With our two-part preview of the new comedies and dramas on the networks' fall TV schedules released into the wild, the Grantland staff has gathered to offer its recommendations for returning series. So warm up your DVRs, because that's a thing you need to do for the recordings to stick inside the magic show-saving box.
Parks and Recreation (September 26)
Andy Greenwald: One week from today, Parks and Recreation will begin its sixth season with a one-hour episode, partially set in London. The show will be greeted with quiet huzzahs by its fans and admirers, lovingly GIF-ed and Tumbled by its diehards, and generally ignored by the world at large. The next morning, it will be revealed that somewhere between 2 million and 4 million people watched it, a number that is neither good nor bad. The sun will then set and rise again the following day.
There's something both noble and unfair about the quiet brilliance of Parks and Recreation. As the fortunes of NBC have crashed and burned around it, the show has never wavered from its core principles of consistency and quality. For much of its past three seasons, I'd argue that Parks has been the best show on network TV — comedy or drama. It has the strongest, most cohesive cast and the warmest spirit. Where other series strive to maintain a fragile status quo, Parks approaches change the way Special Agent Bert Macklin approaches a locked door. It's never less than good; it's very often great. To steal a line from Amy Poehler's indefatigable Leslie Knope, it's the rare show that one can both like and love.
But you don’t need to hear it from me. If you are one of those hardy 2 million to 4 million souls, you already know all of this. And you also probably know that this sixth season will likely be Parks' last. Fans and doubters have been saying that for years, of course — the show has been eulogized more times than Li'l Sebastian. But this time it nearly has to be true. That delightful ensemble comes with a price tag that belies the ratings and it's hard not to think the announced, midseason departure of Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones is connected to that. Aziz Ansari has tacos to eat. Chris Pratt has a galaxy to guard. And in the midst of NBC's newfound commitment to broad, multi-cam nostalgia, Parks stands out even more; a dwindling relic from an abandoned, enlightened age.
As much as I'd like to imagine otherwise, there isn't likely to be a swan song ratings explosion à la Breaking Bad. (If you haven't learned to treat yo'self by now, why would you start?) But before these 22 episodes begin, there should be a moment taken to appreciate the difficulty of what Parks has achieved across its soon-to-be six seasons, particularly in a cultural climate that tends to privilege the noisy and potentially insane over the gently sublime. On the eve of the end, it's funny the way Parks and Recreation came to not only celebrate the stolid diligence of local public servants, but to mimic them as well. It's a lunch-pail comedy that came to work every week and hit its marks. It brought good cheer and kept the lights on. Network TV will be noticeably dimmer once it's gone.
Homeland (September 29)
Amos Barshad: It seems only right that one of the clunkiest moments on Magna Carta Holy Grail would feature Showtime's scuffed-up crown jewel. When Jay rapped "Feel like a stranger in my own land / Got me feelin' like Brody in Homeland," there it was, in stark black-and-white: two once-pristine entities, both battered and bruised by their own latter-day sins. The difference is — other than that one's a rapper and one's a TV show and, really, there's no similarity at all, please bear with me, I'm getting out of this tortured coupling in the next sentence, I swear — Hov can now go back to touring and yachting and just in general crushing life outside of recorded music, and Homeland’s back on TV September 29, with the rest of its story to tell.
And now, it seems, the big question is how do we manage expectations? Are we still hoping for the taut-rubber-band tension of that pitch-perfect first season? Or do last season's midway stumbles have us prepared for a blunter, messier, but still occasionally brilliant piece of television? (The other big question: Who is Dana sending naked selfies to???)
In talking about last season, showrunner Alex Gansa has been openly contrite: Yes, mistakes were made; look, some of our best writers left; we're trying our best. Of this next season, he has said: "We've sent Brody away [he's completely missing for the first two episodes]. We've perpetrated the next 9/11 on the country [in the form of the CIA car bomb]. And we have killed a significant number of, for lack of a better word, our narrative engines that have taken us through two seasons."
The choose-your-own adventure–isms with this show are manifold. Brody detonating that damn vest, thereby providing a natural climax to all that exquisitely developed tension, seems to be a crowd favorite; personally, I've always gravitated toward Brody not getting caught quite so quickly, and letting S1's cat-and-mouse-and-cabin-sex-weekend game go on a bit longer. But that's not where we're at here. Where we're at, at least by Gansa's reckoning, is a bit of a clean slate — a bunch of smart people trying to make realistic post–"next 9/11" television. Baggage aside, doesn't that sound enticing? Forget expectations. Let them entertain us.
