THE GOOD PLACE, THIS IS US, SPEECHLESS, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR, PITCH, THE EXORCIST

First Look/Last Look: September 18–24, 2016

Every year, in “First Look/Last Look,” I pan for TV gold in the fetid riverbed of the new fall season. While I always hope this experiment will yield at least one show that I want to add to my regular viewing—if not reviewing—schedule, I’m not holding my breath. Call me pessimistic, but, in most cases, I expect my first look to also be my last.

What is going on this season? I've watched almost every new show so far—the odd Kevin James sit-com or MacGyver-reboot notwithstanding—and I haven't really hated anything. Am I getting soft in my old age, or has TV just gotten so much better? Has the general TV renaissance we are currently enjoying inspired everyone to up their game accordingly?

Which is not to say I loved everything that premiered this week, or even that I will be watching every show that premiered this week going forward. (I didn't, and I won't.) But even the shows that are not quite my cup of tea strike me as honorable efforts, attempting to do something a little more interesting and ambitious than the usual network swill.

THE GOOD PLACE (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c)

The Good Place

Though not my favorite show of the week, the best example of this encouraging phenomenon is probably The Good Place, from creator Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation). A surprisingly high-concept endeavor, The Good Place finds the recently deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) arriving in the titular afterlife, a colorful suburban paradise lovingly designed by an avuncular "architect" named Michael (Ted Danson). While Michael explains that "heaven" and "hell" are erroneous concepts—"Every religion got about 5 percent right," he says—this is nonetheless Eleanor's reward for living a good and selfless life on Earth. The problem is, there has been a bureaucratic mistake of some kind: Eleanor—by her own admission, and as confirmed in flashbacks—was a horrible person, who clearly belongs in the other place. Her very presence throws off the cosmic machinery of The Good Place, creating surreal glitches like a herd of giraffes roaming the streets and a shower of garbage falling from the sky. Rather than confess her imposter status and be sentenced to eternal torment, Eleanor undertakes a crash-course of ethical self-improvement under the tutelage of her assigned "soul-mate" Chidi (William Jackson Harper).

The Good Place is not terribly deep or challenging, but neither is it the safe, formulaic sit-com we might expect NBC to bet on at 8:30 on Thursday nights. Though always with a playful lightness of touch, it throws a lot of fairly clever ideas at the audience very quickly, and—in the first three episodes that aired this week—provides enough genuine surprises and world-building mysteries to feel fresh and mildly intriguing. (In its imaginative, somewhat fearless approach to plotting, it reminds me tonally more of something like Jane the Virgin than episodic sit-coms like Parks & Rec.) I don't think it's quite must-see TV for me: I'm not really a sit-com kind of guy anyway, and watching this show I kept wishing for something just a bit weirder and edgier. (I have a bad habit of re-casting and re-assigning shows that feel like they just miss my sweet spot. Here, I kept wishing for someone like Bryan Fuller at the helm: it feels like one of his concepts handed off to a safer, more traditional creator. And, though Bell isn't bad, I keep wondering if it might work better with someone more convincingly misanthropic—Krysten Ritter?—in the lead.) But those are just confessions of personal preference: The Good Place is not quite my kind of show, but it's a respectably ambitious and amusingly creative attempt to do something different with the genre.

THIS IS US (Tuesdays at 10/9c)

This Is Us

If The Good Place is a show that with a premise that feels slightly edgier than its execution, This is Us—from creator Dan Folgelman (Galavant)may be the opposite: it has all the outward appearances of a very traditional, tear-jerking family drama, but it is elevated above its genre by some sharp writing and encouragingly layered performances.

In the pilot episode, we are introduced to a number of different characters, whose only apparent connection is that they all share the same birthday. Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) is a loving husband whose pregnant wife (Mandy Moore) is facing a difficult labor with triplets. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) is a successful businessman who has finally tracked down the father (Ron Cephas Jones) who abandoned him as a baby. Kevin (Justin Hartley) is the disgruntled leading man of an insipid sit-com called "The Man-ny," while his twin sister Kate (Chrissy Metz) is an obese woman who finds herself flirting with an obese man (Chris Sullivan) at her support group.

This is Us is about the bonds of family, and it's fairly shameless in its emotional manipulation. (It's only at the end of the pilot that we fully realize just how manipulative it is.) But somehow the tunes it's determined to play on our heartstrings are more enjoyable than most, so you may find you don't mind so much. There is a likable, realistic wit in the writing, and the performances universally add complexity and depth to what are—so far—single-issue characters. Even the big, moving, grandfatherly speech from Jack and Rebecca's kindly obstetrician (Gerald McRaney) manages to have just enough substance and realism to stay just on the right side of treacly. This is Us is shameless, but it somehow—just barely—manages not to be phony. It's another show I doubt I'll make time to watch every week, but I can see sitting down for a comforting binge sometime when I've got a free block of time.

