A new fall TV season kicked off last night. Did anyone notice?
The Emmys came around and obscured the view for awhile, and when they were done, and the gold dust had settled, one could see a new year of TV at the door. And for no reason other than that they were there, I stayed up late after the awards show watching four new Monday series.
Even though it took Monday itself to write this piece, it seemed wrong to let the official fall season begin — on the official first day of fall, as it happened — without remark. With one exception, I can’t imagine any of these shows being short-listed for an Emmy come next September, but all are building blocks in that towering edifice we call television. (And some may find audiences greater than those that do win Emmys.)
One is a multi-camera sitcom of cross-cultural romance, “Bob Hearts Abishola.” The other three — “Prodigal Son” on Fox, “All Rise” on CBS and “Bluff City Law” on NBC — involve what might loosely be termed the justice system: cops, criminals, lawyers, judges. Each feels true to its network’s brand.
“Prodigal Son,” on Fox, is the Foxiest, an edgy, eccentric, style-forward series about murderers starring Michael Sheen as Dr. Martin Whitly, a long-incarcerated serial killer known as the Surgeon. Sheen looks and acts much as he does on the latest season of “The Good Fight,” mad eyes poking through a thicket of hair and beard. He’s a teddy bear of a toxic kook.
Son Malcolm (Tom Payne, “The Walking Dead”), who has bad dreams about a body in a box he may or may not have seen as a child, and keeps himself more or less sane with affirmations, exercise, meditations and meds, has grown up to become an expert on the criminal mind.
As the show opens, he’s working as an FBI profiler, but pilot episodes being what they are, things change, and by the end, he’s consulting for NYPD detective Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips), with whom he has a history. (In all these dramas, there are characters who have history.)
Possibly having seen “The Silence of the Lambs” — but, I mean, who hasn’t? — Dr. Whitly is working from prison to involve himself in his son’s business, out of what variously seems like parental interest and a chance to get a vicarious thrill from other killers’ work; he regards their common interest in murder as a kind of shared hobby, an opportunity to bond. As in more normal relationships, the father likes to see himself in his son, while the son prefers to regard himself as nothing like his father. (I believe this works for mothers and daughters as well.)
It’s all a little overheated and fancy for my taste — one of those shows, like “Hannibal,” where murder is practiced as an art, with an eye to composition and subtext. Still, says Malcolm’s mother (Bellamy Young), “the media loves a charismatic serial killer.” So do TV writers, and so, perhaps, do you.
Set in Memphis (John Grisham territory), “Bluff City Law” brings the number of NBC series that have starred Jimmy Smits and have “Law” in the title to two — “L.A Law” was the first, back in the 20th century, but you knew that. Smits plays Elijah Strait, a g-dropping Southern gent and defender of the defenseless, estranged (for a television moment) from his daughter Sydney (Caitlin McGee), an aggressive corporate lawyer who hates him for having cheated on her mother, freshly deceased as our story begins.
A legal procedural strained through the cornball naturalism of NBC’s pride and joy “This Is Us,” the series has the deep-pile Quality Drama feel the network favors, with a muted palette and a pillowy soundtrack (spelled by an occasional blues or soul classic), with room built in for significant looks and pregnant pauses.
“I want you to come back to the firm,” Elijah tells Sydney, whose knowledge of “the dark side” can be useful in attacking corporate power and whose hotheadedness may prove a counterweight to his caution. “I want you fightin’ for what’s right. ... ’Cause in case you haven’t noticed, the world’s runnin’ out of heroes.” Righteousness predominates, with scripts arranged so that all the pieces fall into order, that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail. Would you have it otherwise?
CBS has lagged historically in matters of diversity. Its road to remedy began last fall with the comedies “The Neighborhood” — returning Monday for a new season — and the since-canceled “Happy Together” and continues this year with “Bob Hearts Abishola” and the feel-good legal procedural “All Rise,” starring Simone Missick (“Luke Cage”), an African American former prosecutor and newly minted Superior Court judge in the L.A. justice system — or the injustice system, am I right? But Lola, who would like you to call her Lola, is out to fix that. In what seems to a layman extra-judicial behavior, except in the Solomonic sense, she will go the extra mile, and then another mile for good measure, to help those who need her.
Like other CBS procedurals, it’s on the hectic side, with a streak of comedy — on her first trip to the bench, Lola trips, literally — and a team of colorful colleagues. Marg Helgenberger plays the most superior of the Superior Court judges, a wise guide, who assigns Lola the caustic Sherri Kansky (Ruthie Ann Miles) as her judicial assistant.
“The name of the game is speed,” Sherri informs her.
“And where does justice fit in?”
“Close second. Suit up.”
Sherri also has advice about how hot it gets under the judge’s robe and secret signals — “pull on your earlobe if you you have to pee, touch your nose if you need time to look at evidence” — that have a ring of truth that the series, a social-wish-fulfillment fantasy, largely seems content not to sound.
“Bob Hearts Abishola” is another slightly off-center sitcom from producer-creator Chuck Lorre, whose shows are no stranger to Emmys, though he has never won one himself. As the title indicates, the series concerns Bob (Billy Gardell, from Lorre’s “Mike & Molly”), a Detroit manufacturer of socks, who falls in love with Abishola (Folake Olowofeyeku), a Nigerian nurse he meets in the wake of a heart attack. (Gardell is a big person; you feel Bob’s history with heart attacks has chapters to come, especially as no one counsels him to change his lifestyle.)
Created by Lorre and previous collaborators Eddie Gorodetsky and Al Higgins, with Gina Yashere, a British comedian of Nigerian descent, “Bob” mines race and immigration somewhat in the sort-of-serious way that Lorre’s “Mom” got mileage from addiction and recovery. It can seem to flirt with ethnic caricature, at least in scenes featuring Abishola’s Aunt Olu (Shola Adewusi) and Uncle Tunde (Barry Shabaka Henley), who see Bob as a stepladder to improving their own fortunes: “It goes without saying, we are a package deal.” But it also goes without saying that Bob’s own family, with Christine Ebersole as his mother and Matt Jones and Maribeth Monroe as his siblings, are weird in their own right.
There’s a stalker-ish element, too, at first, to Bob’s pursuit of Abishola: He pays another nurse for her address (the dry Vernee Watson, who provides the African American point of view, as opposed to the West African). Yet there are signals that the writers feel the weirdness as much as you do, and it’s almost as if the show runs in a constant state of self-correction, to assure the viewer that everything’s really all right: Come back next week, it’s safe.
Though Gardell is clearly where the casting began, if there is an Emmy waiting here, it’s for Olowofeyeku, who delivers one of the more remarkably grounded performances I’ve seen in a multi-camera, live-audience comedy. That she plays straight the whole time — neither telling jokes nor understanding anyone else’s — does not mean she is not also reliably funny. Her Abishola is all business, strict and skeptical but not immovable; she only speaks the truth, truthfully. You can see what Bob sees in her.
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