Welcome to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. All four shows here are new this season and while they vary in subject and tone, all fill that SFF niche we call home. In this edition we’re looking at shows where the dead commune with the living (Frequency), the dead commune with each other (The Good Place), demons commune with priests (The Exorcist), and a history professor communes with famous historical figures (Timeless).
The Road So Far: Something is afoot in the Rance family home. Angela (Geena Davis) appeals to Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera, AKA one half of the adorable gay Mexican couple in Sense8), convinced demons have invaded her home. Her eldest daughter Kat (Brianne Howey) spends all day in her room, depressed over her guilt in the death of a female friend she had a crush on while her youngest Casey (Hannah Kasulka) resents being pushed aside by her sister’s tragedy and her father’s (Alan Ruck) rapidly progressing early onset dementia-like disease. Meanwhile in Mexico City, Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) attempts to exorcise a demon from a child and is excommunicated for his failure. Season 1—Fox, Fri 9p
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Do you like things you’ve already seen? Do you like being scared but not too scared? Are you willing to put up with just about anything if it means more Geena Davis or Alfonso Herrera? Then welcome to The Exorcist. Reboots and remakes are always YMMV (although technically the show is more an unrelated in-universe standalone). I’m digging the new Lethal Weapon, yet a lot of people hate it. I am deeply indifferent to The Exorcist but some people think it’s atmospheric and full of potential. Sure, there are kernels of a intrigue. Are Casey’s issues caused by the demon or is the demon taking advantage of her weakened emotional state? What’s really going on with Henry Rance? Will we get a training montage between the Fathers Tomas and Marcus?
In the original novel and 1973 classic movie, Regan’s possession carried with it an aura of ambiguity as to whether she was possessed or simply a troubled teen suffering from mental illness. All those ifs and maybes are washed away in the 2016 version—it’s made explicitly clear very early on that demons are real—yet the writers still insist on filling scene after scene with debates about the veracity of exorcisms and the daughters’ mental health. On the larger front there seems to be some Vatican conspiracy tinkling in the background, and Father Marcus has more going on than just a grumpy attitude and a drinking problem. But after several episodes I can hardly be bothered to care. At least the show is nice to look at. The camera work is a masterclass at creating tension and apprehension through color palettes, mise-en-scène, and creative angles.
TL;DR: So far I’ve been unable to watch an episode straight through without falling asleep. Take that as you will.
The Road So Far: In 2016, NYPD homicide detective Raimy Sullivan (ugh I know, but yay Peyton List) has finally moved past the death of her father, Frank (Riley Smith), a cop killed during a corruption scandal. She isn’t exactly happy but has a soon-to-be finance and a solid career working with Det. Rayna (Mekhi Phifer), her father’s former partner. That is until lightning strikes the antenna for her father’s forgotten ham radio, somehow establishing a connection between the present and the past. Raimy warns Frank about his impending death and by preventing it alters history. Now she has no boyfriend and her mother was murdered 20 years prior by a still-active serial killer. Raimy affects the past through Frank but every attempt creates a butterfly effect with tragic consequences. Season 1—CW, Wed 9p
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Julie Sullivan (Devin Kelley) is an odd duck of a cop’s wife, one who blames her husband for doing his job, even when that job is going undercover for a few years. But Kelley gives her a depth the writers have not, so at least the character isn’t as insufferable as her subplot. List and Smith make a fine team and bounce off well against each other. Somebody needs to give Phifer more to do before he falls asleep delivering his lines.
Time travel is the theme du jour this season, but although a ton of shows are playing the same tune most aren’t playing it very well. I can’t yet tell which kind of performer Frequency is. Sometimes it’s a lesser CW procedural/melodrama about an angry daughter and her selfish father sparring over events neither had any control over. Other times it’s a crackling sci-fi show which takes seriously alterations to the timeline. Problem is, I can’t see how the premise could stretch into 5+ seasons. Frankly, I can’t see how it could stretch over even 24 episodes. Will every season have the Sullivans simultaneously tracking criminals across time as Raimy tries to patch new faults in the timeline? Whether or not I stick around long enough to be annoyed by the repetition remains to be seen.
TL;DR: Historically the CW hasn’t been good at maintaining interest in procedurals, and there’s not nearly enough quirk, female friendship, eye candy, or SFF tidbits to put it on par with anything else on the channel’s sched.
