CBS’ New Fall Shows, Ranked From Best to Worst

Today in our week-long roundup of new shows on broadcast, we're looking at CBS, the place to go for young people committing crimes.

There are networks that, faced with changing times and a media landscape diversifying both by viewer type and by medium, radically change their programming approach in an effort to stake out new territory before their competitors are inevitably pushed into it. CBS is not one of those networks. It's the most conservative in its programming strategy, and with good reason: Stalwarts like The Big Bang Theory, the NCIS and CSI franchises, and The Good Wife provided several consecutive years of growth, and Big Bang in particular tops the charts year after year. More than any other network, CBS unapologetically does capital-T Television along classic lines: one-and-done mysteries, sitcoms with laugh tracks, and dramas about politics.

Oddly, CBS chose to save for midseason its best-written and -acted series, buddy cop dramedy Battle Creek, but don't worry, there are no fewer than three cop shows in the five full-season series CBS will premiere in the next few weeks. Of the networks we're looking at, CBS is the most drama-heavy: four of the five are hour-long, big-budget, slick-looking series, and while nothing here is wildly innovative, you can kick the tires on any one of these guys and the muffler won't fall off the back of the car.

As with my roundups of ABC and Fox, I'm only able to review the screeners provided by the network, and those are the pilots. Series frequently evolve pretty radically, but when you're writing about the ad industry like we are, those first episodes are vitally important, because there's enough on the dial that if a viewer doesn't like episode one, there's no reason for him or her to come back for episode two.

1

Stalker

What is it? An hourlong semi-serialized crime drama created by Kevin Williamson, probably best known these days as the guy behind Fox's serial killer series The Following, but here he's also revisiting territory he covered writing Wes Craven's meta-scary Scream movies. Stalker stars Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q as Jack Larsen and Beth Davis, two cops on the LAPD's threat assessment unit, which deals with guys who won't take no for an answer. The show has a weekly "A plot" that revolves around a particular crime, but it also delves into Beth's past, which may include a stalker of her own, and Jack's reasons behind moving to L.A., which may be less than honorable.

When is it on? Wednesdays at 10 p.m. starting Oct. 2.

Is it in a good timeslot? For a crime drama on late, it couldn't be better—NBC's unimpressive Chicago P.D. (a 1.7 last season) is on one side of it and poor Nashville, the little music drama that could, is on the other. Stalker is flashier than either and is on after 10 because it's racy and violent, not because it's casting about for an uncompetitive timeslot.

Is it any good? It's terrific. Don't call my phone between 10 and 11 p.m. on Wednesdays, I'm busy. The good-cop-bad-cop thing is undercut beautifully by the character details decorating the interactions between Q and McDermott; she's hiding what seems like a fairly obvious secret (although I bet there's more to it than a past stalker), and McDermott, God bless him, keeps taking great roles like this one (and his parts on American Horror Story) in which he plays against his own good looks: Jack is a creepy S.O.B. At one point he asks Beth point-blank if she finds him off-putting "because I stared at your breasts." Ugh, this guy might be dangerous—quick, somebody call the oh, wait. Added to that, Williamson has a flair for attack scenes that are just terrifying. If you're a horror movie aficionado, there's a lot to appreciate in the way of awful masks, chases that end badly, and murderers jumping out of the worst possible corner at the worst possible moment. Hooray.

Will it survive? I can't think of a single reason it wouldn't.

Do you want your brand associated with it? Yeah, I think you can get away with it. It's on late and a surprising amount of the violence is suggested rather than explicit, primarily because Williamson is a good writer, and the show is directed well (Liz Friedlander helmed the pilot). It uses full-blown gore as a last resort. As with Fox's Gracepoint (but to a far lesser degree) the adjacencies are something you may have to watch out for, but it takes place in L.A. and everybody is very attractive and drives a [your brand here] car and makes frantic, much-too-late calls to the cops on a [your other brand here] cell phone. Somebody dies horribly in a prominently featured Mercedes in the pilot.

2

Scorpion

What is it? An hourlong episodic crime drama from Prison Break and Law & Order writer Nick Santora, starring Elyes Gabel, Katharine McPhee (late of NBC's campy theater drama Smash), Eddie Kaye Thomas (you know, from American Pie) and Robert Patrick (who can do no wrong). The series follows four supergeniuses—Gabel, Thomas, Jadyn Wong and Ari Stidham—who get recruited by a shadowy government agent (Patrick) who knows Gabel's character from an earlier incident over which they fell out. As they work their first mission, they happen across a waitress (McPhee) whose child is just as exceptional as they are, and form an ad hoc family.