Saturday Night Live (September 28)
Sean Fennessey: A few years back I wrote about a phenomenon called the "Transitional Season" at SNL. It's a sui generis occasion, since no other show on TV has the kind of unpredictable, irregular cast rotation from season to season. Sometimes a new face pops up, only to vanish six months later. (R.I.P., the Jenny Slate era.) Sometimes cast members begin to go gray, a sure sign they're headed to the glue factory. (Tim Meadows, what's good!) It creates a kind of continuity anarchy. But even rarer and more interesting than a transitional season is the fascinating "'Who the Hell Is That Person?' Season." That's when cast members who comprise the lifeblood of the show exit — in this year's case, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen — and a wave of kinda-green, kinda-terrified newbies appears on our screens three Saturday nights a month. Amos Barshad scouted the six (!) new cast members earlier this week. Six new cast members is the most additions since Jean Doumanian came in swinging her comedy scythe in 1980, when the show reloaded with an entirely new cast led by ... Charles Rocket. Just kidding, that was Eddie Murphy's first season.
And that's the trick of an overhaul. Sometimes mega-stars emerge — like Amos, I'm betting on Kyle Mooney this season. Sometimes they're Charles Rocket. Lorne Michaels saw this coming, of course. He's had to strategize in recent years. Kristen Wiig flew the coop a year earlier, ace writer John Mulaney is gone, and Seth Meyers is out in February to go do battle with the terrors of weeknights in Jimmy Fallon's old time slot. So that means relative youngsters like Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon will be asked to carry the load. No one will be more closely watched than the wonderfully odd Cecily Strong, who will join Meyers on the "Update" desk before shuffling papers all by her lonesome come 2014. She'll be great, or not. What I'm hopeful for this season is that Michaels & Co. find a way to make Bobby Moynihan and Nasim Pedrad, two dependable and uniquely gifted utility players, actual stars. They deserve that. Don't let Kenan Thompson bigfoot you, Bobby! This is your time!
New Girl (Premiered Tuesday)
Mark Lisanti: These kinds of proclamations are ultimately meaningless, and, as always, Your Comedy Mileage May Vary, but let's say it anyway: New Girl is now the funniest show on network TV. (If I hedge with "network," it's because Archer continues to exist on cable, and when I flip my "funniest show on all of TV" coin, it keeps coming up on Sterling's smug face, probably because he asked Krieger to make him a loaded quarter for winning bar bets in Zagreb. It's also because I lack the courage of my convictions. Why are you making me choose between my sitcom children, you monsters?) New Girl’s excellence has made the grief of losing 30 Rock, my all-timer, somewhat easier to bear, as has Fox's now-sustainable institution of the Tuesday-night comedy block Jess and the gang anchor for the improving Mindy Project and very promising Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Nothing will ever quite fill the Donaghy-shaped hole in my heart, but if I jam a Schmidt in there at the right angle, it at least slows the bleeding while Winston faints dead away and Nick runs around looking for hot towels for some reason.
This third season, which debuted Tuesday night, will be a crucial one: After throwing themselves headlong into the Nick-and-Jess pairing they easily could have will-they-or-won't-they'd for another year, we'll now get to see how they handle replacing sexual tension with relationship maintenance. The realization that not only are they boinking, but that they're already living together, whoops, sent them fleeing straight to Mexico to escape the reality of their new circumstances and of Schmidt's unlimited texting plan. There are 20-plus more episodes for them to screw it up. Nick and Jess, not the writers. The writers seem to know what they're doing. Robbing Winston of his color-sight and giving him a jigsaw puzzle fetish proves that.
Eastbound & Down (September 29)
Emily Yoshida: Like Kenny Fuckin' Powers himself, Eastbound & Down emerges from certain death this fall to be the guiding force we so desperately need right now. I'm generally a fan of anything ending while it's still on top, which was what Jody Hill appeared to be doing by originally choosing to end the show after three seasons and 21 near-perfect episodes; but there is no reason to believe that more Eastbound is anything less than a very, very good thing. From the look of the trailer, there appears to be less baseball, more Ken Marino, and Stevie somewhere between Vincent Chase on a bender and Heisenberg on a cartel warpath. While I worry just a little bit about the show abandoning its original sports-oriented premise and just going bananas with Powers family drama and latex-clad strippers, that also ... sounds great.
