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Fall TV: Our critics find gem in 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' - and some duds

This week marks the official start of the fall TV season. Some series have already gotten off to a start, including Fox's comedy "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and NBC's thriller "Blacklist" (with the official trailer above). There are almost too many new shows to keep track of — which is where Times TV critics Mary McNamara and Robert Lloyd can help.

In the conversation below, the pair discuss their new favorites — and, not surprisingly, uncover a few duds along the way.

Mary McNamara: Robert, it's that time of year. The fall pilots are in bloom again (insert Katharine Hepburn accent here), such a peculiar flower. Though not such a dazzling display this year I must admit. Still, there’s plenty to like. I’m already on record having fallen for “Sleepy Hollow” (Fox), so please don’t tell me you hate it, and I agree that “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Fox) is the most promising comedy, though the main character's annoyance factor threatens to go from yellow straight to red. “Blacklist" (NBC) is hands-down my favorite of the new American dramas. It may not be the most original idea on record — “Silence of the Lambs” mercifully minus the cannibalism — but watching James Spader, um, chew up a role remains one of the great pleasures in life. Have no idea what to say about the political thriller “Hostages” (CBS), though. It seems more than mildly absurd, and not in a “Scandal”-icious way. Also, I have never understood the appeal of Dylan McDermott (though I do find it hilarious that Dermott Mulroney, with whom McDermott is often confused) is coming to NBC mid-season in the political thriller “Crisis.” How will we tell them apart?

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Robert Lloyd: Having encapsulated the entirety of the fall season show by show for the Times Fall Preview, it is (paradoxically) all something of a blur. [Rifles through notes.] Among the broadcast-network series,  although most of what's new is no worse than professional, little I've seen seems (at this new-colt stage) likely to create the kind of conversation that surrounds a show like "The Good Wife" or "30 Rock"— NBC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," maybe, but more because it's part of the ongoing saga of creator Joss Whedon than because it brings something especially new to TV. I don't hate "Sleepy Hollow" (I actively like Nicole Beharie, who plays the cop-partner of a character who has nothing to do with Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane), though I doubt I'll follow it closely; "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is indeed good and also righteous in the balance of its casting and (romantic interests notwithstanding) absent the adolescent sex jokes that make a minefield out of many potential family comedies. (By Fox standards, it is chaste.) On the other hand, there is its spiritual inverse, "Dads" (also on Fox).

Mary: Agree re: Nicole Beharie, who is absolutely the find of the season. (Not that she was exactly hidden, starring in movies as she has, but you know what I mean.) There seems to be a slow-grow attitude at play here, especially among the comedies, which may not be a bad thing in terms of quality but is always worrisome in terms of ratings/fear of cancellation. “The Michael J. Fox Show” (NBC) is appealing in many ways, though the sum of its parts does not add up to a whole, and I can’t wait to see Robin Williams meets Sarah Michelle Gellar in “The Crazy Ones” (CBS). I am still trying to figure out how far my hackles are truly raised by “Trophy Wife”  (ABC). Bradley Whitford and Marcia Gay Harden grant it a certain benefit-of-the-doubt factor but the title is just plain sexist (they know that right? The female creators?), as is the conceit. A young and lovely woman must navigate the perilous waters of new step-motherhood complicated by two very flawed ex-wives (one a basilisk surgeon, the other a dippy granola cruncher) while Whitford’s husband looks on, vaguely amused. Except, of course, he’s the common denominator of these failed marriages so why does he get to be the quiet center? I mean, it’s not as initially infuriating as “Cougar Town,” which became a pretty good show, so maybe I’m over-reacting. Also, I know we are all but legally required to surrender to Showtime's “Masters of Sex” (Michael Sheen! Lots of cool period clothes and science-creepy sex!) but an episode and a half in, I feel a headache coming on. As for “Dads,” I keep feeling that if we all stop talking about it, it will just quietly slink away.

