Fall keeps giving us latter-day traditions: the return of pumpkin spice lattes, annual debates over the role of sexiness on Halloween and, for TV viewers, fewer and fewer original stories debuting on broadcast television.
To aid in that search, here are our recommendations — and rejections — of some of fall TV’s best and buzziest, from both broadcast and streaming. (All shows have premiered unless indicated otherwise.)
Best network drama: ‘The Big Leap’ (Fox)
Fox has gone all-in on gimmicky reality shows like “The Masked Singer” and its new hologram-based singing competition “Alter Ego,” but fall TV’s most promising original series is a somewhat gooey take on such programs. “Unreal” meets “So You Think You Can Dance” in “The Big Leap,” a behind-the-scenes drama about the making of a dance reality series in which the participants will take part in a live production of “Swan Lake.”
Okay, so the premise doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the lively assemblage of characters — the amateur dancers who see their time on the show-within-the-show as a long-shot second chance, as well as the reality TV producers and judges who have their own reasons for being there — more than make up for the fanciful concept.
The scenery must be delicious, because Scott Foley won’t stop chewing it while playing the Machiavellian mastermind of the “Swan Lake” series. His co-stars include Piper Perabo and Teri Polo, but it’s winsome newcomer Simone Recasner who steals every scene as a single mom and heavier dancer who grounds the tartly sweet drama with her hope against hope that America can finally see someone who looks like her as a star.
Best network comedy: ‘The Wonder Years’ (ABC)
Laughs aren’t the raison d’etre of “The Wonder Years” reboot, but the Alabama-set series is the best of a small batch of new fall comedies, especially when Don Cheadle’s heard in voice-over as the grown-up Dean. His 12-year-old self, played by Elisha “EJ” Williams, is caught between the relative innocence of coming of age in the middle-class suburbs as a Black preteen, and the larger backdrop of the civil rights movement and more radical liberation struggles on the verge of attracting recruits from Main Street America.
Gentle but probing, the show captures the historical mundanities of Dean’s life, like wondering if his White teacher is prejudiced, often to point out that many of the dilemmas he faces are with us today. If it doesn’t sound laugh-out-loud funny, well, it seldom strives to be. But this nuanced reconsideration of Americana from the perspective of a Black family that’s destined to have conflicting ideas about what constitutes progress, equality and acceptable risk in the fight thereof certainly feels urgent and relatable.
Best overall series: ‘Maid’ (Netflix)
If the ultraviolence of the South Korean high-concept drama “Squid Game” isn’t for you — or you’re just looking for the next thing to watch — try the unfairly underrated limited series “Maid,” adapted from Stephanie Land’s memoir. Margaret Qualley stars as the title character Alex, a 20-something single mother of a toddler struggling to make ends meet while reexamining her last relationship, which ended when her ex (Nick Robinson) punched a hole by her head in their trailer. Forced to rely on her mentally ill mother (Andie MacDowell, Qualley’s real-life mom) for child care, Alex must also reckon with the traumas of her nomadic and unstable childhood, as well as the psychological wounds her mother has been hiding for decades.
It’s an exquisitely sensitive series, but perhaps its greatest achievement is how matter-of-fact and slice-of-life it feels, despite its heavy subject matter and trenchant social criticisms. The unfolding characterizations are achingly familiar, and I hope Qualley and MacDowell work together again.
Best docuseries: ‘The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin’ (HBO Max)
“The Way Down” would be shocking enough as an exposé if it exclusively focused on the first part of its critique: the intersection of the evangelical church and diet culture. Gwen Shamblin Lara, who died earlier this year when her private jet crashed, began her working life as a dietitian before becoming a preacher and a best-selling author of religion-themed diet books. (Thinness was a reflection of holiness, Shamblin’s congregation was allegedly told.) But director Marina Zenovich structures her three-part documentary — two more installments are to arrive in 2022, with reportedly more of Shamblin’s followers willing to speak out after her death — like Dante’s visit to the circles of hell; the deeper we wade in, the more grotesque the cruelties.
Most well-intentioned dreck: ‘Dopesick’ (Hulu)
No documentary will yield more information than a comprehensive magazine story on the same topic, groused a pro-print friend to me once. I’ve generally found that rule of thumb to be true, and I’d like to add a corollary: Few fictional treatments of urgent issues will be more illuminating than filmed or written reportage on the same topic.
That’s certainly the case with the too-sprawling limited series “Dopesick” (debuting Oct. 13), a star-studded retelling of the origins of the opioid crisis from within the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma that also encompasses OxyContin’s pivotal role in the unraveling of communities across the country and the many obstacles that stood in law enforcement’s way in combating the epidemic.
Performances by Michael Keaton as a West Virginia physician, Kaitlyn Dever as an injured miner who develops an addiction and Michael Stuhlbarg as former Purdue president Richard Sackler can’t distract from the clumsy manipulations and confusing time-hopping. Luckily there’s no shortage of books, podcasts, documentaries and other material about the opioid crisis; a good place to start is HBO’s “The Crime of the Century.”
Biggest waste of time: ‘Ordinary Joe’ (NBC)
Perhaps the highest-profile new fall show, “Ordinary Joe” is angling to replace “This Is Us” as the one household-name network drama that isn’t about cops, detectives, lawyers or doctors. But this “Sliding Doors” for the world’s most boring guy keeps adding up to less than the sum of its parts.
James Wolk stars as a blank slate named Joe who, depending on a fateful decision he makes on the night of his college graduation, ends up as a cop (oops), a nurse or, LOL, a rock star. (Presumably born the year “We Didn’t Start the Fire” came out, Joe aspired to become “the next Billy Joel” and apparently accomplished exactly that.)
The drama is mildly clever in how it reutilizes its supporting characters in different roles — as a cop, Joe saves a politician from an assassin’s bullet; as a nurse, he treats the legislator — but the show ultimately has nothing to say other than “bad things and good things happen no matter what career you choose.” It doesn’t help that there’s no real core to the main character to care about or root for; Joe ends up feeling rather remarkable, as no ordinary person is so unsettlingly vacant.