Babies and Bomb Squads and Bradley Cooper

We sifted through all the wacky premises, ludicrous character names, and soapy plots to bring you this guide to the 2015 fall network dramas.

Blood & Oil, Quantico, and The Player
Don Johnson and Amber Valletta in Blood & Oil; Johanna Braddy, Yasmine Al Massri, and Priyanka Chopra in Quantico; and Philip Winchester and Wesley Snipes in The Player.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos courtesy of Fred Hayes/ABC.

In a span of 10 days, the four major networks will premiere almost all of their new drama series. Doctors, FBI agents, amnesiacs, gamblers, Wesley Snipes, Marcia Gay Harden, healthy French fries, oil rigs, corpses, car crashes, and terrorism will all vie for your attention. Generally speaking, these dramas are not very good. A couple are not very bad. An optimist might point out that a few might get better. After all, judging a TV show by its pilot—which the networks continue to ask critics and audiences to do—is like judging a TV show by its pilot: a judgment rendered too soon, based on very little, in much flux. Another kind of optimist might point out that by this time next year, most of these shows will be canceled. Whatever kind of optimist you are, here’s a guide to eight of the season’s new dramas.

Blindspot, NBC, Monday, Sept. 21

A bag appears in Times Square. When the bomb squad shows up to defuse its contents, there’s no bomb, just a gorgeous, naked amnesiac, covered head to toe in tattoos, one of which is the name of an FBI agent. Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), the amnesiac, and the agent, Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton), team up to try to figure out Jane’s identity—and in the process discover her tattoos can help prevent terrorism. The two begin to fight crime using her tats while trying to figure out who Jane Doe really is, besides a Chinese-speaking, combat-trained, sharp-shooting, secret Navy SEAL.

Blindspot’s concept is easily one of the most cockamamie to ever make it to prime time, but the show proceeds without a smile. The first episode isn’t even that bad, given the absurdity of its premise: It achieves a little menace. But the warning signs of future stupidity are everywhere. The show’s mythology is a pair of cement boots. The inaugural bad guy wants to set off a bomb in New York City because “America ignores Chinese suffering,” as if terrorists are generally incensed by a lack of American intervention, instead of the opposite. And then there is Sullivan Stapleton—what a name!—who seems like he has been dropped in from a construction shift and tasked with overseeing an operation in which he is the only named party: The guy should be a suspect, not the hero.

Minority Report, Fox, Monday, Sept. 21

In Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s 2002 movie Minority Report, a trio of “precogs,” sibling seers, were used to identify criminals before they had committed their crimes. The practice of arresting these lawbreakers, known as “precrime,” was discredited and abandoned at the end of the film. The new TV show, set a decade or so later, follows one of the precogs, Dash (Stark Sands: It’s a good vintage for leading men with the names, if not the carriage, of 1930s movie stars), now that he’s a regular citizen, living in Washington, D.C., still able to see murders before they happen. Dash is sweet and jittery, a social misfit haunted by visions of awful crimes that he doesn’t have the skills to stop. That is until he meets Lara Vega (Meagan Good), a police officer tired of mopping up crime, instead of averting it.

Minority Report is a standard procedural with a futuristic gloss. There’s cool tech scattered all over, though none of it as fresh as when it appeared in the movie. An ad for marijuana-laced “baked” goods greets Dash on the subway; teens take selfies with a camera that hovers in the air; French fries have been genetically engineered to be healthy; women can have babies at 60; and everyone is still using those cool holographic computers that can be manipulated with bold hand gestures. There’s a good joke about Tinder—Lara’s mother lectures the single Lara by saying, “When I was your age, we had this thing called Tinder. It’s how I met your father”—but it’s followed by heinous product placement for Iggy Azalea’s “Trouble,” which, in 2065, is supposed to be a golden oldie.

Minority Report disappoints because, in its first episode at least, it is uninterested in the very idea that enlivened the film: that precrime could be wrong. Our obsession with security could perpetuate injustice. The show mentions precrime’s fallibility in passing but doesn’t do much else with it. All the villains that Dash and Lara are going to have to catch every week were arrested during precrime, placed in “Haloes,” solitary devices that made them go crazy, and released after precrime ended. The show doesn’t engage much with the awful possibility—vibrating with real-world resonances—that some of these insane bad guys were once innocents, radicalized by a flawed system.

Limitless, CBS, Tuesday, Sept. 22

The second of the fall’s two movie spinoffs, Limitless picks up some years after the Bradley Cooper film about NZT, a drug that makes its user superhumanly smart, left off. This time around, the drug changes the life of Brian (Jake McDorman), a lost, thirtysomething musician who has failed to make much of himself. While working a temp job filing papers, he runs into an old band mate turned Wall Streeter who gives him his first hit of NZT. It turns Brian into the best filer that ever lived and then gets him caught up with a string of murders, also involving Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra, now a senator, and Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter), the sympathetic FBI agent with whom he will eventually partner to solve crimes. (Between this and the new Wet Hot American Summer, Cooper makes a case for his good guy–ness by dancing with the ones that brought him.)

