


ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. (Starting Sept. 30)

If I were going to fill out an Us Weekly “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me” rubric, one of the Things would be that I have a totally weird, waste-of-time hobby of rooting for ex-reality stars to make it as actors. It warms my heart when they do! So I’m always cheering for America’s Next Top Model alumna Analeigh Tipton when she’s in a movie like Crazy, Stupid, Love or Lucy. And I was pleased for her when I heard she was the lead in this ABC romantic comedy. Until I watched it, and saw it was the worst! It’s a fairly straightforward meet-cute about two good-looking twentysomethings bumbling their way into a relationship, with the added layer that we sometimes hear their thoughts. Their thoughts, you should know, are awful. Let’s stop hearing them, please. This show is charmless. And Tipton’s character — I believe her name is Dana, but don’t care to check — is written as being so bad with technology that I am prepared to file an amicus brief on behalf of all women working on this show in any capacity. I am not a lawyer, and don’t know what an amicus brief is. But I’m prepared to find out. That’s how bad this show is. In case I am not being clear, do not watch it.

Avoid: Stalker


CBS, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. (Starting Oct. 1)

There will be viewers who will watch — and there will be viewers who will like — Stalker because it takes to an extreme television's assumption that we are surrounded by murderers, rapists, and other people who wish us physical and psychological harm. The show’s creator Kevin Williamson — who gave the world Scream and Dawson's Creek, but is channeling his sadistic, amoral The Following side here — has said he was inspired by CBS's long-running Criminal Minds. And that is evident in the Stalker pilot, which you feel unsafe watching. I'm no wimp, but I just can't bear thoughtless violence in popular culture anymore, and Williamson lost me with The Following, so I'm saying no. Despite Maggie Q's presence. You'll know in the first five minutes how you'll feel about this show.

Give It a Chance: Gracepoint

Ed Araquel/Fox

Fox, Thursdays at 9 p.m. (Starting Oct. 2)

The facile thing to say about Gracepoint is: The original version of this limited mystery series, Broadchurch, aired so recently in the U.K. and on BBC America (and also starred David Tennant in the same lead role), why in the world wouldn't people just watch that? And I have no idea what the answer is! But let's imagine that Fox's assumption is correct, and this faithful remake (at least in what I've watched, which does not include the mystery's conclusion) will be new to most American viewers. After all, it certainly was not the phenomenon in the U.S. that it was in Britain. That said: There's plenty to like. The story of a boy's murder in a beach town and its effect on the community is absorbing. Tennant is again great as the troubled investigator who's new to town, and it's fun to hear his American accent. Anna Gunn ably fills Olivia Colman's shoes playing opposite Tennant — because she is Anna Gunn. Is the depressing nature of the mystery, as well as the series' downbeat tone, a barrier to entry for American viewers? I have a feeling it will be. But it's an interesting experiment, and let's applaud network television for trying new formats that have a beginning, middle, and end. (I realize this "new" format is a remake. Still.)

Give It a Chance: A to Z

Trae Patton / NBC
Trae Patton / NBC

NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. (Starting Oct. 2)

This show! It confuses me. The pilot made me laugh a genuine laugh several times as it tracked the twee courtship of Andrew (Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti). The two leads are endearing, and I liked the whole ensemble. On the other hand, I have no idea why the show is bending over backward to make itself so complicated. There's a damn voiceover, and the pretense that somehow their relationship is some sort of case study? No! Why can't it just be a romantic comedy? Still, I'm voting a qualified "yes" on A to Z, at least for now. Writers, just scrap the whole framework now that NBC picked up the show. We won't tell anyone.

