Several network series return this week, but the fall season starts in earnest next week. Before the premieres kick off, here are SoS TV Editor Kate Kulzick, SoS Managing TV Editor Deepayan Sengupta, and SoS contributor Randy Dankevitch’s initial impressions of the networks’ new offerings.
Note: Our thoughts are based on pilots that are works in progress, so there may be changes to these episodes before they air.
Madam Secretary (8pm ET, CBS)
Premieres Sunday, Sept. 21st, 2014
Shows set in the political arena get a new addition this fall with CBS’ Madam Secretary. Created by Barbara Hall, who also created Joan of Arcadia, the show focuses on Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), a former CIA analyst who unexpectedly finds herself as the new US Secretary of State. Morgan Freeman is among the show’s executive producers.
While Sound on Sight was unable to see the pilot for this show prior to its premiere, the series itself holds a lot of promise. An exploration of political machinations is a fascinating premise in and of itself and if the show looks at the more serious aspects of the job, it could provide a rare insight into the position of Secretary of State. Casting Leoni as the lead also opens door to portraying how a woman deals with, and operates in, the American political system, a system that has not been kind to women in its history.
This show smartly avoids any comparisons to previous works like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington by having its protagonist be someone who’s familiar with the system, but who voluntarily left. Its success will lie in effectively portraying the gulf between what should be done and what can be done in political circles, and how people bridge that divide. While there’s a potential for comedy in the way McCord deals with needless bureaucracy, the show is likely to be a better fit as a somewhat serious exploration of politics and politicians. With a cast that includes Zeljko Ivanek and Bebe Neuwirth alongside Leoni, they’re more than capable of carrying heavy material. If the writers choose to go down this route, Madam Secretary may end up being a show worth watching. [DS]
Mulaney (9:30pm ET, FOX)
Premieres Sunday, Oct. 5th, 2014
Mulaney is about a comedian living in New York, features a well-known female SNL alum, and enjoys poking the audience with the ironies of life. But it’s unfair to compare it with Seinfeld, as the media is doing, despite the two shows being multi-cam studio sitcoms with bits of stand-up opening and closing each episode.
Mulaney is clearly a work in progress and awkwardly fits into its live-audience format through its first few episodes. John Mulaney certainly is charming enough and when Nasim Pedrad’s Jane is able to transcend Crazy Woman syndrome, her charm and ability to be Mulaney’s comedic counterpart are on full display. But the show suffers when it moves outside these characters. Mulaney’s comedy friend Motif (newcomer Seaton Smith) doesn’t garner much interest and Martin Short’s recurring role as a legendary comedian/game show host/Mulaney’s new boss and mentor doesn’t quite add the manic energy the writers appear to be looking for. The show also features Zack Pearlman as a Zach Galifianakis-esque dude-bro clone and Elliott Gould as a gay, plant-owning neighbor, two odd roles that speak to the age and environment that Mulaney is launching in and classic examples of a comedy reaching for simplistic jokes.
With Fox committed to sixteen half-hour episodes, there’s nowhere for Mulaney to go but up from its pilot, which is mostly a comedic dud save for Mulaney’s stand-up bits and the few scenes where the rigid script relaxes and lets the very capable performers have some fun with the material. Whether Mulaney is the savior of the multi-cam sitcom remains to be seen, but with a chance to grow and some genuinely amusing material in subsequent episodes, there’s time for Mulaney to earn its apparent reputation as comedy’s Next Big Thing, provided it can find its audience on an already-crowded Sunday night. [RD]
Cristela (8:30pm ET, ABC)
Premieres Friday, Oct. 10th, 2014
The second of two standup-based sitcoms debuting this fall (the other being the aforementioned Mulaney), Cristela comes from comedian Cristela Alonzo, who stars as the titular character, a law student finishing up her degree and interning at a law firm. She’s older than her colleagues, having paid her way through school and dropped out as needed to care for her mother, but she’s determined to finish her degree and build the life for herself she’s dreamed of. Joning Alonzo is Maria Canals Barrera as Cristela’s sister Daniela and Carlos Ponce as Daniela’s husband Felix, with whom Cristela is living. Rounding out the family are Daniela and Felix’s children and Cristela and Daniela’s Mexican mother.
There’s little original here, but Alonzo is likable in the lead role and the cast has a comfortable rapport. Fans of comedian Gabriel Iglesias will enjoy his popping up here in a recurring role, but just how prevalent he will be in the series remains to be seen. Watching Cristela juggle her work life and family life could quickly get old—a lot will come down to how much creativity the writers can bring to this familiar premise. However, those looking for a family friendly sitcom are likely to find it a logical timeslot partner to Last Man Standing. [KK]
Constantine (10pm ET, NBC)
Premieres Friday, Oct. 24th, 2014
An adaptation of the Hellblazer comics, Constantine centers on demonologist and exorcist John Constantine (Matt Ryan), a fan-favorite character. True to the comic, Constantine is a blond Brit (the series does not share continuity with the film of the same name) living in the US whose attempts to lay low are foiled by the intervention of original character Manny (Harold Perrineau), an angel who teases the notion of salvation, should Constantine join the battle between Heaven and Hell. Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), Constantine’s oldest friend, is another carryover from the comic and Zed Martin (Angélica Celaya) will reportedly be popping up as well.
While Ryan is charismatic as Constantine, quickly finding the character’s sarcastic and dry humor, the rest of the show struggles around him; there’s far too much hand-holding in a series that should be focused on action and character. Halford is fun as Chas and Perrineau makes an impression in his few scenes, but the pilot struggles, weighed down with repetitious exposition and entire scenes that go nowhere. Hopefully this is a series that will quickly find its feet, once it’s past its incredibly pilot-y first episode. Constantine is a great character and Ryan is up to playing him, but a series needs more than a strong lead and without better writing, Constantine could fade fast. [KK]