A look at the storylines that will dominate the upcoming television season
It's been a long summer for those of us waiting to find out how the Pritchetts react to Gloria's pregnancy on Modern Family. Or whether Victoria Grayson survives the plane crash on Revenge. Or whether shock treatments will thwart Carrie's breakthrough on Homeland. In other words, it's been a long summer for most of us. As the new fall TV season gets ready to roll out in the coming six weeks (give or take for some shows), fans and critics are gearing up for the premieres of breakout hits (New Girl, Once Upon a Time), returning favorites (The Walking Dead, Downton Abbey), and potential new gems (The New Normal, The Mindy Project). Here are some things to look out for to prepare for their long-awaited debuts:
Can a show survive its backlash?
Remember when Smash premiered to a veritable standing ovation from critics? It may be hard to recall those accolades, considering the lashing the show eventually received from those same reviewers. What began as a series providing a unique and lavish look into the making of a Broadway spectacle devolved into a subpar soap opera more interested in the lunacy of its inconsistently drawn characters than the intriguing making-of-the-sausage drama critics were so initially enamored by. For its second season, Smash ditched its least popular and most annoying characters, hired a Gossip Girl vet as a new showrunner, and signed a roster of new guest stars, including Jennifer Hudson and breakout Broadway hunk Jeremy Jordan (Newsies). Now the question is whether audiences will return—and whether the show even deserves them back.
No talk of divisive TV musical series could exclude Glee, which continues to frustrate both finnicky critics and the most devoted of Gleeks—each group bothered by the the snow's increasingly tonedeaf writing, wildly divergent plots, and failure to live up to the potential exhibited by its sharp, biting, and bubbly first season. The show is essentially relaunching this season, with its major characters all in different cities after last spring's graduation—a narrative challenge that will either reinvigorate the series or ruin it for good.
After a first season that received nowhere near the viewership or buzz creator Simon Cowell hoped for—largely because it offered not much new or different from its many competitors—The X Factor returns with Britney Spears and teen queen Demi Lovato at its judges table, hoping the pop divas will win over the audience Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger failed to woo. On the cable front, The Newsroom continues to churn out episodes late in its first season run that are far more captivating and less patronizing than that early batch that critics loathed so much, and Girls returns as an Emmy-nominated hit hoping to win over those who were turned off by its "voice of a generation" billing and hype.
Will genre series continue to excel?
There were few bright spots on broadcast TV's fall lineup, especially on the drama front. It's telling, however, that those old reliables—procedurals and medical shows—mostly failed to take off in their freshman seasons. On the other hand, series that were once considered too risky—genre shows—were among the few new hits. Fairy-tale drama Once Upon a Time launched big and continued to put up strong numbers, while Grimm performed solidly for NBC. Campy soap opera Revenge became watercooler television, while ABC's political-soap combo Scandal was the rare show to grow viewers over its first season.
On cable, American Horror Story was an unmitigated success, and TNT's Dallas reboot earned Texas-sized numbers. Downtown Abbey on PBS remains, as a British costume drama, one of TV's most unlikely smashes. The new fall season finds networks doubling down on genre shows: sci-fi series like Revolution, supernatural dramas like 666 Park Avenue, soaps like Nashville. Will audiences continue to respond?
Have audiences had their fill of sarcastic funny ladies?
The talking point of last TV season was the much-welcome victory of women in sitcoms—smart, bawdy, clever, fully-drawn, and unique—over the loathsome cliched comedy men—boorish, uninspired, and corny. And there were loads of these fast-talking, sarcastic, and altogether interesting female leads to choose from: Zooey Deschanel's Jess on New Girl, Kat Dennings's Max on 2 Broke Girls, Lena Dunham's Hannah on Girls, Krysten Ritter's Chloe on Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, and Jane Levy's Tessa on Suburgatory.
The new season finds Mindy Kaling's title character on The Mindy Project, Dakota Johnson's Kate on Ben and Kate, Sarah Chalke's Polly on How to Live With Your Parents, and Becki Newton's Chloe on Goodwin Games joining the mix. This could either be an embarrassment of riches...or too much to for viewers to handle.
Can Modern Family survive the baby curse?
For each of its first three seasons, Modern Family enjoyed a kind of unbridled fan and critical enthusiasm that's extremely rare but completely deserved. That expectation of consistent quality makes the series' big finale reveal last season all the more surprising...and concerning. We learn in the episode's final moments that Sofia Vergara's Gloria is pregnant with her husband's (Ed O'Neill's Jay) third child, his first in over three decades. The "older couple gets their lives turned upside down by a late-in-life pregnancy" storyline is tried and true in the sitcom universe—but by far more mediocre series way further in their runs when they were desperate for fresh plot points. Until now, Modern Family has stood in a class of its own with its original, sharp writing and aversion to cliches. With this storyline, it now joins a class that includes The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Growing Pains, and Boy Meets World—all rightfully beloved for their own reasons, but none on par with ABC's Emmy-winning gem. Sure, there are reasons to expect better for Modern Family: The younger woman/older man dynamic of Gloria and Jay's relationship puts a different spin on the cliched plot, and one should never bet against Modern Family's writers. But this could also spell the beginning of the end of the show's relatively unscathed relationship with viewers and reviewers.
Will breakout shows sustain their momentum?
It's a lot of pressure to be a breakout hit in your first season. Then the question arises as to whether the show can keep up its quality (Modern Family), or fall prey to the sophomore slump (Glee). New Girl initially divided critics with its quirkiness and reliance on Zooey Deschanel's occasionally grating performance, but the show eventually evolved into a solid ensemble comedy as supporting characters, chiefly Max Greenfield's lovable douchebag Schmidt, were fleshed out and Deschanel's Jess became more well-rounded. The show was a ratings hit; the test will be whether it can keep up the momentum. 2 Broke Girls faces the same challenge, though critics will be watching with a keen eye to see if the show eases up on its racial stereotypes and corny zingers to seize full potential of the winning chemistry of leads Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs. Suburgatory is also being given the plum post-Modern Family timeslot, a sign that ABC (rightfully) thinks the show should be a big hit.