Betting on which pilots will actually yield good shows is a fools' errand: On network, quality shows might just disappear in two weeks, while on cable or streaming, they might devolve into something far more average over the length of their respective runs. But it's hard to shake the back-to-school-season hope that a whole slate of new shows brings, and easy to forget that pilots are not always indicative of a show's long-term quality. (Comedies in particular tend to grow into themselves in their first year.) Based solely on promise, then, these are the shows you ought to check out this fall—ranging from a horror reboot to several raucous family comedies, and from 1960s New York to small-town Mississippi to heaven, or something like it.
Pitch, Fox, September 22
Made in cooperation with Major League Baseball, this series is premised on something that the league has yet to see happen in our world: The debut of a female star. The magnetic Kylie Bunbury sells both star pitcher Ginny Baker’s athleticism on the field and her struggles off it: Rather than wilting at teammates’ mockery and media scrutiny, she does what an athlete does and pushes through it. Time will tell if a show about a sport whose popularity has dwindled in recent years, and one whose win-loss count over the course of a season tends to provide all the drama a fan might need, can support a show week-in and -out. But keep your eye on Bunbury’s gritty, internal performance. From her first moment onscreen, she’s got that intangible toughness team scouts, and TV fans, look for.
The Exorcist, Fox, September 23
An update of established intellectual property—one of cinema’s most famous horror movies, at that—is exactly the sort of show that “should” be hackwork, the sort of thing you’d imagine a network would put little effort into, assuming core fans would tune in regardless. Imagine my surprise that The Exorcist‘s is a tensely plotted, expertly directed, and genuinely scary hour, with a welcomely spooky turn by Geena Davis. It’s a promising start that keeps the film’s sense of the presence of real evil. As something less than a fan of horror, I’m unlikely to watch weekly, but genre devotees will find much to keep them hooked.
Frequency, the CW, October 5
Speaking of updates of movie properties, Frequency may be one of the year’s biggest surprises simply for the fact of its existence: Who was hankering for a remake of 2000’s Jim Caviezel supernatural crime drama? And yet the new show is, from its first moments, a propulsive and thought-provoking drama, perhaps the best drama pilot on any broadcast network. Peyton List plays Raimy, a detective who’s been toying with ham radios since childhood, when her late father (Riley Smith) taught her how to use them. Twenty years after the eve of his death, she manages—somehow—to contact him. Their communication helps Raimy come to terms with her relationship with her father, but (as any time-travel story fan could predict) alters both the past and the present. No matter how exciting or well-made, not every show feels, from its first episode, like one that could sustain seasons of story. This one does.
This Is Us, NBC, September 20
This unapologetically hokey hour opens by asking how its four central plotlines—that of a depressive TV star, an obese woman trying to lose weight, a successful corporate type looking for his father, and a couple expecting triplets—and closes by revealing the connection. It’s a predictable twist, but still one that has the gut-level satisfaction you get when pieces click into place. Not everything about the show works for me in its early going: Actress Chrissy Metz deserves a character trait besides “heavyset” and “sad,” and the show weirdly seems to have no idea how famous Justin Hartley’s actor character is. It’s underbaked. And yet the raw material is there. The actors, including The People v. O.J. Simpson standout Sterling K. Brown, are game and good, and the foundation is solidly rooted in the weepie tradition. If they nail the details over time, this could become the best sort of network drama: Square, and proud of it.
The Good Place, NBC, September 19
A wittily written half-hour that will need to stretch in order to sustain itself, this show is premised on a dead woman (Kristen Bell) who finds she’s ended up in “the Good Place” thanks to a clerical error. (Petty, venal, and rude, she was meant for hell.) Ted Danson rules over the place, which is governed by little touches from every major religion, as well as straight-up flights of imagination. (You can drink as much as you want in the Good Place without incurring a hangover.) From the mind of Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur, the show is a sign of life for true creativity on network TV.
Speechless, ABC, September 21
ABC has done very well in recent years with shows that depict families from all across the spectrum of American life, including black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. Neither of those shows feels a bit tokenistic, and neither does Speechless, whose protagonist, played by Minnie Driver, is the mother of a boy with cerebral palsy, fighting back against her lower-middle-class status to attempt to get the very best for her son. She and her family have to make meaningful choices and sacrifices even in the first episode—and yet Driver’s force-of-nature energy keeps this firmly rooted in the realm of comedy.