The guest-star bench remains very deep, because who doesn't want to throw on a bad Tommy Bahama shirt and hang out in Myrtle for a week or two? Certainly not Lindsay Lohan, who joins the cast this season to play Kenny's grown-up illegitimate daughter, and by all reports was an absolute delight on set (she also, reportedly, had a sober coach with her the whole time — is LiLo the female Kenny IRL?) Eastbound & Down is a show about redemption and perseverance no matter how many bad decisions you've made while on multiple mind-altering substances, and it's the perfect stage for Lindsay to make her comeback. Of all the things she's tried to get her career back on track, teaming up with smart, funny people on a strong comedy script (à la Mean Girls) seems to be the most obvious option still left unexplored. Casting Lohan is an obvious ratings stunt, but it's the best kind, the kind that I want to see with zero shame, and goddammit, Eastbound's earned it. Viva la Flama Roja.
The Mindy Project (Premiered Tuesday)
Molly Lambert: Much has been made of The Mindy Project’s second-season revamp, particularly whether Mindy Kaling's Mindy Lahiri will fall victim to some kind of personality makeover intended to make her more likable and less like a selfish Larry David character, but with really cute clothes. We say Dr. Lahiri can be as sweet or self-centered as she wants (and who among us isn't both?) as long as it's funny. The Mindy Project hit its stride at the end of its first season, when Workaholics’ Anders Holm was cast as Mindy's most entertaining love interest yet, the laughably selfless Pastor Casey. As much as we like Pastor Casey, he may have to go so that Mindy Lahiri can continue her quest for a soul mate, picking through such potential matches as James Franco, playing a character named Dr. Paul Leotard. If you don't think the name Dr. Paul Leotard is funny, I'm afraid I can't sit with you.
Parenthood (September 26)
David Jacoby: Why don’t more people watch this show? Why did we have to spend three months writing letters to Greenblatt to get this fucker renewed? I swear no one watches this show because the title sounds boring. I didn’t even see a frame of it until Season 4 because I thought it was a slapstick sitcom like the Steve Martin film of the same name. That couldn’t be further from the truth. You are much more likely to be curled up on the floor bawling your eyes out than laughing. Now, I understand if you hesitate to take the Parenthood plunge if a friend whose taste you normally trust rolls up on you with wild eyes and is all, “Have you see Parenthood? Ahmahgah I LOVE that show, I cry every episode ... TWICE.” Sometimes when you watch TV you don’t want to cry. I get that. Here is the thing, though: Parenthood doesn’t make you cry "Oh shit, Walt just took the damn baby" tears, it makes you cry "Oh shit, I haven’t talked to my mom in a month and I love her so much” tears. Huge difference.
Don’t sleep on the cast, either. It has the chill brother from Six Feet Under showing his range by playing the unchill brother, Ashton’s Tonto from Punk’d absolutely bodying the roll of this show's chill brother, the kid from The Purge deftly portraying a frustrating but lovable young man afflicted with Asperger's, Ray Romano and Coach. Fucking Coach! Not to mention none other than Lyla Garrity and Vince Howard from Friday Night Lights have each sexed up a Braverman along the way as well. Did I mention the show was created by FNL honcho Jason Katims? So basically, if you aren’t going to watch this show it is because you hate Friday Night Lights, are incapable of feeling emotions, and have no connection to your family. Otherwise, tune in at 10 Eastern on September 26.
MasterChef Junior (September 27)
Tess Lynch: When I say I love MasterChef, what I mean is that I love the U.S. version of MasterChef. I haven't even touched the big, fat backlog of the U.K. version, not to mention its 35 international spin-off series. Maybe I will! I haven't decided. One thing I do know, though, is that I don't think I can get amped for MasterChef Junior.
If you want to preview what a culinary competition for babies looks like, you could check out the existing seasons of the British version, Junior MasterChef: It has a different word order in the title, different judges, and a very slightly adjusted age range for its competitors (in the U.K., the maximum age was capped at 16 until a reboot dictated that they be between 9 and 12; the American incarnation knocks the minimum age down to 8), but the premise is basically the same. The format mimics adult MasterChef, but you get to see children get critiqued by judges — whee! Everybody's favorite thing! Just kidding, that's the worst. Here's why I'm planning to pass:
- Have we forgotten Rachel Crow? NEVER FORGET RACHEL CROW.
- Gordon Ramsay, one of the three hosts of the adult U.S. MasterChef, can't be cruel to the wee culinarians. He can't curse at them or spit their meringues into the garbage. He's a dad, as are the other two judges, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot (in fact, their sons appeared on the most recent season of MasterChef). Ramsay promised to be "brutally honest" with his critiques, but do you really want to see a diluted Ramsay? And do you even feel like watching brutal honesty served to tiny little chefs with tiny little aprons and TINY LITTLE FACES? No! No! Why would you want that?
