The problem with being slow on the draw with your fall TV picks is that there aren't so many recommend-able new shows that you can make an entire B-team out of them. Yesterday's post from NPR's Eric Deggans named most of the shows I would have named on a list of watchable pilots, and now I find that there aren't all that many more I can wholeheartedly recommend. (I agree with him about "Black-ish," "The Flash," "Jane The Virgin" and "Transparent." I don't give a hoot about "Gotham" and found it unpleasantly self-serious.)
The challenge with pilots is that it's really difficult to tell what's going to be good, particularly with certain kinds of shows, from the pilot. In the typical pilot process, the rest of the episodes are shot long after the pilot is in the can, to the point where many pilots seem disconnected from the shows they were meant to represent. The pilot of "Friends," for instance, reveals different ideas they originally had about what these characters were going to be like from the ones that took shape even during the first season.
There are a couple more I think are promising, particularly on the romantic comedy side. The teaming of creator David Caspe and actress Casey Wilson, last seen in "Happy Endings, has a very specific sensibility, which is part of why I like it so much. In the new NBC comedy "Marry Me," Wilson and Ken Marino play a couple on the brink of getting engaged. There's an argument that Caspe's stuff belongs on cable, where weirder comedies can thrive with little audiences, but I'd love to see an audience embrace such a goofy, strangely romantic little show.
"A To Z," also on NBC, features a more conventional cute couple (Cristin Milioti and Ben Feldman, a/k/a The Mother and "Mad Men's" nipple guy). The setup is too cute by quite a bit (their names are Andrew and Zelda, GET IT? and each episode title begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence, GET IT?), but the stars are promising enough that if they can reel in the gimmicks enough, which shows often can over the course of a season, it could work.
But to complicate things a little more, while a transformation from terrible pilot to good show is rare, a transformation from ordinary pilot to good or very good show is not rare at all. The pilots of "The Office" and "Parks And Recreation," which share some DNA, are famous for slow starts, though neither is quite as rough at the beginning as legend may have it. So there's some value in identifying shows that do not have great pilots, but have, in theory, elements that could be massaged into good shows. Call them the sleepers: they're not quite working right now, but with a little time to settle, they could.
One is ABC's "Selfie." Hear me out! Despite its terrible title and overly intrusive use of onscreen doodads to denote the social media life of heroine Eliza Dooley, and despite an absolutely disgusting vomiting sequence that never should have made it into a show you're trying to sell to a new audience, the second half of the "Selfie" pilot, featuring the enormously appealing Karen Gillan and John Cho, begins to feel modestly alive. That may seem like a deep cut disguised as a pat on the back, but "alive" is mostly what this particular show needs to work. They don't have the rhythm yet, but the pieces are there to make a good show.
This will be a somewhat controversial pick, but I'd also mention Fox's "Gracepoint." It's candidly very hard to review this show, because there's essentially no reason for it to exist: at least in the first episode, it's pretty much a line-by-line retelling of the brilliant, unsettling mystery series "Broadchurch," which ran on BBC America last year. The male lead, David Tennant, is the same; the female lead, Olivia Colman, is replaced by Anna Gunn. Those of us who adored "Broadchurch" bristle at seeing someone else step into the role originated by Colman, whose performance in that show was interesting and unusual and hugely skilled. But Anna Gunn, recently retired from "Breaking Bad," is also hugely skilled.
In an ideal universe, American audiences would have sought out "Broadchurch" and made it a hit, but they didn't. They could have. They didn't. And it broke my heart, and it broke a lot of other critics' hearts, and it made a lot of us roll our eyes and say "THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE GOOD TELEVISION" and it's kind of true, and I felt that way too. I can't quite bring myself to recommend it; I can't. But I saw an ad for it the other day, and I thought to myself ... better this than "Stalker."
And can I throw in one more thing, which is totally cheating? One of my favorite pilots of last fall was Fox's funny, clever, fast-moving "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which had a great start, bumped along a little bit for me in the early episodes, and then proceeded to become really fantastic. Unlike several other good, warm, smart comedies that premiered last season (it will take some time to forgive the treatment of "Trophy Wife" and "Enlisted"), "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is still alive, and has moved to Sundays. By all means, even if you think you are not a cop-show person, or not an Andy Samberg person (which I was not really myself), give it a look as it starts back up again, and catch last season on demand or on Hulu. It's pretty great (and effortlessly and gracefully diverse in its cast, for those of you for whom that's important), and I know a lot of you haven't been watching it — I've got my eye on you.