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DANIEL FIENBERG: As critics, we shouldn’t have time to engage in a conversation about fall TV. We should be too busy writing reviews of fall TV.
But instead, critics and viewers alike have emerged from the summer into an autumn television drought: Part of it is a decade-long drift away from the traditional post-Emmys launch window by broadcast networks. And then, of course, most of it stems from the unprecedented dual strikes by the guilds representing writers and actors. You’re not alone in feeling that programming has become sparse.
Well, not “sparse.” More like “sparser.” After all, we haven’t reached the “Let’s all watch Tiger King!” stage yet, but we’re very much in a “Watch NFL games in hopes of spotting Taylor Swift” phase.
Thanks primarily to the studios’ reluctance to fairly pay rank-and-file writers and actors, the broadcast landscape is so odd that retread-loving The CW has the most new scripted programming of any network (even if its dogged determination to become CBC America has me wondering if Hockey Night in Canada will be its next big acquisition).
Angie, does it feel to you like we’re in the middle of The Great TV Slowdown, or is your metaphorical DVR still filled to capacity?
ANGIE HAN: DVR … now that’s a word I haven’t heard in years. To answer your actual question: I have plenty to watch in the sense that I’m catching up on shows released earlier in the year, or even in years past (and if anyone is looking for suggestions, I hear a certain august publication recently put out a list of the 50 best TV shows of the 21st century so far. Just saying).
But it’s certainly noticeable how few new titles are on my to-watch list. September would typically be a bloodbath of network premieres. This year we have The Irrational and Found (both NBC), which seem mostly notable for being among the only broadcast scripted debuts. Cable and streaming aren’t exactly gushing content either, especially compared to this time last year, when we were practically drowning in spaceships and dragons.
There isn’t nothing. For starters, a lot of shows we loved before came back this summer. New seasons of The Afterparty (Apple TV+) and Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) were probably better as star showcases than actual mysteries, but those who are just getting around to them now could do worse than a weekly excuse to marvel at how well Meryl Streep plays the anti-Meryl Streep, or delight in John Cho’s comedic chops. Our Flag Means Death (Max) and Heartstopper (Netflix) delivered more meltingly adorable romance. Killing It (Peacock) seemed to enjoy a slight uptick in buzz for its excellent second season — I’d like to think it was because its anti-capitalist comedy felt so apropos in the summer of strikes, though it probably had more to do with TV critics looking for ways to fill time.
And I haven’t even gotten to our favorite returning show of the season yet …
FIENBERG: The Morning Show! I’m amazed how many people I’ve seen declare that they binged multiple seasons just because they heard the show sent Reese Witherspoon (or her character) into space. Apple TV+’s signature series definitely has another trademark season characterized by the impeccable lighting of Jennifer Aniston’s hair, Billy Crudup and Jon Hamm trying to out-handsome each other, and Reese Witherspoon (or her character) storming the Capitol in the January 6 insurrection. Sigh.
It’s a weird fall in which The Irrational and Found are the standard-bearers for broadcast excellence (neither is excellent). Honestly, I’d barely know it was October at all, except that there’s a new season of American Horror Story and Mike Flanagan has a new spooky limited series on Netflix. In the case of the former, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a show about the making of an American Horror Story season would, at this point, be scarier than what’s on-screen; as for Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher, it’s at least the craziest and angriest of the TV auteur’s recent output — basically Dopesick through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe.
But anyway, when you mention “our favorite returning show,” you’re clearly talking about Reservation Dogs, Sterlin Harjo’s FX-produced, Hulu-distributed sui generis piece of Indigenous coming-of-age storytelling. It just spent two+ months showcasing possibly TV’s best ensemble and meditating on the nature of community and maturity in a way nothing else on TV could touch. Funny. Heartwarming. A perfect final season.
Sing the praises of Reservation Dogs if you will and then contemplate my deep existential question: With Reservation Dogs gone (and Succession and Barry departed in the months before it), what is the best active show on television?