Avoid: Mulaney

Ray Mickshaw/Fox

Fox, Sundays at 9:30 p.m. (Starting Oct. 5)

Comedy people seem really into John Mulaney. There was an outcry last year when NBC passed on his sitcom pilot, and then a cheer when Fox immediately gave him another chance. Mulaney himself, an alumni of Saturday Night Live's writing staff, has an impressive resume. Kevin Reilly, Fox's former head of programming who picked the show up, described it as a sitcom that has "the makings of Seinfeld for the new generation." (It uses the same mixture of stand-up interstitials and a multi-camera format as that beloved NBC comedy did.) All of these things make it very confusing that Mulaney — about a striving comedian (named John Mulaney) and his friends in New York City — is not at all funny. Like, not at all funny. It's not unpleasant. I wasn't mad. Yet, watching the first four episodes felt like I was listening to a song in which every instrument and the vocals were slightly off-key. I laughed one time in four episodes, and that was at a facial expression on a cat. If this show ends up clicking eventually, someone needs to sound a trumpet. (Please make it an actual trumpet.)

Be Excited: The Flash

The CW

The CW, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (Starting Oct. 7)

It took awhile for some viewers to realize that Arrow, from which The Flash spins off, is a really good show. That won't be a problem with The Flash, which is immediately winning. Its tone — younger and lighter than Arrow — is reflected in the difference between Grant Gustin's innocent, puppy-like Barry Allen and Stephen Amell's brooding, damaged Oliver Queen. The pilot is, I think, delightful, and its ensemble feels fully realized already. Candace Patton, Jesse L. Martin, and Tom Cavanagh (I can go either way on him) are particularly strong. These Arrow people (Marc Guggenheim, Greg Berlanti, and Andrew Kreisberg, who specifically oversees The Flash) have finally cracked the code on how to do superhero TV. Gotham should take note.

Be Excited: The Affair


Showtime, Sundays at 10 p.m. (Starting Oct. 12)

Showtime's new drama The Affair, created by Sarah Treem, a graduate of In Treatment's and House of Cards' writing staffs, has the most interesting structure and my favorite cast of any show of the new season. Told from multiple points of view, and through flashbacks, the creepy, sinister pilot of The Affair excited me in a way that Damages, which I loved, did several years ago. I won't get too deep into the plot — in part because the unreliable narration makes it impossible to describe — but essentially the lives of two couples (Dominic West and Maura Tierney are one; Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson are the other) collide in Montauk, New York. Unhappily so! But happily, I think, for us.

Be Excited: Jane the Virgin

The CW

The CW, Mondays at 9 p.m. (Starting Oct. 13)

Jane the Virgin is not only one of the most promising shows of the new season, to me, it's also its loveliest surprise. I did not think I would like the story of a twentysomething virgin who gets accidentally inseminated with her boss' sperm, gets pregnant, and decides to have the baby! (And yes, the contortions the show goes through during its discussion of Jane's abortion option are the only thing I didn't enjoy.) Adapted from a Venezuelan format, and starring Gina Rodriguez as Jane, the pilot of this show is intelligent and witty. And it seems well-thought-out, which is important! Also important: Jane the Virgin is one of English-language television's rare acknowledgments that Latino people not only are TV viewers, but that they have lives that don't provide fodder only for crime shows. Do read what Rodriguez has to say on this topic.

Give It a Chance: Marry Me

Greg Gaynes / NBC

NBC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (Starting Oct. 14)

While the concept of Marry Me repulses me — a woman in her early thirties so desperately wants her boyfriend of six years to propose that she alienates him and everyone in their lives! — I am hopeful the show has gotten through that hideous setup by the end of the pilot, and can quickly move on. Because this single-camera comedy, starring Casey Wilson and Ken Marino as the couple, and created by Happy Endings' David Caspe (Wilson's real-life husband), made me laugh, despite my misgivings about its plot. The jokes are sneaky and layered, and Marino and Wilson are simply great together — playing a couple that has perhaps gotten too used to each other. It relies on an easy chemistry, and they have it. I liked it!