American Housewife, ABC, October 11
Another family comedy from ABC, and this one substantially rougher: Katy Mixon plays a middle-class homemaker in upper-class Westport, Conn., a woman obsessed with ensuring that she’s not the heaviest woman in a town full of FitBit-wearing yoginis. The show has a long way to go in terms of building out both Mixon’s character and the show’s world, but something about her commitment to the role—swerving from anger to duplicitous sweetness in order to maintain what tiny bit of social status she has—made me want to see more.
Queen Sugar, OWN, September 6
Made with style and supreme directorial brio by Ava DuVernay (Selma), this drama depicts three siblings trying to rebuild relationships that are rooted both in tradition and in bone-deep misunderstanding. They find themselves back together at their father’s sugar plantation in Louisiana after high-flying exile daughter Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) shows up, fleeing her NBA star husband’s scandal. Gardner, an outsider trying to recall the rules of the home she left, gets the juiciest material to play in the series’s early going, but Rutina Wesley and Kofi Siriboe are fantastic, too, as the siblings undergoing quiet crises of their own. All three seem to click, immediately, into DuVernay’s unflashy style, which, moving deliberately, allows disagreements to fester and moments of connection to bloom.
Good Girls Revolt, Amazon, October 28
This show displays verve and promise in its depiction of the famous uprising of female assistants at a fictionalized Newsweek. In the 1960s, the magazine relied on female labor in support of male glory, passing over the women who did much of the publication’s work in favor of their bosses; they rose up, aided by lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton (played here by Joy Bryant, who shows up near pilot’s end as the embodiment of stoic power). It’s a corner of history that lends itself well to a Mad Men-ish glamour—expense accounts, nice dresses in grotty offices—if not necessarily the incredible levels of insight that characterized that show. If Good Girls Revolt more often, in its pilot, defaults to the other Mad Men mode, gawking at wrongheaded people in history and attempting just to get us to root for justice delivered, it’s a worthier goal than many shows. And not all of them have this show’s ability to merge the grinding process of seeking justice with effervescent fun.
Better Things, FX, September 8
This comedic drama stars Louie regular Pamela Adlon and was co-created by Louis C.K.—but it’s not just a Louie reprise. What it shares with its networkmate is the fact that it feels born out of a single, incredibly fully-formed vision. Adlon playes Sam Fox, an L.A.-based actress who’ll take what she can get, job-wise—she’s struggling, a bit, to raise her three daughters and receives little help from her ex-husband, from her aging mother, or from the universe. An ABC family sitcom this isn’t: Rather than sunny little lessons about pulling together, Better Things favors Sam’s hard-won sense that she got through the day only blowing up at her kids twice. It’s an angry show—furious about what women, single mothers, and actresses, in that order have to go through—but that anger helps clarify its vision of a world full of pitfalls, where mere survival is a triumph.
Atlanta, FX, September 6
Like Better Things, Atlanta is the product of a guiding intelligence—that of creator Donald Glover. The rapper and Community actor has brought his sensibility to bear on a series that plunges the viewer into a carefully drawn world—one so detailed that little needs to be laboriously explained through exposition. Glover plays Earn, an aspiring rap manager whose cousin has a song and a dream; Earn’s attempts to push “Paper Boi” to stardom, and himself to stardom-adjacent comfort, run up against the wall of reality. Scenes in which Glover works at his job, signing up new credit-card holders at the airport, are among the year’s funniest.
One Mississippi, Amazon, September 9
To those who follow comedy, Tig Notaro’s story—undergoing a double mastectomy for breast cancer very shortly after a hospitalization for a serious bacterial infection and the sudden death of her mother—is familiar. But One Mississippi proves there she is an able enough comic to find material there, still. The pilot places a fictionalized Tig back home in Mississippi (a setting that the show resists the coastal temptation to overdraw or turn into a stereotype) following her mom’s death. Her halting attempts to connect with stiff stepdad Bill (John Rothman) and to come to terms with a dark past only hinted at in the pilot are the stuff of instantly compelling TV; the story is told in a way that always undercuts the darkness with a subtle joke, or just a nod at humans’ oddity. Like the rest of the six-episode season (which I’ve watched in full), the pilot is snappily paced, lacking the baggy slackness of a Netflix 13-episode run. Each episode, but especially the flavorful and quietly confident pilot, leaves you watching more.