Did anything get made for TV during the pandemic? The answer is that some shows managed to pull off production, but not as many as we're used to. The bad news? A fall TV season that isn't a marquee-grabber. The good news? You won't be overwhelmed by what to watch. Whet your appetite for what's to come with our first look at the fall 2021 TV season (and keep an eye on this space for updates).
Dick Wolf will own three whole nights of network TV this season
Already a long-running procedural TV hitmaker who created the Law & Order franchise in 1990, producer Dick Wolf is behind three (yes, three) new shows in the fall that fill in a remarkable wall of Wolf programming over three nights. The highlights:
NBC will add Law & Order: For the Defense, the eighth variation of the series, to kick off Thursday night programming that will also include the 23rd season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and the sophomore season of Law & Order: Organized Crime.
On CBS, Wolf's new FBI: International, set in Prague, will be sandwiched between the established Wolf programs FBI and FBI: Most Wanted on Tuesday nights.
That will make three consecutive nights of all-Wolf shows with Wednesday's returning Windy City series, Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, and Chicago P.D. — totaling an astonishing nine hours of Dick Wolf productions on network TV this fall.
More initials you may know
Meanwhile, CBS will bring new versions of its NCIS and CSI franchises.
NCIS: Hawai'i, starring Vanessa Lachey, will be the latest in a series that has also included NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles and the recently departed NCIS: New Orleans.
CSI: Vegas is billed as a sequel to the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which ran from 2000 to 2015 and spawned the offshoots CSI: Miami, CSI: NY and CSI: Cyber. Original cast members William Petersen, Jorja Fox and David Hodges revive their original roles alongside new members of the team.
NBC throws in the towel on Thursday night comedy
For the first time in more than a half century, NBC won't have a comedy playing on Thursday night — once the hallmark of the network (who remembers Must See TV?). Nor will it be scheduling comedies on any night in prime time this fall. Execs say comedies work better in midseason, when NBC, like many networks, will present a couple of new titles: American Auto, from the makers of Superstore, and Grand Crew, an L.A. series about a group of friends.
Diverse casts get more (and long-overdue) exposure
Just as CBS this year brought back The Equalizer with Queen Latifah in the lead, other heritage shows will return with BIPOC casts. ABC's revival of The Wonder Years will again focus on a family in the ‘60s, but this one is a Black family in Birmingham, Alabama, with Don Cheadle doing the narration.
The rapper Eve stars in ABC's Queens, about an R&B girl group from the ‘90s that reunites for a comeback — pretty much the same premise as in the recent critical-hit comedy Girls5Eva on Peacock.
Fox's glitzy prime time soap Our Kind of People may play like Dynasty or Falcon Crest, but it will focus on the Black elite of Martha's Vineyard.
The CW's one new scripted entry, 4400, is a reboot of the USA Network sci-fi series that ran from 2004 to 2007. But instead of being about missing people who suddenly materialize in the Pacific Northwest, the new version has its 4,400 people “who were overlooked, undervalued or otherwise marginalized” reappearing in Detroit.
Not yet overdosing on reality shows? That's good, because more are coming
While plenty of long-running reality favorites return, including Survivor, The Bachelorette, The Voice and Dancing With the Stars, a few new reality shows are in the pipeline for fall. Fox has Alter Ego, in which hopeful singers hide behind avatars they create. The CW has a reboot of Nickelodeon's old Legends of the Hidden Temple and a U.S. version of the British Killer Camp, in which campers must find the “killer” among them. But Fox also has a scripted show about a fictional reality dance competition, The Big Leap, where candidates audition for a live production of Swan Lake. Scott Foley, Teri Polo and Piper Perabo star.
Not yet overdosing on live sports? That's good, because more is coming
Because live sports events are far and away the highest-rated programs on all of TV, networks are devoting more time to them — so much so that Fox execs describe its schedule as entertainment for four days a week and sports for three, with Thursday Night Football, WWE's Friday Night Smackdown and a variety of sports on Saturdays. ABC has Saturday Night Football on the schedule; NBC continues Sunday Night Football.
The final season of This Is Us is delayed
With the sixth and final season of NBC's This is Us pushed to January, a new show, Ordinary Joe, will hold down the spot in the fall lineup. It features James Wolk (Mad Men, Watchmen) as a college grad who tries to decide on three separate paths. The hook? We get to see how it works out 10 years later. In one version, he's a musician, in another a cop and in the third a nurse.
We can't help but notice a theme here
The vacuum for fresh ideas in Hollywood heightened by the pandemic could be reflected in the remaining two new fall shows announced. NBC's sci-fi drama La Brea, with Natalie Zea and Jon Seda, is about a huge sinkhole in the middle of Los Angeles that starts sucking up everything around it. And CBS’ Ghosts, the lone new comedy of the fall season, has Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar as a city couple who buy an empty country mansion overcrowded with spirits of the past.
Roger Catlin, former critic for the Hartford Courant, writes on pop culture for AARP, The Washington Post, Smithsonian and TV Guide.