Fall dramas succeed when taking risks

Continuing from last week’s coverage of fall’s new comedies, this week I’ll be looking at the season’s new dramas. Like last week, I’m skipping over shows that have already been canceled or will likely be axed soon. I’ve also skipped the spin-offs that have debuted. In short, if you like Once Upon a Time or The Vampire Diaries, you’ll probably enjoy their spin-offs Once Upon a Time in Wonderland and The Originals, respectively.

 Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, Tues., 8:00 p.m.)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was probably the most anticipated, and advertised, show of the fall, being the latest expansion of Marvel’s cinematic universe begun in films like Iron Man, Captain America and The Avengers. Clark Gregg reprises his role as Agent Coulson from those movies, here leading a team of younger agents who jetset around the world dealing with super-powered threats.

The problem with that premise is that this isn’t a show about superheroes. It’s a show about cops who are superhero-adjacent. In the first few episodes, there have been a couple of fun nods to the movies, but TV shows just don’t have the budget to showcase impressive superheroics. Instead, Agents is a light, banter-filled procedural that wouldn’t feel out of place alongside shows like White Collar and Suits on USA. Gregg is solid as a character who has already proven to be likable, but the rest of the cast has been forgettable so far.

Joss Whedon directed the pilot and is still involved somehow, which suggests there is room for improvement, but for now it is a solid, if unambitious, show.

 The Blacklist (NBC, Mon., 10:00 p.m.)

At this point, networks can’t really launch a new show in one of the standard procedural genres—be it about cops, lawyers or doctors—without some kind of gimmick. The Blacklist’s gimmick is its strongest aspect, but it isn’t enough to elevate the blandness around it. James Spader plays Raymond “Redd” Reddington, one of the most wanted criminals in the world, who suddenly turns himself in to the FBI and begins working with them to take down fellow criminals. Spader is basically playing a variation on the Hannibal Lecter archetype, albeit one who never does anything so bad he loses the audience’s sympathy, and he is a delight in the role, which allows him to be gleefully weird in that way only Spader can. Unfortunately, the rest of the show takes itself deadly seriously, creating a bizarre contrast between the campy fun of the Spader’s scenes and the dull slog when he isn’t on screen. Maybe with enough time, the rest of the show will adjust to Spader’s energy, but for now, it simply isn’t worth the time.

Dracula (NBC, Fri., 10:00 p.m.)

A new take on a classic story, Dracula continues the recent trend of horror on the small screen. Inexplicably, it sets the story in 1896’s London, with our titular vampire posing as an American energy mogul, attempting to root out the comically evil Order of the Dragon. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Dracula, and he does a fine job, although the show mostly requires him to be handsome and vaguely creepy.  There are a few moments in the pilot where the show embraces its horror side, including an impressive fight scene, but most of the running time is devoted to Dracula’s cover story. Apparently the writers find his economic battle to seize control of the city’s energy network more interesting than seeing him suck someone’s blood. Unfortunately, the period drama aspect of the show is staid and boring, especially in contrast to the hints of excitement that peek through in the horror-twinged moments. I hope that the show’s writers will find a way to effectively merge the two narratives, but for now it feels like they really wanted to tell a story about alternative energy in the 19th century, and Dracula is just window-dressing.

Reign (CW, Thurs., 9:00 p.m.)

Reign is a teenage soap opera about Mary, Queen of Scots. As teen soaps go, it’s a fairly good one. As a historical drama, it’s rather odd. Mary, played by Adelaide Kane, returns to France after an attempt on her life, which includes seeing her betrothed, Francis, who just happens to be the heir to the French throne. Her return is complicated by Francis’ resistance, and by Mary’s attraction to the king’s bastard son Bash. In many ways, Reign is a typical CW show with love triangles, contemporary music and even hints of magical elements. Those tropes mesh quite well with the historical setting. Betrothals and political intrigue are surprisingly effective engines for creating the type of angst this style of show traffics in. It’s hard to say how long the historical setting will retain its novelty, but for now, Reign is a fun twist on a played-out genre.

Sleepy Hollow (FOX, Mon., 9:00 p.m.)

Sleepy Hollow has one of the strangest premises I’ve ever seen for a TV show. Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a soldier in the Revolutionary War who is injured in battle, put into some sort of magical coma and wakes up 200 years later in the present day, when the town of Sleepy Hollow is being attacked by various monsters. He teams up with a local cop (Nicole Beharie), and together they fight against enemies including Death, a demon named Moloch and a magical plague that originated in the lost colony of Roanoake. This is a supremely weird show, and somehow, it manages to be incredibly entertaining. A large part of its success can be attributed to the two leads, who already have great chemistry, but the writers have also managed to balance the inherent wackiness of the concept with the right level of seriousness. I’m shocked to find myself saying this, but Sleepy Hollow is the best new show of the season.

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