Superheroes, Sex and the Aged: The Fall on TV (and Netflix)

The cast of "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD"

Last year a number of critics complained that there are actually now so many good shows on television (mostly on cable) that they could no longer keep up with them all.

And yet they keep on coming. Over the next few weeks in Hollywood’s small screen version of Christmas dozens of new and returning shows will debut. Here are a few of the best and brightest.

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ABC

“Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” (debuts Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m.)

The most anticipated network show of the fall season, “Agents of SHIELD” capitalizes on the massive swell of Marvel superhero excitement coming off summer 2012’s blockbuster ‘The Avengers” (and the seemingly endless films that preceded and continue to pour forth from it) to tell the story of a group of normal government agents forced to contend with this strange new world of super heroes.

Anyone who has never seen a Joss Whedon show (which include “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse”) are likely in for a semi-rude awakening, as his sensibilities are far less “explosion! wow!” than quirky, speak-funny characters placed in oh-so-dark situations. Expect an initial muted “huh?” from the criterati, followed by a funny, slow-to-find-its-legs show that if given time will be well worth tuning into.           

“Scandal” (debuts Thursday Oct. 3, 10 p.m.)

If “SHIELD” is the new network show everyone’s waiting for, “Scandal” is the current one. And if you’re not already on board this crazytown freight train of a show about a political fixer who is also the former advisor/sometime secret lover to the president of the United States, hop on now. It’s a heck of a ride.

NBC

“The Michael J. Fox Show” (debuts Thursday Sept. 26, 9:30 p.m.) (Full disclosure: One of my friends is a staff writer on this show. Also, she’s hilarious.)

As anyone who has caught him on “The Good Wife” in recent years can tell you, Michael J. Fox’s disease has not diminished his talent one iota. Indeed, the illness has become mostly just another tool in his kit, and never moreso than in his new show, where he plays a Parkinson’s-stricken former NBC news anchor who goes back to work (much to the relief of his put-upon family). 

In the pilot Fox is as good as ever, and uses his illness to great comic effect. The supporting cast, which includes Betsy Brandt (“Breaking Bad”) and the twice-Tony-winning Broadway master of hilarity Katie Finneran (“Noises Off”, “Promises, Promises”) also makes the show well worth a look.  It could very well be the breakout sitcom of the new season.

FOX

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (debuts Tuesday Sept. 17, 8:30 p.m.)

Since his first days on “Saturday Night Live,” no one has quite known where to place comedian Andy Samberg.  His SNL digital shorts with sketch group Lonely Island provided some of the freshest material on the show.  (Personal favorites: Samberg singing a love song to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Natalie Portman swearing like she’s from Southie; and Samberg punching people as they are about to eat.) But when it came to acting, Samberg always seemed to be just standing around awkwardly grinning.

Until now. In “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Samberg plays a smart police detective with a penchant for the sophomoric. Co-created by “Parks and Recreation”’s Dan Goor and Michael Schur (who also wrote on the U.S. version of “The Office”), and costarring Andre Braugher as Samberg’s newly assigned captain, “Nine-Nine” lets Samberg be silly, but gives his character enough actual skill that we respect him, too. Rather than a nervous comedian looking for a punch line, here Samberg is that goofy younger brother you can’t help but love. A show with a lot of potential.

“Almost Human” (debuts Monday Nov. 4)

It wouldn’t be a season of network television if there wasn’t a new offering from J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions.  After concluding last winter’s geektacular mind-bendarama “Fringe” about alternate universes and a father’s love, this fall Fox debuts Robot’s “Almost Human,” about a broken cop searching for answers in a “Blade Runner” meets “Minority Report” future.

As a PTSD-ridden police officer who hates robots, Karl Urban (Bones on “Star Trek”) brings a rugged Harrison Ford likability and world weariness. The robot partner foisted upon him, a scrapped model of synthetic known for its unexpected emotional reactions (aka humanity), is played with humor and pathos by Michael Ealy in what looks to be a career-making performance. 

The actual direction of the show is hard to say. There are bad guys, they have mysterious plans, there’s a heady twist—you get the picture. But the partnership between Urban and Ealy is immediately rich (if familiar) terrain. So, too, the world of the show, filled with wonderful futuristic details—like a digital scan version of police cordon tape; mini drones that hover over everything; and the chillingly believable robots that act with no feeling—promise a lush universe to explore.

CBS

Because CBS has been such a programming juggernaut the last few years, it actually has almost no new shows.  But two ongoing shows are certainly worthy of attention: 

“The Good Wife” (fifth season debuts Sunday Sept. 29, 9 p.m.)

If Alicia’s choice at the end of last season to start a firm with Cary (yes!) and remarry once-dallying husband Peter (no!) doesn’t give “Good Wife” new life after a somewhat strange and strained season 4, I’ll be very surprised.

“How I Met Your Mother” (90th—er—9th season bows Monday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m.)

After eight years, we finally get to meet the mother. If you have no idea what this means, never mind.  If you do, cross your fingers that after a flat few seasons HIMYM’s final foray into slap bets, flash forwards and the pursuit of true happiness will be legen—WAIT FOR IT—dary.

AMC

“The Walking Dead” (debuts Sunday October 13, 9 p.m.)

I know, it’s a show about zombies.  You like singing shows (aka Adam Levine). You don’t do zombies.

But just so you know: 12.4 million other people did do zombies for its season finale last year. That was 3.4 million more than the previous year. In fact, “Walking Dead” was the highest rated show on television last year other than “Sunday Night Football.” Including “The Voice.”

Do they have some version of a water cooler where you work? Or even just other living people you want to talk to? Maybe it’s time to try zombies?   

Netflix

“Derek” (all episodes available as of Sept. 12)

For all the furious sarcasm Ricky Gervais can dish out on Twitter or awards shows, he has a great capacity in his writing to find the heart and soul of overlooked things. Never has this been more true than in his new limited series “Derek,” about a mentally handicapped man who works at an aged care facility in the UK. 

When the project was first announced, people assumed Gervais would be doing the character of Derek as a sort of gag, but in fact he plays it not only straight but humbly, refusing to let his character pull too much focus away from this very funny and poignant ensemble. The story of social worker Hannah (the luminous Kerry Godliman), the pretty but no longer young woman who sacrifices her life to keep the care center open, is as grounded and lovely a tale as you’re likely to watch this year. The season as a whole is only seven episodes, all available now. Do not miss it. 

Showtime

“Masters of Sex” (debuts Sunday Sept 29, 10 p.m.) 

In the 1950s and 60s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson jumpstarted our understanding of human sexuality with their unorthodox study on sex. Masters was already a veritable miracle worker in the area of fertility, and Johnson a former lounge singer who became first a hospital secretary and then Masters’ partner.

As played by the talented Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”, “Midnight in Paris”, Tony Blair in pretty much everything) Masters is a portrait in paralyzed sterility, caught in a marriage he can’t quite feel anything about. In the sexually frank Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) he finds not only a partner, but a human being that can open him up. The pilot is at times quite explicit visually, yet never titillating, and the human story of this frigid man finding warmth in strange places looks to be quite compelling.

BBC America

“Broadchurch” (currently running Wednesdays at 10 p.m.; season finale Sept. 25)

As of this writing the BBC phenomenon “Broadchurch” will have almost completed its maiden run on BBC America in the United States, after burning down the internet in both the UK and Australia with its compelling hunt for the murderer of a young boy in a quaint English town. “Broadchurch” is a tighter “The Killing,” with emotional resonance that grows ever quietly devastating. Truly, viewers will be talking about the finale for a long, long time.  Some of the best performances I’ve seen on television in years.

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