When is it on? Mondays at 9:00 p.m. starting Sept. 22.

Is it in a good timeslot? It's a pretty good one, yes. The series' only real competition is Sleepy Hollow, but I have a feeling this show will skew older than Sleepy Hollow, possibly despite CBS's best efforts. It's a fight, but it's a one-front fight.

Is it any good? It ought not to be, but it is. It's a fairly straightforward ensemble action series with really high production values and a flair for huge, utterly absurd chase sequences—the climax of the pilot, which is directed by the guy who took over and rebooted the Fast & Furious franchise, Justin Lin, has a Ferrari pacing a passenger jet that's flying within grabbing distance of the landing gear. It is a mark of how fun the show is that I'm not even going to talk about how that's impossible and silly. Gabel, as protagonist Walter O'Brien, is a real talent—sort of a miniature Robert Downey, Jr.— and McPhee is good as his love interest, although I wonder how the writers will keep her role as the group's sole Muggle from being too thankless. Patrick, of course, is excellent, and the rest of the relative unknowns are all charming and fun to watch. If it can avoid taking itself too seriously, it should stay fun and interesting.

Does it stand a chance? The fight with Sleepy Hollow is going to be a serious one, and I suspect it looks a little too much like CBS's other offerings, which tend to have an older-skewing sensibility, to win. But we'll see!

Do you want your brand associated with it? Yes. It's fun (CPG), high-tech (telco), with lots of car chases (automotive) and everytown settings (QSR). It should be an easy sell.

3

Madam Secretary

What is it? An hourlong serialized drama starring Téa Leoni as the Hillaryish Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, who is also a former CIA officer and pals with the her old boss the president, who is loosely modeled on former CIA director and POTUS George H. W. Bush. She runs afoul of the president's chief of staff, Russell Jackson (the great Zeljko Ivanek), almost immediately, and, for the sin of uprooting her family from the quiet New England town where she and her husband were academics together, is in hot water with him and her two kids. The show is the brainchild of Barbara Hall, who created Joan of Arcadia and helped develop Judging Amy.

When is it on? Sundays at 8:00 p.m., starting this Sunday, Sept. 21. 

Is it in a good timeslot? Well, it's in the right timeslot for what CBS wants it to do, which is succeed The Good Wife. Tellingly, the show is The Good Wife's lead-in, rather than the other way around, and it's good counterprogramming to younger-skewing, offbeat comedies Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Simpsons and the tweeny Once Upon a Time (NBC has football, and the only counterprogramming to football is prayer).

Is it any good? It's good-ish. It's good-eque. It reminds you of shows that are good. It's empowement porn, which is frequently great—there goes Téa Leoni, showin' stuck-up bald guys who's boss. The thing is that it's kind of dumb, and not fun dumb. Dumb-dumb. Hall doesn't seem to know the difference between foreshadowing and loudly spoiling an upcoming plot point, and the relationships aren't very convincing, especially the one between Elizabeth and her husband Henry, played by Tim Daly (and I will give you $50 if he doesn't cheat on her with a student by the end of the season). The dialogue has its problems, too: At one point, Elizabeth tells another character she worked a diplomatic miracle "by circumnavigating your authority." And there's not much to Elizabeth besides how awesome she is: Along with being a great college professor, a great mom, a hot wife who tells her husband they should have more sex, and the Magellan of authority, she is also good at every other job in the White House, up to and including the president's, and her main problem seems to be that people don't get out of her way fast enough. Madam Secretary is beautifully shot, and Leoni and Ivanek in particular are top-flight actors. But this is less The Good Wife than Scandal with the fun turned down. Also, through no fault of its own, its pilot episode is about two kids who get rescued from execution in Syria. So that's uncomfortable.

Will it survive? I don't think so. It's not as smart about people or power as The Good Wife and the invisible monsters of everything happening on cable eat anything new that shows up on Sundays and isn't awesome right out of the gate.

Do you want your brand associated with it? Actually, I suspect this show will have more problems than it thinks it will have. The inevitable ISIS comparison is going to cause a stir in the first episode, and episode two is called Another Benghazi, so that will definitely make someone angry, although Lord knows who. For a show about politics, Madam Secretary doesn't really appear to have any, but its version of staying engaged is bringing up all the awful things happening in the world.