HAN: Ohhhh, that’s a great question. HBO’s Somebody Somewhere is quietly one of the most affecting shows on television. The Bear (FX/Hulu) started solid and then became something truly special in its recent season two. ABC’s Abbott Elementary is a very, very good broadcast sitcom that feels like it has seasons of life left. Are any of those “the next Reservation Dogs“? Maybe not, but they’re all triumphs in their own ways. How about you?
FIENBERG: Well, there’s a new For All Mankind season coming soon and since Apple TV+ released a bunch of pictures and none featured Danny Stevens, I’m hopeful. Eventually there will be a fourth and final season of My Brilliant Friend (HBO). Someday, maybe Pachinko (Apple TV+) and Andor (Disney+) will return. But it’s tough!
HAN: To your point, it does feel like we’re in a transitional period. So many of the shows that have defined the past several years have just wound down — including, of course, the wild and weird and wonderful Reservation Dogs. I believe it to be a modern classic that audiences will discover and rediscover, and whose influence will continue to be felt, for years to come. It also feels like the culmination of a period when the insatiable thirst for more TV allowed for all sorts of projects that might have been deemed too edgy or not “mainstream” enough in a more restrained earlier era.
There’s always going to be the supposedly reliable based-on-IP stuff, from continuations like Frasier (Paramount+) to book adaptations like All the Light We Cannot See (Netflix). Some of it is quite good! Amazon’s Gen V is just as deliciously spiky as The Boys. Netflix’s One Piece is a zany ray of sunshine, and the rare live-action anime adaptation that sings. Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry is a deliciously persuasive argument for Lewis Pullman as a romantic leading man. And I’m always interested in whatever Mike Flanagan and his rotating troupe want to do with great works of classic horror. But my hope is that the post-Peak TV slowdown won’t play it too safe — that it won’t spell an end to creative risk-taking.
FIENBERG: So. Much. IP. And so much IP that doesn’t seem to fully grasp what anybody enjoyed about the original. Instead of a lean-and-mean action romp about one man’s quest for revenge, Peacock’s The Continental: From the World of John Wick is a badly developed ensemble piece stretched across three feature-length episodes. And while the third episode is, indeed, an absolute torrent of badassery, early episodes are dominated by talk and a hammy Mel Gibson.
Disney+ is in a particular IP rut, which isn’t surprising. Secret Invasion was probably the streamer’s brand-name nadir, an impossibly dull espionage thriller that squanders Samuel L. Jackson and a slew of big names. Ahsoka is much better, but it still panders primarily to viewers of several animated series and suffers from a dull title character, though some of the performances — by Natasha Liu Bordizzo and the late, great Ray Stevenson, in particular, are a blast. And the second season of Loki isn’t bad, but remarkable production design and the endearingly twisted Miss Minutes — the most complicated TV character who’s also an animated clock — don’t make up for a plot that barely feels connected to Tom Hiddleston’s character from the MCU.
You mentioned at least one of my under-the-radar fall favorites, the even bleaker and funnier second season of the outrageous underdog capitalist satire, Killing It. I’ve also been loving a trio of unscripted underdog stories including the emotional second season of FX’s Welcome to Wrexham and Netflix’s Wrestlers, the latter from the ultra-capable team behind Last Chance U. Best of all may be HBO’s Telemarketers, half Michael Moore-style muckraking exposé of the telemarketing industry and half bumbling comedy about how hard it is to do a Michael Moore-style muckraking exposé.
HAN: My favorite new watch has been Showtime’s Dreaming Whilst Black, which — like all our faves — is blessed with a voice that feels wholly its own. It’s a comedy about an aspiring filmmaker faced with creative compromise at every turn that itself feels joyously, refreshingly uncompromised. I think we probably are headed for the Great TV Slowdown, as you put it, even if the ramp-up after the end of the WGA strike (and hopefully soon the end of the SAG-AFTRA strike) means it’ll be a while before we can really assess what it all amounts to. But as far as I’m concerned, there will always be room for shows as confident and daring and unique as that one.
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