Film and TV

The Fall Season's 5 Best New Series and Its 5 Biggest Disappointments

There's more television today than at any other point in the medium's history, but there's a good chance you're stuck in a TiVo rut. That's because, with a handful of exceptions, this fall has delivered a truckload of mediocrity and dead-on-arrival trends. (Goodbye, "rom-sit-coms" like the already canceled A to Z and Manhattan Love Story. Farewell, hopefully forever, comedies about women whose defining characteristic is their poor job performance, like spring's Bad Teacher and autumn's Bad Judge.)

Fortunately, there are a few new shows with fresh perspectives, novel conceits, encouragingly diverse casts, and/or deep emotional undercurrents worthy of your Hulu queue. And, of course, there are the season's letdowns -- not necessarily the worst the small screen has to offer, but the ones that suffer the greatest lapse between expectations and execution. Here are this fall's five best new series -- and its five biggest disappointments.

Best New Shows

Transparent
Amazon's flagship series is hands down this season's finest (and most binge-bait-y) show: a profoundly moving, funny, sexy, wistful, and intelligent revolution of the half-hour format. Representation issues aside, Jeffrey Tambor is flawless as Maura, a heartbreaker and an inspiration, whose late-in-life transition from man- to womanhood ("My whole life, I've been dressing up like a man") sparks existential crises in her sex-obsessed, selfish-to-the-point-of-self-destructive adult children: sanctimonious mother-of-two Sarah (Amy Landecker), needy music agent Josh (Jay Duplass), and aimless perma-student Ali (Gaby Hoffman). Judith Light co-stars as Maura's ex-wife, the other matriarch of this close but sharp-tongued family that never let their slim chances at happiness keep them from reaching for everything. (Amazon, all episodes made available for streaming on September 26)

Jane the Virgin
If Transparent is the fall's best new show, Jane the Virgin is its most charming. Starring indie darling Gina Rodriguez (Filly Brown) as 23-year-old waitress Jane, this smart telenovela parody improves upon big sister Ugly Betty by grounding its madcap plot twists in recognizable emotions and detailed, consistent characterization. A medical mix-up lands a stranger's sperm inside sex-averse Jane, except it's no stranger after all, but her former flirting partner Rafael (Justin Baldoni), who also happens to be her married, now-infertile boss. Jane's desire to do the right thing by everyone involved -- she's keenly aware this is Rafael's last chance to have a biological child -- overcomes the series' seeming social conservatism, which fades with each new installment in favor of a rather nuanced, if not strictly progressive, sexual politics. (CW, debuted October 13)

Black-ish
One of the fall's most popular new shows, Anthony Anderson's Black-ish is the natural successor to Will Smith's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (And yes, it's really taken this long for an heir to take over The Fresh Prince's throne.) In its best episodes, like "The Nod" ("It's the internationally accepted yet unspoken acknowledgement of black folks around the world…to let each other know, ‘I see you, bro' ") and "Crime and Punishment" (about intergenerational clashes about spanking), Black-ish achieves its ambitious mission: to question with thoughtfulness and humor how to raise upper-middle-class black children who are conscious of their forebears' struggles. The show also deserves credit for allowing co-stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne to share the spotlight, respectively, as the refreshingly zany mom and the hilariously cantankerous grandpa. (ABC, debuted September 24)

Selfie
This update of Pygmalion overcame one of the worst pilots of the fall season to become a surprisingly witty look at millennial culture. Karen Gillan is dazzling as the motor-mouthed Eliza Dooley, a sales rep with thousands of social-media friends and followers but no one to take care of her when she's laid low by the flu. Representing the anti-youth POV is prematurely grouchy Henry Higgs (the always amiable John Cho), who in turns borrows some of Eliza's joie de vivre and tech savvy to cobble together a life outside of work. Unfortunately, the low-rated sitcom will likely be canceled soon, which will deprive us of gems like this brilliantly wry exchange at a nerdy book club Eliza attends in a Goodwill dress: "Sorry if I smell like dead people." "That's how you know it's vintage!" (ABC, debuted September 30)

The Chair
Though it's framed as a reality competition between two first-time directors, each adapting the same script according to his/her sensibilities, The Chair is really a study of artistic success and the innumerable obstacles that can get in the way thereof. This fascinating experiment in filmmaking isn't just about the differing visions between Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, though, but about issues concerning the future of independent cinema itself: old media versus new, questionable funding opportunities like product placement, movies as brand extension, the recurring issues of gender. The overconfident Dawson and the neurotic Martemucci make for fascinating (if not particularly likable) subjects faced with new challenges like leadership and collaboration. The competitive aspect is a foregone conclusion -- Dawson's 10 million YouTube subscribers will most certainly elect him the winner by a huge margin -- but the stakes still seem sky-high, especially since Zachary Quinto, who fulfills the Tim Gunn role along with American Pie producer Chris Moore, recently declared Dawson's film "egregiously offensive" and took his name off that film. (Starz, debuted September 6)

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Inkoo Kang is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.