The hunt for fall TV brings a last gasp of new shows and -- perhaps at long last -- a shift in old habits
A couple of weeks ago, NBC announced that Season 5 of its hit series "This Is Us" will premiere on Nov. 10, with a two-hour episode. How nice.
That the show had yet to begin filming -- that few scripted dramas and comedies can produce anything right now because of coronavirus prevention guidelines -- is not the point. NBC is engaging in that same kind of fantasy planning with its fall TV schedule that many of us have engaged in ever since pandemic shutdowns started in March: Maybe we can have the outdoor party, if everyone brings their own utensils. Maybe the dorms will be safe enough to start the semester. Maybe we can see Mom at Thanksgiving. Maybe we'll drive instead of fly.
The network version of this is similar: Maybe we can get by with game shows and competitions. Maybe "American Ninja Warrior" is better when it's smaller, with no crowd, no hugs, no sharing of sweat. Maybe viewers won't notice that the "new" hospital drama ("Transplant" on NBC) is another country's rerun.
This is us, indeed -- circling potential dates on the calendar and telling ourselves that somehow everything will go as planned.
At the outset of the stay-at-home recommendations, TV seemed like American culture's sweet reprieve in a terrible time, and to a remarkable degree, it has been. Cineplexes closed, stages went dark, but, oh, boy, this TV critic had never been busier reviewing new shows, or felt as if his work mattered more to his readers. I spend a lot of time answering their emails, giving advice that might help navigate the unlimited and overwhelming choices facing today's viewer. Many of these readers had long resisted the streaming revolution but are now signing on to Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus and the rest.
While the industry reeled like any other (especially given Hollywood's gig-based economy for talent and crew), its front-facing attitude has remained upbeat, innovative and at times heroically committed to adding new content. Everything else may be closed, but TV shows keep coming. The summer schedule looked a little leaner than usual, but a spirit of togetherness prevailed as viewers enthusiastically discovered imported shows, or finally got around to watching recent classics, or admired the inventive pluck of late-night hosts and others who transitioned to the weird disconnect of at-home broadcasts.
Now, attempting to honor an old ritual known as the "fall TV season," we've arrived at a slightly more desperate hour. Yet one can still be amazed at just how much television managed to reach the finish line -- or, as with the case of HBO Max's darkly funny caper "The Flight Attendant," got really close to completion.
During a virtual news conference with TV critics this summer (something we would typically do in person, in Beverly Hills, Calif.), I could sense how frustrating it was for the producers and cast of "The Flight Attendant" to know just how little of the show's final bits they had left to film, so that their series can still premiere later this fall -- which I hope it does, because it's one of my favorite picks for the season. By highlighting it in this fall preview section, I suppose I am complicit in the same crossed-fingers optimism that the networks are displaying. Now multiply that hope and frustration by several dozen shows. May they all find a way to finish that doesn't involve the already worn-out narrative trope of Zoom calls.
While the broadcast networks wait (and wait) to put their scripted shows into full production, the premium cable networks and streaming services are dispensing what is probably the last of their big reserves.
Some networks made some wise switcheroos early on -- HBO moved its Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant drama "The Undoing" from a spring premiere date to Oct. 25. Fox kept the high-tech action miniseries "Next" from airing last season so that it can now premiere Oct. 6.
With eight of 11 episodes shot, FX put the brakes on April's premiere of Season 4 of "Fargo" to figure out how best to finish making it; the series resumed shooting in Chicago in August, has wrapped, and will now return Sept. 27. FX chairman John Landgraf told TV critics in a virtual news conference on Sept. 9 that the "Fargo" cast and crew, about 500 people, worked under strict conditions for a streamlined 25-day shooting schedule to complete the episodes.
CBS delayed a long-finished season of its Emmy-winning reality stalwart "The Amazing Race," and can now reintroduce it to viewers on Oct. 14 like an old forgotten friend. (Hey, everyone -- remember how fun it was to dash through all the world's airports?)
Network executives came up with other solutions that, in a positive light, can be interpreted as a much-needed willingness to broaden the mainstream viewer's appetite: CBS is giving a prime-time slot to the first (excellent, I thought) season of "Star Trek: Discovery," which premiered in 2017 as a marquee offering on its then-new subscription streaming service, CBS All Access, greatly narrowing its potential reach to devoted Trekkies, mainly. Now it gets a chance to shine, where good sci-fi so rarely does.
Foreign-made content is another fine answer to a crisis of supply and demand -- and a bit of a victory lap for all the many, many viewers who have long believed that even the most mediocre foreign-made dramas and comedies are always better than American-made TV. (The sudden rise of foreign TV shows reminds me of one of my favorite TV guessing games, whenever there's something curiously askew about a show's ephemeral feeling: Is it Canadian?)
To be honest, I sort of like not knowing what will be on in another few months. Life in TV land was already too dependent on predictable ideas and scheduling decisions, and it showed, starting with the notion of having "seasons" in an era when people discover TV in their own way, at their own pace. Understanding that billions of advertising dollars are at stake, it's clear that there is no longer a compelling reason to perform the ritual dances of the fall season -- adhering to an outmoded time table that lends itself to ho-hum programming.
It's also good that the spigot has been turned off to a trickle, particularly at a moment of social and political upheaval. It gives the smartest people in the business an opportunity to stop and reconsider their choices, to rescind some offers while making new ones: What stories should be on TV that often aren't? What kind of characters are viewers hoping to see? How can law-and-order dramas get better at addressing systemic injustice? Who says average Americans will only watch shows about average Americans?
For too long, TV has been able to do things the way it always did them -- habits that might make safe business-sense but resist the potential for better, more inclusive storytelling. Now that the pandemic has proved that the medium is a vital diversion when the rest of the world shuts down, the industry should take this opportunity to shed what's left of its old skin -- not only in terms of content, but with traditional scheduling, episode lengths and everything else.
Maybe this is the last fall TV preview I'll ever need to write. Wouldn't that be a nice start to a revolution?