SPEECHLESS (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30/7:30c)

speechless

ABC has become the most reliable network purveyor of smart, inclusive comedies in the 21st century, and Speechless looks like another fairly solid entry. Minnie Driver plays Maya Dimeo, the ferocious matriarch of a family that includes husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), sons J.J. (Micah Fowler) and Ray (Mason Cook), and daughter Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). J.J. has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, and spells out words with a laser pointer; in the pilot episode, Maya has—not for the first time, we are given to understand—uprooted the entire family to place J.J. in a school that is more accommodating of—in fact, downright sycophantic towards—his special needs.

This is another show that could have gone badly wrong, but so far Speechless creator Scott Silveri is doing a lot of things right—beginning with casting a very good actor (Fowler) who actually has cerebral palsy. Driver gives a funny, sometimes caustic performance as a woman who believably—and not always successfully—straddles the line between Mama Bear and Monster; in her fierce determination to look out for J.J. she often neglects the needs of her other family members, and almost always ignores the demands of common courtesy and social niceties. There's a snappy, brittle, almost misanthropic edge to the writing that manages to gesture towards real emotions and challenges without ever descending into cheap sentiment or phony inspiration. Some of the satire—particularly about the school's overly enthusiastic embrace of J.J.—is a little broad, and clashes slightly with the more genuine character comedy of the family unit. But that's a minor complaint about a promising show that deserves time to iron out its wrinkles.

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (FOX, Wednesdays at 10/9c)

designated-survivor

I am less sanguine about Designated Survivor, a show that so far seems to be all premise. Granted, the premise is a good one: Kiefer Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, who begins the pilot as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and ends it as ruler of the free world after a terrorist attack during the State of the Union kills the President and everyone else in the line of succession.

It's such a good premise that I can't believe no one has tackled it before, and yet somehow Designated Survivor left me hoping that maybe someone else will tackle it again and do it justice. The pilot—which covers the big, dramatic event—should feel world shaking, but never achieves any urgency of stakes or emotional excitement: it's oddly cold and distant, and kind of dull. By any measure this story should be about a man in way over his head, but Sutherland turns out to be disastrous casting: after too many seasons of 24, he seems far too tough and competent to draw any sympathy or concern from the audience. He flutters for a few unconvincing moments in a White House bathroom, and then emerges instantly confident and seemingly ready and able to rule the world.

The real problem with Designated Survivor, I suspect, is that it's not really interested in exploring its own intriguing premise with any sophistication. The pilot seems to drastically underestimate the impact on the country and the world if America's entire federal government were suddenly annihilated, and seems instead to be in a hurry to get to hunting down terrorists and staging tense negotiations with foreign ambassadors. I would watch a realistic show about an overwhelmed political appointee trying to tackle the daunting challenge of rebuilding two branches of government from scratch. (Oh, for the lost season of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing that put Harry Groener's gentle Secretary of Agriculture behind the Resolute Desk.) But Designated Survivor's pilot suggests it's going to be something far dumber: a tough show about a tough president forced to be tough. Not interested.

PITCH (FOX, Thursdays at 9/8c)

pitch

Easily my favorite of this week's network premieres, Pitch is not cutting-edge storytelling, but it's good old-fashioned formula TV done right. Kylie Bunbury plays Ginny Baker, who becomes the first woman to play Major League Baseball when—in the pilot—she takes the mound as the starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres. Ginny must deal with a media firestorm, the casual sexism of teammates who see her as a P.R. stunt, and all the weight that comes with having the hopes and dreams of millions of adorable little girls riding on her shoulders. (The team assigns her jersey number 43. "One up from Jackie [Robinson]," the owner says. "It seemed appropriate." No pressure there.)

I'm admittedly a baseball fan from way back, so Pitch always had a good chance of landing in my strike zone. (Fox's collaboration with MLB, and with its own sporting news organization, gives the baseball scenes a scale and veracity rarely seen in fictional dramas.) But Pitch wouldn't work without the exact right actress to sell this underdog story, and it found her—and then some—in a star-making turn from Kylie Bunbury. Compellingly watchable, Bunbury gives a strong, instantly sympathetic performance as a woman trying to locate her own strength as everyone else in the world tries to tell her who she is and what she means. (Re-watching the pilot, I was surprised at how little dialogue Ginny has: Bunbury quietly embodies both the insecurities and self-possession of this character largely in reaction to the swirling eddy of crap around her.) It's a brilliant lead performance, and it gets excellent support from veterans like Dan Lauria (as the crusty manager), Ali Larter (as Ginny's ferocious agent), and—in a masterstroke of casting—Bob Balaban as the team's dryly quirky owner.

