The fall TV season always marks a reset of sorts, signaling an influx of new shows and a respite from reruns.
That’s the way it’s been since TV began, back when there were only three or four networks and dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Well, almost.
But despite this time-honored ritual of rebirth, series’ comings and goings have evolved into a seamless affair that flows year-round, boosted by the ever-escalating number of video outlets.
Dubbed “Peak TV,” this latter-day embarrassment of riches is noted by FX network’s president with a mixture of wonder and dismay.
Speaking to the Television Critics Association recently, John Landgraf forecast that a new peak of some 500 different scripted series would be introduced by TV outlets in 2017.
Of these, he said, “only” about 150 would be offered by the six major English-language broadcasters (ABC, CW, CBS, Fox and NBC, plus PBS).
The rest would emerge on cable and streaming services.
“I do this for a living, I think I have a pretty good memory, and I certainly can’t come close to keeping track of it all,” sighed Landgraf, adding, “While there’s more great television than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent.”
Not to mention more trouble even stumbling on shows that viewers might consider great but instead get lost in the shuffle.
For instance, how many viewers will happen upon StartUp, one of the most distinctive and addictive dramas on any lineup? Starring Martin Freeman and Adam Brody in a steamy Miami mashup of techies and drug lords, it premieres Sept. 6 on Crackle, the streaming network known, if at all, for Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
On MTV, where “gym, tan, laundry” was once the mantra thanks to Jersey Shore, a much smarter situation awaits on Mary + Jane (premiering Sept. 5), a devilish comedy about two gal pals who run a marijuana delivery service in Los Angeles.
And on Hulu, where you may typically binge on Forensic Files reruns, you might be happy to discover Hugh Laurie in the psychological drama Chance (Oct. 19) as a physician perilously different from his role as life-saving Dr. House.
These new arrivals might well escape your notice in the fall onslaught.
But word of other new shows is impossible to miss.
In particular, NBC leveraged its sprawling, much-watched Rio Games to beat the drum for fall newcomers like This Is Us and Timeless.
Both those series are sure to be heavily sampled by the audience. But while many viewers may embrace This Is Us (Sept. 20) as a tenderhearted and touching dramedy about divergent characters who have a lot in common, other viewers may dismiss the show as saccharine and labored.
And while some viewers may see Timeless (Oct. 3) as thrilling and eye-popping, others may dismiss this time-travel romp as clunky in concept and a misappropriation of lavish computer-generated imagery.
While ABC’s sitcom Speechless (Sept. 21) can congratulate itself for its special-needs focus — the family’s teenage son has cerebral palsy (as does the actor who plays him) — some viewers nonetheless may find it cartoonish and, well, not very funny.
While Michael Weatherly is certifiably a fan-fave from his years on NCIS, his much-awaited new CBS drama, Bull (Sept. 20), seems over-reliant on his fast-talking, glib portrayal. For some viewers, his performance as a charming trial consultant gaming the legal system may quickly wear thin.
And while Notorious (Sept. 22) will plant its flag in the Shonda Rimes-ruled landscape of ABC’s Thursday lineup, this dismal poppycock (a hunky defense attorney joins forces with a hot TV producer to promote their respective professional interests) may succeed primarily by exposing how hard it is to pull off what Rimes does so well.
None of this is to suggest that the commercial broadcast networks aren’t a party to TV’s current Golden Age.
Television, almost anywhere you look, is enjoying a renaissance.
But for the most part, broadcast TV has been overtaken by its cable and streaming competition while being forced to chase conflicting goals — to please a necessarily mass audience while taking enough creative risks to not get left in the dust by its more nimble rivals.
Millions of viewers are satisfied with the results.
Now, as ever, broadcast TV serves as a home for the expected, a 22-episodes-a-season respite where the viewer can feel comfortable, not challenged.
Meanwhile, surprises and creative daring greet viewers who look elsewhere — and result, sometimes, in explosive success (consider HBO’s Game of Thrones or AMC’s The Walking Dead, neither of which would have ever gained admittance by broadcast gatekeepers).
Granted, mining shows from the mountain of Peak TV can be a daunting task, especially since on niche media platforms, as with mainstream broadcast, there’s plenty of fool’s gold cluttering the view.
But if this fall season is any indication, TV’s current Golden Age is aglow — and this gold rush clearly leads toward cable and streaming.