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Fall TV Is the Crystallization of Broadcast’s Existential Crisis

Why is Fox premiering a show that sounds like a Vince Vaughn movie? Why is Kyle MacLachlan in a random Patricia Heaton vehicle? And why are CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox functioning like it’s business as usual, despite ample evidence that the TV industry has irrevocably changed?

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This upcoming Sunday, television’s best and brightest will gather in downtown Los Angeles to bestow the 71st round of Primetime Emmy Awards. The ceremony is somewhat awkwardly timed, arriving toward the end of the calendar year but before its actual conclusion. To casual viewers, the Television Academy’s schedule is puzzling, now more than ever. The Emmys’ early-fall date derives from the schedule of broadcast television, where seasons begin in the fall and end in the spring, to be feted before the cycle starts anew. Yet of all the series nominated for the night’s major awards—Outstanding Comedy, Drama, and Limited Series—just two, The Good Place and This Is Us, air on a traditional broadcast network. The format that dictates the timing of television’s biggest night has never had less to do with the most widely legible designation of quality television.

This week also marks the kickoff of fall TV—or rather, the particular flavor of programming that used to have a monopoly on the term. Now, notable releases come at all times on all platforms; this past weekend, Amazon’s Undone and Netflix’s Unbelievable each fulfilled the literal definition of television shows released in the autumn. TV’s mission creep, and broadcast’s diminishing relevance, has made it necessary to narrow one’s parameters. “Fall TV,” for the purposes of this piece and many executives, refers to the annual tradition of launching tens of new series, selected from dozens of stand-alone pilots, before using the harsh logic of ratings to narrow down the field into just a few extended episode orders and even fewer second seasons. Such is business as usual for NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS, with its corporate cousin the CW enacting a scaled-down version of the same process.

Surveying the latest crop of freshmen, it’s not hard to understand the gap between the Emmys’ outdated frame of reference and the content of the Emmys themselves. It’s harder to imagine any member of this class traversing the many institutional barriers separating a series order from longevity or acclaim. A full five years ago, then–Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly declared that the pilot-to-pickup-to-fall-onslaught cycle had outlived its utility, wasting resources by building heavy turnover and failure rates into the network business model. Half a decade later, Reilly has moved on to WarnerMedia as it prepares to launch HBO Max, precisely the sort of streaming service he once warned Fox and its peers were putting themselves in no position to compete with. Meanwhile, the system he tried to disrupt has only succumbed further to inertia. As savants like Ryan Murphy (Fox’s 9-1-1) and Shonda Rhimes (at one time, ABC’s entire Thursday night lineup) have decamped for lucrative digital deals, broadcast remains the land that time—and stories that aren’t about cops, lawyers, or cop-lawyers—forgot.

There are bright spots, if you squint. CBS retains its almost admirable commitment to television orthodoxy, confidently playing to its base while its competitors vainly scramble to keep up with the times. But as it heads into its post-Moonves era, the Eye is at least rethinking the cosmetic aspects of its tried-and-true formulas—and on television, where appearances are everything, “cosmetic” does not mean “trivial.” After debuting slates led entirely by white men as recently as 2016, it’s pleasantly disarming to see a black woman as the face of All Rise, an otherwise boilerplate courtroom drama starring Simone Missick as a Los Angeles judge new to the bench. Elsewhere on the lineup, Chuck Lorre may have dipped his toe into imitation prestige with The Kominsky Method, but he hasn’t forgotten his multicam roots; his latest production, Bob Hearts Abishola, is a rom-com of sorts, pairing a typically corn-fed CBS hero (Billy Gardell, Melissa McCarthy’s one-time costar on Mike & Molly) with the Nigerian nurse (Folake Olowofoyeku) he meets after a heart attack. There may be cheap shots at “funny” names and a chintzy faux-tribal score, but it’s nonetheless a meaningful broadening of who gets to carry an enduring form of popular entertainment, cocreated by Nigerian British comic Gina Yashere.

For every ludicrous escalation of the procedural’s no-need-to-overthink-it baseline appeal, there’s a promising deployment of its strengths. My favorite discarded 30 Rock punch line of the season (as opposed to actual punch line, courtesy of NBCUniversal’s new streaming service) is Prodigal Son, Fox’s new serial-killer-profiling drama that matches Will Graham and Holden Ford’s affinity with their subjects and raises them a hilariously over-the-top origin story. Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne)—yes, the intellectually gifted lead’s last name is “bright”—is the son of an actual serial killer, played by Michael Sheen and kept in a Lecter-style cage. The flip side of such one-upmanship is Stumptown, ABC’s Portland-set PI drama adapted from a comic series and starring Cobie Smulders. As the knowingly cheesy name indicates, Smulders’s Dex Parios hardly reinvents the wheel when it comes to hard-living antiheroines. But with a few touches of overcast local color and well-executed banter, Stumptown promises to hit its beats with aplomb. After the brutish and short life of Friends From College, Smulders may be the rare performer better served by network conventions than tonier streaming ones.

Thanks to some heated scrutiny from the Television Critics Association this summer, the reputation of Jason Katims’s Almost Family precedes it. The mastermind behind Friday Night Lights and Parenthood maintains his commitment to bittersweet family drama in his new Fox hour, but he’s arrived at a setup that just can’t support his favored tone. Brittany Snow stars—in show oddly similar to the plot of Vince Vaughn’s Delivery Man—as a woman who learns her fertility specialist father has inseminated dozens of women with his genetic material without their knowledge or consent. The transition from the horror of violation to the silver lining of found siblings is simply too much for a 45-minute pilot to bear, but Almost Family tries anyway. It’s worth watching just to see the writers attempt to play Snow’s character accidentally hooking up with her own half-brother for laughs. The result is unusually absurd, but a telling example of broadcast clichés stretching themselves to their breaking point; thanks to the characters’ professions, Almost Family is a medical show, a lawyer show, a family drama, and a high-concept scenario. To capture viewers’ attention amid so much noise, Almost Family tries to hit many marks and instead misses most.

Broadcast television most conspicuously lags in drama, where cable and streaming’s serialization pays the highest dividends and the need to generate nearly two dozen episodes of story incentivizes a predictable, if underrated, structure. But in the comedy space, the three-act, 21-minute sitcom remains a template the networks do better than anyone else. NBC has been rehabilitating its comedy bench for years now, and its latest complements to The Good Place and Superstore show real promise: Sunnyside, produced by Mike Schur, transplants Parks and Rec’s enthusiasm for civic engagement to a group of assimilating immigrants in Queens, while Perfect Harmony pairs Bradley Whitford’s washed-up music teacher with Anna Camp’s earnest church choir member. Pairing charismatic actors with snappy writing and a strictly limited running time continues to demand little of audiences’ time while delivering a soothing mix of familiarity and entertainment. Sitcoms notoriously take time to cement their ensembles and hit a comic rhythm, but both Sunnyside and Perfect Harmony have the raw materials to inspire optimism, and ward off total cynicism about the larger apparatus they’re a part of.

Still, fall TV as a whole yields more questions about broadcast’s greater existential crisis than answers. Wouldn’t most of these shows stand a better chance of establishing themselves if they were given more time to develop and space to premiere? Are audiences even trained to review and expand their DVR roster at this time of year anymore? How many of these shows will anyone remember in six months? Why is Kyle MacLachlan in a random Patricia Heaton vehicle? Broadcast no longer feels like the default from which HBO, Netflix, and others are departing, but an idiosyncratic set of norms all its own—the prefab sets; the Mad Libs casts and loglines; the Darwinian, make-or-break stakes. It’s a parallel universe that used to be TV’s universe.