Pitch isn't perfect. The dialogue occasionally uses a hammer blow when a lighter touch would do, and characters—apart from Ginny—are presented so far in very broad, almost stereotypical strokes. (I am not yet enamored, for example, by the cocky veteran catcher played by an unrecognizable Mark-Paul Gosselaar: I think he's supposed to be a roguish, lovable asshole, but so far he mostly reads as just an asshole.) And the show is co-created (along with Rick Singer) by Dan Fogelman, who—based on the evidence of Pitch and This is Us this week—has some serious daddy issues. As much as it's about Ginny's debut, the pilot is largely about Ginny's complicated relationship with the father (Michael Beach) who ruthlessly pushed her to this moment: these family dynamics feel real, but they're undercut—as they were in This is Us—by a final-moment revelation that makes us feel more manipulated than we probably needed to be.

But these are minor quibbles: Pitch is undeniably a lot of fun, and Bunbury's excellent performance promises to elevate it into something more than a rousing sports story. I'm rooting for Bunbury, I'm rooting for Ginny, and I'm rooting for Pitch.  

THE EXORCIST (FOX, Fridays at 9/8c)

the-exorcist

File this one under "pleasantly-surprised-due-to-low-expectations." A TV takeoff on William Peter Blatty's classic horror novel—or William Friedkin's iconic 1973 film—sounded like the laziest idea ever. (And seeing that showrunner Jeremy Slater's brief pedigree included co-authoring the abysmally dull 2015 Fantastic Four movie didn't raise my hopes any higher.) But The Exorcist's pilot episode is very strong: well cast, patiently (and creepily) directed, and with a fidelity to tone that largely assuages my fears the series will go either silly or sensationalistic. There are still a hundred ways this show could go wrong, but so far it's as honorable an homage as I could imagine. 

Geena Davis plays Angela Rance, a Chicago mother who is dealing with a lot of shit. Her husband (Alan Ruck) is suffering from some form of dementia. Her teenage daughter Kat (Brianne Howey) has become sullen and withdrawn, following a car accident that killed one of her friends. Other daughter Casey (Hannah Kasulka) seems happy and well-adjusted, but that could change: Angela has been hearing voices in the walls, and becomes convinced that there may be a demon in her house.

And so, naturally, she enlists the help of her parish priest, the handsome and charming Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera). As in Blatty's novel and Friedkin's film, this young priest is struggling with his own faith, and is definitely something of a skeptic about demonic possession; he will need help from a wizened and weary older priest—an old hand at fighting demons—named Father Marcus (Ben Daniels, excellent here).

The Exorcist sets a few feet wrong. Angela's leap to an assumption of demonic interference happens a little too quickly and largely off-screen, for example, and so feels unwarranted. (The advantage of doing this story as a series should be that the show could take it's time sowing its disconcerting seeds, but one suspects Fox was nervous about taking too long to get to the good stuff.) A couple of jump scares—a crow flying into a window, for example—feel slightly cheap, in every sense. (To be fair, this was true of the original as well.) But Slater gets right what he needs to get right: he approaches the material seriously, the characters feel real enough to invest in, and the entire production is moody, atmospheric, and subtly unnerving. (Not everything is subtle, of course—some moments are aggressively, and scarily, un-subtle—but there's enough subtlety around the edges to give it at least the illusion of depth and substance.) I'm not in love with The Exorcist yet, but it has the potential to be TV horror done right. (I'm counting on it to be everything American Horror Story isn't, and so far Slater and I seem to be on the same page about that.) Besides: a good show to watch on Friday night? Who hasn't prayed for that?

NEXT WEEK

It's a light week for premieres, especially on networks that are going to be overburdened with sports and presidential debates. SyFy has a new apocalypse drama called Aftermath that I may check out, but the real action is online: Amazon is launching Woody Allen's first TV series, the six-episode Crisis in Six Scenes (not excited), and Netflix is dropping all 13 episodes of Luke Cage (very excited). I may also catch up with writer/director Joe Swanberg's Netflix's series Easy, which dropped this week. (I just didn't get to it: sorry.)

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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