You know how every year people complain network TV has hit the lowest of lows? That was before they gave us Selfie: The Sitcom or Katherine Heigl: Action Hero! That was before they invented the "fun-cedural." This fall is a historic boneyard for mind-blowingly bad new shows. But there are glimmers of light amid all the carnage – at least some of the terrible ones are comically terrible. The lack of fresh ideas is frightening. What does it mean that superhero comics are stealing all the TV thunder? And what does it mean that Selfie turns out to be one of the better sitcoms? Only that the networks have really hit the lowest of lows this time. Save us, Katherine Heigl.
Fox Mon., 8 p.m.
This season's debuts fall into two categories: Gotham and all the ones that aren't Gotham. This heavily anticipated Batman prequel gets the details right, with loads of Blade Runner-style future-noir atmosphere. It's the early days of the young Bruce Wayne, as he sees his parents get killed – no cape yet, but his crusade begins. However, since Wayne is 12 years old and still has a bedtime, the series focuses on Ben McKenzie as the future Commissioner Gordon, except at this point he's still a new-jack detective (not too far from the cop he played on Southland). "Fear doesn't need conquering," he tells the future Dark Knight. "Fear tells you where the edge is. Fear is a good thing."
The entire cast is an all-star team. Donal Logue is magnificently rumpled as Gordon's cynical veteran partner, giving the usual "wise up, rookie" warnings. We also get early glimpses of the Penguin and the Riddler. Carmen Bicondova plays Catwoman as a juvenile delinquent, doing a stray-cat strut through a back alley.
Gotham is poised to do for Batman what Smallville did for Superman, as boy wonder Bruce Wayne starts growing up to be the Caped Crusader. MVP: Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays crime boss Fish Mooney like a blend of Scarface and Mary J. Blige. She's terrifying right from the moment she sizes up Gordon, bats her lashes and says, "Well, aren't you a cool glass of milk." She's a villain worthy of the eventual superhero – and she's a key reason why Gotham is easily the fall's most impressive network debut.
Fox Thurs., 9 p.m.
And the Jennifer Aniston Memorial Award for best performance by a Nineties haircut goes to Gracepoint's David Tennant, who obviously tells his stylist, "Just give me the early Duchovny, extra stubble." Tennant, revered by Doctor Who fans, stars in this atmospheric 10-episode remake of the cult BBC mystery Broadchurch. It says something about the state of network TV that one of the most promising newcomers is a straight-up cover version.
Tennant reprises his role from the original, playing a troubled detective investigating a child murder in a seaside town. (Has Northern California ever looked more English?) Anna Gunn, fresh from Breaking Bad, plays his flustered partner like a mix of Skyler and Scully. But Tennant sets the tone here with his weary sense of despair.
The CW Tues., 8 p.m.
This superhero reboot is from the guys who did Arrow, so expect the same with this breezy spinoff. (It couldn't be more different from the CW's other debut, the maudlin Jane the Virgin.) The Flash won't be confused with Gotham – instead of gloomy atmosphere, it moves as fast as its namesake, with Grant Gustin adding the right touch of hyperactive studliness.
CBS Mon., 9 p.m.
You have to give Scorpion credit for inventing a whole new genre: the "fun-cedural." It's a remarkably accurate shorthand for what makes this such zippy trash. Team Scorpion is a band of misfit-genius hackers – they're like a crime-fighting Big Bang Theory geek pack. It's a genuine hoot: Any show that can unite Katharine McPhee and American Pie's Eddie Kaye Thomas (Fiiiiinch!) has the right to the fun-cedural crown. With its light touch, Scorpion might take off. Or it could face a speedy fun-cellation.
Fox Sun., 9:30 p.m.
"You can't fake a laugh. It's not like 'I love you!' " It's a telling punch line for Mulaney, the sitcom starring SNL writer John Mulaney. Everybody expects greatness from Mulaney – he made his name feeding Stefon last-minute lines not even a pro like Bill Hader could utter with a straight face. So far it's in raw shape – the laugh track is cranked all the way, to the point where you can't help wincing at how hard the laugh track is trying. Mulaney plays an aspiring comic who writes for pompous game-show host Martin Short. The Seinfeld influence is everywhere, from the stand-up bits to the way Mulaney seems to live in Jerry's apartment. The jury is still out on this one, though given the talent here, Mulaney is a likely bet to improve. But seriously, folks – gut-shoot that laugh track.