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Robert: I am quite fond of the new Michael Fox show; I like its modesty, and I like him. It takes a heap of living to make a house a home, the saying goes, and any family comedy needs time to persuade us that these people have lived together for years before we met. (There are so many this year, and so many that feel picked before they're ripe.) "The Crazy Ones" makes me a little edgy — I have a low tolerance for Robin Williams Unbound. (As stars of TV past go, I am hoping, perhaps foolishly, for something good out of "Kirstie," the Kirstie Alley series scheduled for December on TV Land.) The title of "Trophy Wife" I take to be ironic, just as Malin Åkerman's character is meant to be more substantial than her stereotype. I sense a certain kinship with "Bunheads," in that regard, though I don't expect it to bear quite such tasty fruit. But I like Michaela Watkins as the hippie ex-wife a lot, and Natalie Morales, who plays Åkerman's best friend, has been a favorite of mine since "The Middle Man." (You and I are going to have to have a talk, ABC Family Channel.) I'm also happy to see Mary McCormack back, in "Welcome to the Family" (NBC); the premise is stock, but the script isn't stupid. Some other shows (I could mean "We Are Men," or "The Millers," both on CBS) fill me with dread. Then there's Rebel Wilson's "Super Fun Night" (ABC), somewhat in the Mindy-Zooey mode (with a dash of "Ugly Betty") and the only new show, I think, to carry a flag for the single girl. It has its points. Possibly the show I'm most looking forward to is "MasterChef Junior" (Fox). I am not merely being provocative in saying that.

Mary: You’re just saying that because “MasterChef Junior” sent out that cool cupcake kit (but, strangely, no screener). I was very, VERY disappointed in “Super Fun Night,” and not just because Rebel was forced to lose her Australian accent. It felt to me like the mirror image of “We Are Men,” in both the “loser characteristics” of each gender are over-inflated and then made to seem somehow endearing. Agree re: “Welcome to the Family”; I share your overwhelming passion for McCormack, but she is always a welcome presence. I’m jazzed about “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” (ABC); though I haven’t seen the whole pilot, it looks gorgeous in a fairy-tale-emo sort of way, a la Tim Burton. I feel quite mixed about “Almost Human” (Fox), which seems to be getting a lot of buzz — the whole can-androids-be-trusted feels very old to me. Admit to liking the pilot for the “Vampire Diaries” spin-off “The Originals,” though that could change.  I cannot bring myself to discuss NBC's “Dracula” or “Ironsides,” both of which are terrible for roughly the same reason (if you’re going to remake a classic, you darn well better do it right).  And shall we talk about “Reign” (CW)? As a parent, I am always drawn to shows that might encourage my children to explore historical eras they might otherwise relegate to “school = boring” (which explains my otherwise inexplicable soft spot for “DaVinci’s Demons”), but I can’t decide whether this utter absurdity of a show is good camp or bad camp. Only time will tell, I suppose.

FULL COVERAGE: Fall TV preview 2013

Meanwhile, I would like to issue an across-the-board ban on masturbation scenes (there’s one in “Reign”). I am sure there are instances in which it is narratively necessary to show a character masturbating, but I haven’t seen one yet.

Robert: "Dracula" is just weird enough to make me not automatically hate it; it has so little to do with the original it can be hardly called a remake. (It's more like a steampunk graphic-novel-style takeoff.) As much can be said of "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," I suppose, which is even weirder and has even less to do with the original, though I do prefer my "Alice" straight. The "Ironside" remake, which also has little to do with the original, does seem pointless to me, unless the point is that there are no restrictions to life in a wheelchair. (Which is a good point, but not a dramatically useful one.) Two big-fall biopics seem worth a look to me, as much as I tend to dislike the form: BBC America's "Burton and Taylor," for the casting (Dominic West, Helena Bonham Carter) and because it focuses on a single moment in their lives, and Lifetime's "House of Versace," because I expect (from the briefest preview) that Gina Gershon and Raquel Welch will take it right over the top. I haven't seen "Reign" yet (because 8 million shows), but as an old drum-beater for better self-policing of the public airwaves, I do sympathize with your weariness over its colonization by masturbation scenes, sex jokes and genital references -- that's what cable is for. (See: Stephen Merchant's "Hello Ladies," on HBO.) And the Internet. And home video. And Google Glass, probably.

If overall it feels like a less than challenging fall — sometimes I think they hold the weirder, more interesting shows for winter or spring — it may just be that there are a lot of family sitcoms and only slightly unusual procedurals about. I have given up on guessing what series will gain traction. ("Person of Interest" season three is not a thing I could have predicted.) I wish all new shows enough time to become real, like a Velveteen Rabbit. Meanwhile, there is already too much to watch on television.


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