There’s a reason no one my age (full disclosure: early 20s) even owns a TV. I used to think it was just because we’re all broke from student loans, but after watching pilots of all the new major network TV shows premiering this fall, I know there’s another reason. The networks forgot we exist.
It’s 2016 and if we’re smart enough to collectively decide to forget about Ryan Lochte, we can digest dynamic storylines with complex, original characters. But as I watched these network episodes, it became clear that the Big Four don't give their viewers much credit, and ignore large swaths of the population. Overall, there were three major problems with the bevy of programming the networks are offering us this fall.
There are a lot of families that look, sound, and act nothing like any families I know
ABC’s American Housewife features a stay-at-home mom who seemingly exists only to gossip about her neighbors: a tired, boring stereotype of women that isn’t exactly true. Elsewhere, this year, as in all years, CBS is staying true to themselves, betting big on the stereotypical family sitcoms. Matt LeBlanc struggles with the stay-at-home dad life in Man With A Plan—a show with a simple premise, lifeless execution, and state fair levels of corniness. The network has also given us Kevin Can Wait (how kind of them!), which is just Kevin James playing a newly retired dad to the tune of a laugh track. It’s as boring and trite as it sounds.
These shows remind me of those ‘90s sitcoms with the loveable white suburban family and their well decorated, bright home, the nagging wife, the dad jokes, and, like, three beautiful children who get silly punchlines. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any families like that.
Enter Speechless on ABC, the rare outlier. It’s about a working middle class family who moves to a nice neighborhood so that their son, who has cerebral palsy, can go to a better school. The strength of the show is the blend of five distinct, plausible, and likable characters that makes the family instantly likeable. And that's before mentioning the rare and refreshing depiction of a handicapped teenager in high school who just wants to fit in like everyone else, which is awesome to see.
Everything is the same—nothing is new
It sure feels like I’ve already seen a lot of the “new” shows this fall. Some are blatant in their recycling—you’ve got Lethal Weapon on Fox, which is for people who like the Lethal Weapon movies and want to watch it again every week forever. Fox is also reviving The Exorcist, which is coming to provide weekly jumpscares. Both shows are fine if you like the original material, but neither pilot create substantially new, inventive scenarios.
A more annoying crop of shows are ostensibly brand new and yet feel painfully familiar. CBS is doing its part with two new dramas. Pure Genius is literally House without Hugh Laurie’s charm and Silicon Valley without the humor. Then there’s Bull, which is just a tortured genius white guy lawyer (Dr. Bull) defending rich guilty people with—wait for it—his Unconventional Tactics. You may not be surprised to hear that it is like every law procedural ever.
ABC is also guilty of this trend this fall. Conviction is like The Good Wife—a woman reluctantly forced to turn to law, which she is clearly good at—but expect less complex characters and a way less likeable lead. Notorious, which will take over the time slot that used to belong to Scandal, is clearly trying to emulate the Shonda Rhimes drama, but does so with less dramatic tact. The pilot has one too many ridiculous plotlines, and I’m not sure they will be able to juggle everything throughout the season.
Designated Survivor looks like it will be ABC's best new show, about the unexpected sole successor to the U.S presidency after a terrorist attack targets the State of the Union address. Then again, it feels exactly like an episode of 24 taking place at the White House, right down to the fact that it stars Kiefer Sutherland.
Networks don’t always know how to contribute to the conversation
If you have a pulse in 2016, you’ve discussed race relations, women’s issues, and/or body image. Networks know this and hope that shows that relate to such “trending topics” will generate buzz, cause good ratings, and eventually, make money.
American Housewife (ABC) and This is Us (NBC) both explore being a plus-size woman in a world that hasn’t quite embraced that reality. American Housewife revolves around Katie’s (Katy Mixon) insecurities about being “the second fattest” housewife in her neighborhood. The problem is that the show does so by vilifying the “skinny” housewives of the suburban town. For example: one woman wears not one but two Fitbits, which, yes, is objectively insane, but isn't a trait nearly complex enough to define a character. Yet, it’s enough for Katie (and the show itself) to write this woman off entirely. Surely, making fun of those who don’t look like you is not the way to start a conversation on body image.
On the other hand, This is Us takes a more holistic approach to the issue. The internal struggle of Chrissy Metz’s character, Kate, is less caricatured; we see her struggle but she’s clearly much more than her weight, which makes the whole thing more relatable. Overall, though, the tone of the show, which looks at unrelated characters who all share a birthday, is so soppy that it’s actually distracting.
One bright spot: Fox’s Pitch, the story of the first female Major League Baseball player, tackles both the “female issue” and the “race issue,” and mostly hits the mark. I like imagining the show’s progressive world, I just hope there’s enough content to fill out an entire season. And when networks take on an issue like race, there’s always the concern that they’re just doing it for diversity’s sake.
After watching so many network shows, I learned that they tend to stick to formulaic, familiar tropes that completely disintegrate when compared to the newer, more ambitious stuff out there that's on FX, Netflix or HBO. The day I see a network like NBC or CBS taking chances the way streaming services or cable channels do will be the day I actually consider calling up Time-Warner.