ABC Wed., 9:30 p.m.
Suburban dad Anthony Anderson worries his kids have lost touch with their black roots. The best moments come when Anderson clashes with his own feisty dad – welcome back, Laurence Fishburne! He steals Black-ish as the meddling Pops – and in the year when Jay Z gave "eat the cake, Anna Mae" a creepy comeback, it's cool to see Fishburne reclaim the comic power he had on Pee-wee's Playhouse.
CBS Sun., 8:30 p.m.
Téa Leoni as the secretary of state? The Veep-ish bits are 10 times better than the sappy West Wing-ish bits, but you can probably guess which predominate – especially since Leoni can't work blue on CBS. She's always had an attractive mean streak lurking in the twitch of her eyebrows, and Madam needs way more hostility, less heartwarming.
ABC Tues., 8 p.m.
It was unavoidable that this year there would be a sitcom titled Selfie, so let's just be grateful we avoided the Amazeballs scare of 2010. And let's be grateful Selfie is the fall's best network rom-com, which admittedly is not a heated competition. Karen Gillan is the social-media obsessive who realizes she needs a life after she goes viral with the wrong video. Gillan is a little too close to Zooey Deschanel's New Girl human-emoji antics for comfort, but Selfie has promise – it just needs more LOLs. .
CBS Wed., 10 p.m.
This is the kind of thing networks call a psychological thriller – I usually file it away under the category "SODL," or Stacks O' Dead Ladies. It's not my personal cup of bloodbath even when it's done well – i.e., when it involves Kevin Bacon. So it's gratifying to see it done as badly as Stalker. You don't even hit the opening credits before the first torture killing. (You're not going to believe this, but the victim? Female!) If you can buy Maggie Q as a cerebral criminal psychologist, then you'll probably buy Dylan McDermott in anything – the man with the perma-frown hasn't looked so haunted since his poignant masturbation scene in American Horror Story. Cheer up, Dylan – it'll be over quick.
NBC Fri., Oct. 24th, 10 p.m.
Yet another DC Comics superhero franchise. Why is network TV desperately attaching its vampire fangs to the comics fan base in search of fresh blood? Maybe they've just noticed they don't know how to tell a story anymore, while comics do. Constantine is a work in progress – they're still adding cast members. (They were probably spooked by nightmares of Keanu Reeves' film version.) But the smirking Matt Ryan as the demon-hunting John Constantine adds sour humor to all the dark-arts devilry. Go in peace, Keanu, and sin no more.
NBC Mon., Nov. 17th, 10 p.m.
Don't miss State of Affairs if you're a gourmet for Truly Wretched TV – if you live for the kind of fiasco you can mention in a bar three years from now, confident none of your friends will believe this show ever happened. "Katherine Heigl is a rogue CIA agent" is the new "Geena Davis is the president." Like most CIA agents who report directly to the president, Heigl is too edgy to play by the rules – you can tell because she wears a leather jacket to the White House. Nobody gets her except President Alfre Woodard, whose mortified expression is the most believable thing here. Oh, and Heigl was once engaged to the president's son – before he got killed by terrorists! Only the gods of TV badness know how long State of Affairs will last – breathe in the magic while you can.
Showtime Sun., 10 p.m.
Dominic West, forever known as McNulty from The Wire, is a happily married public-school teacher, spending the summer on Long Island with his wife and kids. Ruth Wilson is a waitress in a local diner, a gal with a hard-luck past and a shaky marriage. She catches his eye and gets under his skin. What happens next isn't exactly a surprise – see the title – but the layered story is the smartest and saddest drama anywhere this fall. West is impressively deft as a husband who never realized how weak he is. Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney are excellent as the cuckolded partners. The Affair tells the story from multiple points of view, exposing all the nooks of heartbreak under the summer-fling surface.