- The kids are eliminated in pairs to "soften the blow." What?
- This show is basically The Hunger Games. They may not kill each other, but if one needs a clove of garlic from an opponent, don't count on getting it.
- I hesitate to open this box, but ... have you ever met an 8-year-old who didn't pick his or her nose sometimes and try to play it off like nothing happened? OK, now look closely at your Stroganoff. Mmmmm. Yummay.
- Knives, fire, the species of fish that are poisonous unless you remove all of their innards and gills with precision, undercooked chicken, crowded hand-washing stations: Please, God, don't let anyone die on this show.
- I don't want to find out that one of them is racist like Krissi.
- Likewise, I don't want any of them to have a psychotic break because they think that Ramsay has stolen their soul.
- Really, I'd just like them to be nurtured through Easy Bake–offs with gushy, private, positive support from their parents, even if they're using liquid nitro to whip up mascarpone gelato with a salted caramel/blackberry coulis. Then I don't have to think about the prospect of yelling at my television, "Kick li'l Sneezy to the curb, that Wellington is an embarrassment!" I don't have to wonder who's crapping their Pull-Up training pants with fear. I don't have to consider a third-grader getting a call sheet for 5 a.m., or getting stumped by a durian fruit in a mystery box, or seeing nasty tweets about them because 2 percent of the world is made up of sociopathic crazies, or encountering a countdown-to-18 clock on a website in a dark alley.
- Everyone should get a prize. Everyone should win. But then nobody would watch, so all but one will lose. I would rather, I would rather go bliiiiiiiiiiind, boy, than watch that happen.
Vera (American Public Television, TBD)
Bryan Curtis: Picking a mystery series from public television feels like a sign I’ve become the homebound, 50-year-old dad from the office who’s always telling you where he went on “date night.” Screw it. Because Vera, with Brenda Blethyn, is worth the loss in status.
I spent the summer watching the first two seasons on Amazon Prime. Blethyn is the roly-poly detective Vera Stanhope, the heroine of a series of books I unfortunately will never read. Vera is fanatical — what TV detective isn’t? — but the magic comes when she interviews witnesses and suspects. She’s a noodge, a woman who barges in the door, asks for coffee, and leads you on a probing, digressive conversation until you say something stupid. She has brains but she also has gall. That alone separates her from the Sherlock clones that seem to be all over the dial.
Vera, which takes place in Northumberland, is a show with Gray Skies. And Windswept Fields. And the occasional Rotting Country Home. If you watched The Red Riding Trilogy, you could lead the characters on a tour. Only David Leon, who plays Vera’s son, Joe, seems to have discovered hair pomade. Blethyn did some great movies in the ’90s (Secrets & Lies, Little Voice) and I kept hoping she’d get a good part again. Vera may be the best thing she’s ever done. If I’m that guy, so be it.
Grey's Anatomy (September 26)
Juliet Litman: Everyone wants to talk about Scandal now, but ABC's first Shondaland television program is still its best. A lot has changed on Grey's Anatomy since its midseason debut in 2005. Seattle Grace is now Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (with a stop along the way as Seattle Grace Mercy West); of the original nine cast members, only five remain; and while Meredith Grey the intern was insufferable, Meredith Grey the mother/wife/resident is more than tolerable. The evolution of Grey's is a useful reminder that sometimes a strong premise and steady writing are far more vital than a breakout star.
Yes, there were some unfortunate detours, like the time that Izzy (Katherine Heigl) had sex with the ghost of her boyfriend, or the abrupt departure of Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith). But ever since Season 6, which included the additions of Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) and Teddy Altman (Kim Raver) and a memorable, devastating two-hour finale, Grey's Anatomy returned to form. The familiar structure of the voice-over in Act 1, the upbeat background music that kicks off Act 2, and the impossible medical challenges that sustain each episode have created a very enjoyable show that allows new characters to gradually grow until you can't help but like them. The best recent example is the development of Sarah Drew's April. She came to the show as a pesky intern and has been developed enough to carry entire episodes. It's not really her fault that her romantic interest is Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams). He is so beautiful, and it's hard to imagine almost anyone being on his level.
When Season 10 returns next week, we begin our long good-bye to Dr. Christina Yang because Sandra Oh wants to leave the show. Shonda Rhimes has pledged that, unlike Izzy or Dr. Hahn, she'll get the meaningful send-off that she deserves. Since we all know she's leaving, I doubt the writers will kill her off since that seems too easy. Christina deserves more than that anyway. However she goes, everyone should be watching.