The Good Place
The Road So Far: After her Rube Goldbergian death, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) arrives at the Good Place, a secular afterlife where the best of the best wind up. Michael (Ted Danson) is a first time architect who designed the supposedly perfect neighborhood for her and her 321 cohorts, including her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason/Jianyu (Manny Jacinto). Except Eleanor isn’t supposed to be there. Michael and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), his corporeal Siri-like assistant, mixed her up with a human rights lawyer with the same name. And she’s not the only one, either. Desperate to not go to the Bad Place, Eleanor convinces Chidi to teach her how to be a good person, but anytime anything not nice infects the neighborhood, everything goes haywire. Season 1—NBC, Mon 10p
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: You wouldn’t think the premise of The Good Place would be so elastic with room for growth or a veritable gold mine of layered jokes. On the surface it sounds stiflingly twee, the kind of sitcom that relies entirely on its cast to slog through overplayed jokes on overused sets. This is definitely not one of those shows. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are their usual delightful selves, and the lesser known actors are equally as charming. Whoever cast William Jackson Harper and Manny Jacinto deserves a raise. I hope they have long, fruitful careers after this because they are manna from heav— uh, the good place. Not only is the cast mostly comprised of relative unknowns, but it has to be one of the most diverse new shows on network television. Bell may be the star, but she shares the screen with a host of underrepresented identities. A lot of thought was put into world-building and it shows.
As for the comedy, this single-cam sitcom was developed by Michael Schur of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and sits quite comfortably in his wheelhouse. There are side jokes to every joke, throwaway lines that’ll leave you cackling, and enough background scenery jokes to give Bob’s Burgers and Chip Zdarsky a run for their money. Not all the jokes hit home, but the effort and commitment of the cast smooths over the clunkiest lines. NBC doesn’t need “Must See TV,” it just needs to let its intellectual comedies grow their audience. The Good Place’s ratings will never top The Big Bang Theory, but at least it’s not treading the line between obnoxious and offensive.
TL;DR: A nice replacement for those still in mourning for Leslie Knope.
The Road So Far: When Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnjić) breaks into a lab and steals a prototype time machine, the government conscripts coder Rufus (Malcolm Barrett), US Army Delta Force Master Sergeant Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter), and history professor Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) to recover the tech. They travel back in time to various points of American history—the Hindenberg explosion, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Alamo, Nazi Germany, Watergate, and the Space Race in the first few episodes—to prevent Flynn from either undoing the events or making them worse for his own nefarious, mysterious purposes. Lucy soon discovers Flynn has a diary detailing all their adventures written by future!Lucy, but she’s not the only one with secrets. Rufus is spying on them under orders from his boss, billionaire genius Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph). Season 1—NBC, Sun 10p
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I didn’t have much hope for Timeless when I first heard the premise. The early reviews of the pilot left me even less impressed. After the first few episodes I’m still not entirely sold but neither did I actively recoil. The show is—in a vanilla, Sunday evening broadcast TV kinda way—fun. Each episode went by fairly quickly, never resting too long on any subplot or emotional beat, just getting down to business of letting the main trio fail spectacularly at their stated objective.
I’ll give NBC this, they do a fairly good job of conveying the ickier points of history with Rufus who rightfully points out that as a Black man “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.” In 1937 a white cop calls him “boy” and gleefully threatens violence for Rufus’ insubordination, while in 1865 Rufus is asked by Black Union soldiers to write slave notices to locate their family members long-since sold off. Quips about having to sit at the back of the bus isn’t deep work, but it’s thoughtful.
The show’s biggest problem is that the protagonists have no reason to be there. Rufus isn’t a pilot and theoretically anyone could keep a recording device in their pocket while also being a skilled pilot. Lucy may know important dates and names, but she sucks at historical details—I maintain Robert Todd Lincoln should have been appalled at Lucy’s behavior, which was wildly inappropriate for high society in that era—and Wyatt has so far bungled all of his many opportunities to do the two things he was hired to do: kill Flynn and protect Lucy and Rufus. Adjusting the tone could help, too. It takes itself far too seriously, and the moments of levity are few and far between. For a series completely devoid of substance to act like it’s not engenders a tonal dissonance that could prove overwhelming over time. Timeless doesn’t need to be as silly as Doctor Who or out-there as Legends of Tomorrow, but it shouldn’t be aiming at prestige TV either.
TL;DR: A sci-fi lite treat with talented actors and an intriguing series arc that offers a pleasant way to close out the weekend.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.