Be Excited: Death Comes to Pemberley


PBS, Masterpiece Mystery! Sundays at 9 p.m. on Oct. 26 and Nov. 2

Based on P.D. James' 2011 novel, the miniseries Death Comes to Pemberley commits a daring sacrilege by not only continuing the story of Pride and Prejudice, but resetting Elizabeth and Darcy squarely in the middle of a murder mystery. And it's wonderful. Matthew Rhys of The Americans plays Darcy, Anna Maxwell Martin is Elizabeth, and if neither of them achieves the heights Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle did in the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, well, what can you do? Would you compare a desk lamp to the sun? You would not. We must move on. Martin and Rhys serve well here, as do Matthew Goode (as Wickham) and Jenna Coleman (as Lydia). Also, the production (again, the BBC, written by Juliette Towhidi and directed by Daniel Percival) is gorgeous. One bit of advice: It's not a bad idea to brush up on the basic plot of Pride and Prejudice, especially Wickham's relationship to Darcy. I remembered it, but my viewing companion did not, and I found myself hitting the pause button to explain a few times.

Give It a Chance: The McCarthys


CBS, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. (Starting Oct. 30)

I'm going to confess that I don't watch a lot of CBS comedies. I admire the brand, and the fact that the network is committed to making multi-camera sitcoms for mass audiences. It's just not a genre that I gravitate toward. With all of that said, I enjoyed the pilot for The McCarthys so much. It's about an Irish Catholic brood from Boston in which one of the adult kids — Ronny, played by Tyler Ritter (the son of John) — is gay, and wants to get geographically away from his smothering, meddling, sports-obsessed family. Each McCarthy is good, and it's pretty fully realized for a pilot, but I especially enjoyed Jack McGee (formerly of Rescue Me) as the dad; Joey McIntyre (of New Kids on the Block, who actually has a Boston accent) as one of the siblings; and, of course, Laurie Metcalf as the mom. Will I ever watch this show again? I hope so. But do yourself a favor and check it out.

Be Excited: Olive Kitteridge


HBO, Sundays from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Nov. 2 and Nov. 3

I hadn't read Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 2008, so when I embarked on watching this four-part miniseries, and realized that it takes place in Maine, and is a decades-spanning story about sad marriages, the specter of suicide, yearning, mental illness, and anger, I thought to myself, Can you die of the Empty Feeling? But I kept watching. And, yes, it is about how those things play out in a life. But Olive Kitteridge — which was adapted by Jane Anderson and directed by Lisa Cholodenko — is stunning in its nuance. Olive, played by Frances McDormand (who really should be in everything, always), can go from pissed-off and thwarted to insightful and kind in a second on screen. Really, we haven't seen a performance like this before, ever. She is matched by Richard Jenkins, who plays Olive's long-suffering husband (but he has his own issues). I could have watched the two of them for days; what a match. The sadness of the story ebbs and flows, and just when you think you can't bear the sad parts anymore — well, I won't say. I will, however, leave you with this: Bill Murray in Part 4! He hasn't gotten to be so good in many years.

Give It a Chance: State of Affairs

Michael Parmelee / NBC

NBC, Mondays at 10 p.m. (Starting Nov. 17)

If you root for Katherine Heigl, which I do, you might not only like State of Affairs, but you should feel active relief that it's not a romantic comedy in any sense. Heigl, by her own choice, has slogged through some tragically terrible movie material since acrimoniously leaving Grey's Anatomy, and though she can be charming on screen, it's really best for everyone involved that her return to television is purely a drama. That said, in State of Affairs she plays Charleston Tucker, a CIA analyst! It may not be the most intuitive casting. The pilot worked for me, though. I appreciated Charlie's zippy dynamic with her co-workers; I enjoyed her scenes with Alfre Woodard, who plays the president of the United States and Charlie's almost-mother-in-law; and I was intrigued enough by the mystery of what really happened to Charlie's dead fiancé. Also, at this point, I will take any blonde female CIA employee who is not Carrie Mathison of Homeland and I will welcome them.

Note: I included on this list only shows I've watched, which means I wasn't able to consider a few cable shows that have not yet sent out screeners, such as Syfy's Ascension, Bravo's Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, and several others. You may also notice that there are a few network shows missing from this list. We wanted the post to serve as recommendations, and with shows such as ABC's Cristela, and NBC's Bad Judge and Constantine, I felt that watching the pilot alone had no bearing on how the show itself might end up being. So I excluded them. For BuzzFeed Entertainment's thoughts on every pilot that was sent out by the networks, which includes those shows along with midseason offerings, click here.