Handicapping the new fall TV season

Kiefer Sutherland in
Kiefer Sutherland in

The first of a two-part column identifies the hits and misses of the new fall lineup

With less than one month to go before the official start of the new broadcast television season (mark your calendars for Monday, Sept. 19), it is time to handicap the new fall entries. My picks are based on a combination of factors, including the network, time period, competition, lead-in, critical acclaim, social media potential, and the quality of the show itself. I made the selections after spending two weeks in Los Angeles at the Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour, where everything is a proverbial bed of roses, according to the producers and talent.

Don’t worry—I was not fooled by the spin.

With 20 new shows to choose from, my focus this week is on the shows most likely to succeed. And there is no better show to begin with than early critics favorite "This Is Us," which tells the unique tale of a group of strangers who all share the same birthdays. Scheduled for Tuesdays at 9pm, the show is described by producer Dan Fogelman as a "dramedy version of ‘Lost’" and explores the condition of the human family. "There are these four interconnected storylines that will all get equal time each week," said Fogelman at The TCA Press Tour.  "And you’re going to be seeing growth in these people as we jump around in time."

"This Is Us" airs out of "The Voice" and faces new drama "Bull" on CBS, which is loosely based on talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw’s early days as head of one of the most prolific trial-consulting services. "This is not autobiographical. It’s not biographical. It’s inspired by," MacGraw explained to the room full of TV critics.  "Sometimes the law doesn’t always get it right, but you can get it right within the law, and I think that’s what we try to do."

Following "NCIS," the most-watched drama, and featuring the show’s former star Michael Weatherly, "Bull" will easily dominate the time slot, both in terms of viewership numbers and its appeal to older demographics. The advantage "This Is Us" will have is its ability to attract a younger audience. The two-minute preview on YouTube received over 17 million viewers in its first three days this past May.

ABC also has a potential winner with the Wednesday 10 p.m. drama "Designated Survivor" with Kiefer Sutherland. There is lead-in support from newly minted critical darling "black-ish."  The competition on other networks,  "Code Black" on CBS and Chicago PD" on NBC, is not severe. And the former "24" star as the unassuming Secretary of Housing and Urban Development thrust into the role of President when the Capitol blows up feels like a natural career progression.

"I remember getting to the very end of the script and realizing that I was potentially holding the next ten years of my life in my hands," crowed Sutherland at The Press Tour.

While a 10-season run is certainly wishful thinking on Sutherland's part, ABC finally has a chance to step up the competition in the time period, which has been occupied by ratings-challenged drama "Nashville" over the last four seasons.

NBC is also likely to garner respectable ratings for "Timeless," with former "ER" star Goran Visnjic as a criminal who steals a time machine in order to change the course of American history and destroy the country. Scheduled for the Monday 10 p.m. hour, the drama follows "The Voice" and will be up against ABC’s "Conviction," a show that won't offer much competition. The storyline, Hayley Atwell as a lawyer and former First Daughter who avoids a cocaine bust by being blackmailed into heading the Conviction Integrity Unit, is not believable and feels forced.

However, ABC has an inherent advantage with drama "Notorious" on Thursday. With the return of "Scandal" delayed, the show will air in between "Grey’s Anatomy" and "How to Get Away with Murder. While its time slot may be temporary, the show fits like a glove in the lineup and offers a solid drama alternative to relocated "Chicago Med" on NBC and the new "Pitch" on Fox.

In the comedy arena, "Speechless," out of "The Goldbergs" on Wednesday, capitalizes on ABC’s family formula: loud or just plain stupid parents with wise-beyond-their years or smart-alecky kids. But what’s different here is the show premise and its star, actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy in real life. He portrays JJ, the family’s eldest child, who is nonverbal. It is gratifying to see a network diversify and feature an individual with special needs. My only suggestion is to tone down Minnie Driver as his aggressive mother. 

CBS has two new comedies slated in the Monday 8 p.m. hour, "Kevin Can Wait" with Kevin James and "Man with a Plan" with Matt LeBlanc, up against ABC’s "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Voice."  James as Kevin is basically the same character he played on shamefully underrated "The King of Queens," only he’s a newly retired police officer and father. And LeBlanc is Adam, a dad who finds out that parenting is harder than he thought after his wife goes back to work.

Since "Kevin Can Wait" is virtually a clone of the likable "King of Queens" character, there is every reason to expect respectable tune-in as the network’s Monday 8 p.m. anchor. It is like welcoming back an old friend.  But "Man with a Plan" feels like a grown-up Joey Tribbiani tackling parenthood, which is just plain awkward. It will be one of the many shows to be singled out as likely misses in my column next week, where I continue my predictions about the hits and misses of the new season.

"Bull" (CBS) – Tuesday 9 p.m.

"Designated Survivor" (ABC) – Wednesday 10 p.m.

"Kevin Can Wait" (CBS) – Monday 8 p.m.

"Notorious" (ABC) – Thursday 9 p.m.

"Speechless" (ABC) – Wednesday 8:30 p.m.

"This is Us" (NBC) – Tuesday 9 p.m.

"Timeless" (NBC) – Monday 10 p.m.

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