This is the worst fall TV season ever, but then, it’s always the worst fall TV season ever. Critics and viewers repeat the same lament every time the leaves change. It’s a comforting ritual, and not without truth: In any season, the majority of new shows are mediocre at best, and we know from experience not to get too attached to the good ones because they might be gone by Christmas.
But there’s a (somewhat) new wrinkle this year: Judging from ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox’s new lineups, the network-cable quality gap has become a chasm. If you’re a fan of the strongest scripted shows on cable, it’s hard to take the broadcast offerings seriously, because no matter how spirited and slick they are, you’re aware that they’re shackled by artistic and commercial constraints. Fox’s The Mob Doctor, about a Chicago hospital resident stitching up wounded gangsters, is a sharp portrait of a woman trying to be moral in immoral circumstances, but compared with FX’s Sons of Anarchy and AMC’s Breaking Bad, it can’t help but seem neutered. ABC’s 666 Park Avenue, a horror soap set in a luxury apartment building, strikes a nifty balance between haunted-house thrills and Twilight Zone–ish “Be careful what you wish for” irony, but if you’ve experienced the turbocharged camp of FX’s American Horror Story, it’s as unsatisfying as a midnight movie gutted by network censors. ABC’s alien-invasion comedy The Neighbors is as agreeably nuts as a network sitcom can be, but it, too, has a hesitant quality; it keeps threatening to tip over into Farrelly-brothers-style body-horror comedy but can’t. Here and there, though, you still find new series worth committing to—shows that create a uniquely personal fictional world and draw you in so deep that you’re too busy committing to what’s onscreen to imagine what isn’t.
First among equals is ABC’s military thriller Last Resort, starring Andre Braugher as Marcus Chaplin, skipper of a nuclear-sub crew that disobeys suspect orders to level Pakistan and flees to a tropical island. I’ve been preaching about this drama from Shawn Ryan (The Shield) since I saw the pilot this summer. That the show premiered to lackluster ratings has only increased my fervor. Braugher’s rock-solid authority has never been more cleverly used. By the end of the pilot, we were already seeing unseemly hints of joy in Marcus’s defiance. His calm gaze masks self-immolating machismo. When the crew seizes a nato radar station and engages in a theoretically endless standoff with the United States, things get tactically and emotionally messy. Because the crew members have been freed from their established identities as sailors, Americans, spouses, and parents, they can reinvent themselves, even start their own makeshift version of civilization; the sense that everything they knew has suddenly become unmoored lends Last Resort’s jungle gunfights and nuclear brinkmanship a touch of existential dread.
By the second episode—which revealed that Marcus might be acting more out of private trauma than policy disagreement—glimmers of darkness emerged. This looks to be the rare show that takes the implications of its premise seriously. The stakes are dire. The crew is splitting into factions. The sub’s executive officer, Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman), listens over the phone to his wife, Christine (Jessy Schram), being interrogated and mind-effed by military brass and threatened with worse. The longer Marcus and the crew stay on that Lost-y island, the harder it’ll be to hew to any mission, national or personal.
ABC’s musical drama Nashville, created by Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, is as grounded as Last Resort is fantastic. It’s been described as a country-and-western gloss on All About Eve, with a crafty young thing (Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes) conniving to unseat an established star (Connie Britton’s Rayna James), but the pilot feels like a showbiz variant of Dallas—a Sun Belt soap about the intersection of sex, politics, and art.
Country has often obsessed over aging and loss of potency—and these themes are embodied in Nashville’s constellation of strivers. Rayna’s latest album isn’t selling, and her current tour is struggling. When her record label offers her a chance to “co-headline” with—i.e., open for—Juliette, a southern-fried Taylor Swift whose vocals are Auto-Tuned to a fare-thee-well, her downfall seems ordained; but this not-so-old gal still has tricks up her sleeve. The supporting players are intriguing, too: Rayna’s dad, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe, oozing menace), an aging power broker plotting a major real-estate development; Rayna’s bandleader and chief co-writer, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), whom Juliette aims to hire away (and bed); Rayna’s husband, Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), a former politician who lets Lamar rope him into a mayoral run. The show has nothing in common with the 1975 Robert Altman film Nashville save an insider’s eye and ear, but the details sing. “It’s kind of alt-country-punk, but more cerebral,” says a young singer-songwriter, Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson), pimping his music to Deacon, who replies, “Around here, ‘punk’ is code for ‘can’t play at all.’ ” When Rayna visits the offices of the record company her success helped build, she knows she’s in trouble when she looks at the wall of fame in the waiting room and sees a giant poster of Juliette dwarfing one of her. To quote Patty Loveless, “You don’t even know who I am / You left me a long time ago.”
Of the season’s new sitcoms, only Fox’s The Mindy Project seems built to last. Co-created by its star, longtime Office actor-writer-producer Mindy Kaling, it’s an exuberant goof on romantic-comedy clichés that offers some of the same satisfactions as the real thing. Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN, at first seems a typical sitcom heroine whose career is undone by her chaotic love life. But these standard tropes are mere foundation for one of the season’s few uniquely personal statements—a comedy about princess fantasies and feminism colliding. Like Kaling, Mindy is Indian American; the character’s wish to embody the dominant culture’s illusions is a big part of what drives her. And she’s not always easy to like. Mindy’s drinking is problematic from the start, but to its credit, the show’s bouncy tone suggests unreliable narration rather than special pleading. When the intoxicated heroine rides a bike into a pool and hallucinates a conversation with a doll on the bottom, it’s a go-for-broke moment; between perverse touches like that one and Kaling’s aggressive kookiness and boundless libido, The Mindy Project seems like a cable series that somehow landed on Fox. I hope that doesn’t end up being a curse, because I consider it a compliment.