Limitless surprised me. It’s a standard procedural and all of my questions about NZT remain—if you’re the smartest person in the world, would you really stand so that a braking train would stop 1 inch from your nose, instead of just moving back a few feet?—but it’s lithe and funny for this kind of show, yet another series about a very special crime-solver.

Still, most very special crime-solvers are special for a reason other than their drug addiction. Limitless is odd because it, like all such shows, celebrates the quirks and heart and talent of its protagonist, who in this case happens to be a … completely mediocre guy. There’s an alternate reading to do of Limitless as an allegory for white male privilege. Stick with me now! Here is a drug, NZT, that could make anyone into a super-heroic genius, but thanks to a cabal of bros, it is largely passed between white guys who become rich and powerful masters of the universe, endlessly paying their advantage forward to men just like them, average Joes who accomplish great things not because of their innate talents, but because of a world, and a drug, rigged in their favor.

Rosewood, Fox, Wednesday, Sept. 23

Dr. Beaumont Rosewood (Morris Chestnut) is Miami’s preeminent private pathologist, a cocky, brilliant medical examiner with billboards all over the city advertising his services. He has a sense of healthy competition with the Miami PD, which he is constantly outsmarting, until a dead body brings him into contact with Detective Annalise Villa (Jaina Lee Ortiz) and he finds a permanent sparring partner. (That makes this the fourth procedural of the new season about male-female partners with a date to one day develop chemistry.)

Rosewood is completely familiar. It’s Castle plus CSI plus Miami Vice, the last from which it knowingly borrows its sense of style: Rosie’s uniform is the brightly colored T-shirt and a blazer look so closely associated with Crockett. Adding to the show’s Miami flair is its update on the autopsy scene, which here resembles a nightclub: When Rosewood slices up a corpse he says, “Black light my world” while dance music plays.  The only original thing about Rosewood is that the flashy, genius pathologist with a dark secret is, in this case, a black man, and the tough yet vulnerable cop playing across from him is a Hispanic woman. Now unoriginal, middling network procedurals are at least diverse: It’s progress of a kind, one that leaves room for much improvement.

The Player, NBC, Thursday, Sept. 24

Las Vegas security expert Alex (Philip Winchester) is minding his business, suavely stopping bad guys, busting through windows, and shagging his ex-wife, when everything goes suddenly, violently wrong. He is recruited by a mysterious organization that can predict crime, but instead of reporting those crimes, its superrich members gamble on whether those crimes can be stopped by one man, the player. Alex is asked to be that player. Doing the asking are Mr. Johnson, “the pit boss” (Wesley Snipes), and Cassandra, “the dealer” (Charity Wakefield), who don’t give Alex much of a choice.

The Player is a wannabe The Blacklist (with which it shares executive producers), a crime-solving procedural that sets itself apart thanks to a week-in, week-out scenery-chewing performance from a former movie star playing a mysterious, ethically flexible antihero. In The Player, that guy is supposed to be Wesley Snipes, instead of James Spader, but Snipes just nibbles on the furniture, whereas Spader regularly achieves beaver-level destruction. (There is one promising sequence in which Mr. Johnson springs Alex from jail and Snipes inexplicably adopts the vocal inflections of a kindly, older black man, who, it almost goes without saying, should not be crossed.)

Without a steady spray of sawdust coming from Snipes’ direction, there’s too much time to focus on the show’s loony premise and unspeakable morals. The organization predicts crime by spying on everything and everyone, a fact that both it and the show are blasé about. “The world is already watching itself, we just happen to be paying attention,” Mr. Johnson says, stumbling upon the National Security Agency’s new slogan. Mr. Johnson also insists that gambling on crime is the lesser of two evils: If the .0001 percent doesn’t have a really engaging game to spend money on, they’ll spend it on something worse. Better to entertain the Richie Richiests by putting everyone else at risk, than risk asking them to behave like everyone else—you know, legally.

Blood & Oil, ABC, Sunday, Sept. 27

The boomtowns of the Bakken, the region of North Dakota in the midst of a present-day oil rush, are the sort of specific, strange, lawless, predominantly male places that seem perfect for a serious-minded cable show. But the networks have beaten cable to this particular stake and so the series we are getting about the Bakken—in a perfect limn of network ambitions—is not a realistic drama but an out-and-out soap opera. High school sweethearts Billy (Chace Crawford) and Cody Lefever (Rebecca Rittenhouse) step out of the pages of a Hollister ad and set out for North Dakota, where they plan to start a laundry business. On the drive, they get into a car accident that destroys all of their washers and dryers. Guess they’ve got to make their fortune another way!