4

The McCarthys

What is it? A multicam sitcom about a sports-crazed Irish Catholic family living in Boston who are trying to figure out their son Ronny (played by Tyler Ritter), who's gay. Rescue Me's Jack McGee plays the dad, Laurie Metcalf plays the mom, which is apparently compulsory at CBS now (maybe Sheldon is the son from another marriage she never talks about?). The show was created by Brian Gallivan and is loosely based on his experiences, so if you see him, speak gently to him.

When is it on? 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays, starting Oct. 30.

Is it in a good timeslot? Very much so. It's up against the second halves of Scandal and Gracepoint, which aren't going to attract the same audience, and NBC's A to Z, which is not very good. 

Is it any good? I can actually feel myself losing friends as I type these words, but I didn't think it was as bad as it's being made out to be. (A Bostonian pal describes this show as "a hate crime" against his people—the Massholes, not the gays or the Irish—so your mileage may vary!) I mean, it would probably be wrong to call The McCarthys "progressive," exactly, but it has a few laughs and it's well-cast and solidly constructed. It's just way, way out of its depth, culturally speaking—at one point the McCarthys throw their son a party in the form of "a gay bar," to which they invite several of the gay people they know, and one of the jokes, seriously, is that a McCarthy brother introduces his guest as "Lesbian." (Given that the brother is a former athlete, is that the poor girl's surname, one wonders? Is this Bill and Donna Lesbian's little girl Eleanor, all grown up?) "I work at a lotta basketball camps," he explains. "These are the gays I meet." And the audience laughs, because gay women's basketball coaches! I get that not everything has to be for urban sophisticates and points for effort, I guess, for making a sitcom about a loving Catholic family that accepts the gay son they don't understand very well, but I suspect it's just going to end up alienating both gay people and Catholic people. Oh, but on the plus side, Laurie Metcalf just strolls off with every scene she's in. It would be nice if CBS could see its way clear to putting her in a multicam sitcom where she's the lead, because she's amazing.

Will it survive? It very well might. Its competition is lame, although it will be some work to dodge various sports schedules as the show continues, because sports nuts are its prospective bread and butter.

Do you want your brand associated with it? I just don't know. It will probably be fine, but there's something about the combination of religion and lighthearted comedy investigating gay culture that seems likely to inflame one party or the other. It's really hard to say until audiences get a look at it.

5

NCIS: New Orleans

What is it? The latest iteration of Mark Harmon's hourlong procedural drama NCIS, which itself sporulated from JAG way back in 2003 and has gone on to produce NCIS: Los Angeles. The flagship edition is set in Washington D.C. NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles were 11th and 20th in the 18-49 demo last year, despite the age of both shows, and the franchise syndicates very well.

When is it on? 9:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, starting Sept. 23. 

Is it in a good timeslot? Very. It's opposite Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which roundly disappointed its viewership last season, and sitcoms on NBC with which it doesn't share an audience. Fox's Utopia already fell off a cliff and its lead-in is parent series NCIS, so it's set up to succeed. 

Is it any good? Nope. At this point, they need to just start calling these shows NCIS: The One With Scott Bakula and NCIS: The One With Chris O'Donnell, because everything else is interchangable. The paint-by-numbers plotting and listless badinage aren't any more interesting when someone is playing Just a Closer Walk With Thee in the background, and the show's attempts to navigate the racial and political sensitivities of New Orleans are kind of embarrassing. Think of it as Opposite Day Tremé. It aspires to be a show you can watch with one eye while you're checking your email, and in that much, at least, it succeeds.

Will it survive? Sure.

Do you want your brand associated with it? What show are we talking about again?

So that's it for the CBS slate. As I said above, this is not a slate that is out to wow you with its ambition, but every show here except Madam Secretary sets achievable goals and then achieves them. Sometimes those goals are the problem, of course. It's also scheduled better than any other network on the dial, which is impressive.

That about wraps it up except for one last thing, for which I need to address the network directly: CBS, perhaps the single most annoying programming-level decision anyone has ever made—ever, ever—is to make characters on a network show hype other shows on that same network during the show. The bit in The McCarthys where mother and son bond over their love of The Good Wife is not funny or cute. It is bad, and everyone from the actors on up knows it. Same goes for the opening to Battle Creek, in which you made Vince Gilligan, for heaven's sake, write a monologue addressing Lesley Stahl. Good grief, that's awful. It makes my skin crawl. Please never do that again.

Otherwise, everything on here is at least watchable, and believe it or not, that's a real accomplishment with so many competitors flailing around, trying to figure out where their identities went. Not bad. Solid B.