The couple arrives in the Dakotas to discover rents are higher than they are in New York City. They end up staying in a shantytown—in a cozy little RV, decorated with soft, flattering Christmas lights, where the nice African couple next door gives them a home-cooked meal. Blood & Oil exists in Bakken-lite. The couple soon gets a tip on a piece of land that Hap Briggs (Don Johnson), oil tycoon and local legend, is also after. If they can procure it first, they’ll be able to sell it to him and secure their first million. Lurking around is Hap’s no good son Wick (Scott Michael Foster), a spoiled rich boy who hates his father and stepmother Carla (Amber Valletta). As Wick’s name suggests, he’s ready to catch fire at any moment and probably should not be around people named “Lefever.” Their proximity provides the pilot with its overwrought cliffhanger, a fitting ending to an enormously silly show.

Still, time to tell the truth: I would watch Blood & Oil again. We all have different tastes in junk food. Some people prefer salty, some prefer sweet; some prefer procedurals, some prefer soap operas. I am a soap opera girl through and through. Blood & Oil and the soon-to-be-discussed Quantico are just as inane as shows like Blindspot and The Player, but, what can I say: When idiocies have lots of absurd plot, kissing, and grandiose emotions, instead of cases of the week, narrowly avoided kisses, and stoicism, I experience them as delicacies.

Quantico, ABC, Sunday, Sept. 27

If Grey’s Anatomy set at Quantico with a long-term terrorism plot sounds bad to you, proceed no further: This is not your show. If it sounds kind of appealing, as it does to me, Quantico may be your least execrable show of fall. As it begins, a bomb has decimated Grand Central Station. New FBI agent Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) is on the scene, which is convenient, because the bureau is convinced someone from her class at Quantico is the bomber. Alex has to solve the crime, both in real time and by delving into her memories of her training. Casually meshing a bed-hopping soap opera with the death of thousands and the destruction of New York City landmark is patently in bad taste, but the pilot doesn’t dwell on the senseless carnage, and if you don’t either, what’s left is sexed-up spy games.

The meat of the show is spent on Alex’s flashbacks, where a bunch of diverse, good-looking people are learning how to be agents. There’s cocky, sexy, half-Indian Alex, the sort of woman who picks up a hottie on an airplane for some car sex, does a Sherlockian read of his life history (you know, “from the way you gel your hair, it’s obvious you’re an orphan,” type stuff), and then refuses to take his number. Of course the car sex guy, Ryan (Jake McLaughlin), turns out to be a Quantico entrant too. (See, very Grey’s Anatomy.) Also in Alex’s class: a mean blond guy, a nice blond woman, an upstanding but unstable Mormon, a nerdy gay guy, and a Muslim woman. Every single one of them, and their instructors, is hiding something significant: one or more is hiding the fact that he or she is a terrorist. Before this mystery is resolved, we’ll surely get to see all of them without their shirts on.

Code Black, CBS, Wednesday, Sept. 30

Why hasn’t someone tried to remake ER before? Hospital dramas never go out of style, but not many recent ones have attempted to ape the gritty ethos of NBC’s great, Clooney-birthing series. The originality of network TV being what it is these days, this fall, there is not one, but two ER wannabes on offer. The first is CBS’s Code Black, which stars Marcia Gay Harden as Dr. Leanne Rorish (she roars), a fearless, brutal ER doc, recovering from a devastating personal trauma and training a new class of residents. It’s set in an overloaded emergency room in Los Angeles, where “code black”—“an influx of patients so great, there are not enough resources to treat them”—happens 300 times a year. (The other ER clone is the latest series from Dick Wolf about Chicago’s emergency services, the forthcoming Chicago Med, arriving in November, a spinoff of Chicago Fire.)

Code Black is a bazaar of hospital-show clichés. The charge nurse Jesse Sallander (Luis Guzmán, loving and gruff) gives the new residents a playful lecture about not killing anyone. The residents, two men and two far more competent women, are both competitive and flirtatious. The same person is fired and rehired the first day on the job. Gay Harden has to deliver lines like, “Life is measured here in split seconds. Hesitate and people die,” and “We’re going to kill him. We’re going to kill him to save him.” Another senior physician, Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey), is worried that Dr. Rorish is going too far, always playing the reckless cowboy, all because he cares so deeply about her. The ER is crowded with cases familiar from House, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Hope, and ER, and the doctors perform many near-miracles.

And yet Code Black has a heartbeat. Gay Harden is fierce and vital even when spouting clichés. Sallander teases a new resident by singing “I Need a Hero” to her. There are a few scenes that evoke medical chaos as well as ER, with multiple surgeries happening in the same dirty, crowded trauma bay, everyone talking over each other, senior doctors leaving serious cases to inexperienced doctors to tend to more serious cases, while anxious bystanders and parents stand by watching the chaos. Sure, in one of these sequences, the operating ER docs are also telling a resident stuck in an ambulance how to do an emergency C-section over the phone, but when the resulting baby emerges crying, I’ll admit: I teared up a little.