Broadcasting’s fall TV season gets underway this week with a pair of promising — one might even say out of the ordinary — dramas, a few spinoffs, and a particularly stale new primetime soap.
The brand extensions include “CSI: Vegas,” “NCIS: Hawaii,” “FBI: International” and a new “The Masked Singer”-like Fox singing competition “Alter Ego.” Since there’s not much mystery about how those shows will look, let’s focus for now on the ones that aren’t new wrinkles (or old wrinkles in different locations) of what already exists.
NBC’s “Ordinary Joe” is perhaps the most interesting concept among the series premiering Monday, but not the best — a distinction that falls to Fox’s “The Big Leap,” a show-within-a-show about the making of a fictional reality show and the lives of those involved that brings to mind the Lifetime drama “UnReal.”
Fox follows that up Tuesday with “Our Kind of People,” a too-familiar “Dynasty”-like serial about the super-rich, with the wrinkle being that the community is Black. The show is loosely inspired by Lawrence Otis Graham’s book “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” adapted by showrunner Karin Gist working with “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels.
Starring James Wolk (a “Mad Men” alum), “Ordinary Joe” is adapted from a British series that finds his character, Joe Kimbreau, at a crossroads on college graduation day: Go eat with his family, pursue a classmate (Natalie Martinez) he just met or take off with Jenny (“You’s” Elizabeth Lail), his longtime friend and occasional lover.
“Whichever way I go, I’ll still always wonder ‘What if?'” Joe says in voiceover, a little too on the nose.
Viewers, however, don’t have to wonder, since the pilot then picks up a decade later, following three separate scenarios of how Joe’s life played out: Becoming a cop, a rock star or going into medicine.
In a way, the series (created by “Smallville” writers Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner) is three shows in one, requiring dizzying attention to detail — indeed, it’s a continuity nightmare — in the changes large and small to Joe’s journey, and the way various characters are impacted by those ripples.
It’s certainly an intriguing rumination on roads not taken and how small decisions can have big consequences, clearly positioned as a possible heir to the “This is Us” mantle, with the disclaimer that this sort of concept-heavy setup can grow tiresome fast. For now, “Joe” is above the ordinary. The trick will be keeping him there.
“The Big Leap,” by contrast, focuses on a dancing-competition reality show that will culminate with a performance of “Swan Lake,” and the producers manipulating the real-life people grasping at this opportunity.
That includes head honcho Nick Blackburn (Scott Foley, who’s terrific), a producer who makes no bones about messing with his participants to build the most compelling program that he can. “The show is not about dancing,” he says, as he goes about invading privacy and setting up “stories” that he thinks will grab the audience.
Those tales range from Gabby (Simone Recasner), who got pregnant young and seizes on this as a way to change her life, to Julia (Teri Polo), a trapped-feeling wife and mother. “It might be my last chance to dance again, and I am taking it,” she says.
Funny, occasionally touching and pretty savvy about how the reality-TV sausage gets made, the series also bears a modest resemblance to “Smash,” which looked at the hopes and dreams of those trying to make it on Broadway. Whatever you choose to compare it to, among the major networks’ creative standouts, “Big Leap” looks like a big winner.
Finally, “Our Kind of People” constructs a serialized drama with the usual soapy trappings, starting with the newly arrived Angela Vaughn (Yaya DaCosta), the creator of a haircare line for Black women, whose late mother worked as a maid in the wealthy Martha’s Vineyard community to which she’s come.
While this is a proven formula, the multi-generational feuding and dialogue like “We do not flaunt our money” — when that’s sort of the whole point — don’t do any favors to the fine cast, which includes Nadine Ellis and Morris Chestnut as the town’s reigning power couple and Joe Morton in “Scandal’s” Papa Pope mode as the family’s ruthless patriarch.
“Our Kind of People” will surely provide a welcome dose of escapism for some, while looking at a part of the Black community that isn’t often presented. But while Daniels caught lightning in a bottle with “Empire,” as constructed the underlying dynamics of “Our Kind of People” feel like a pretty played-out tune.
“Ordinary Joe” (NBC), “The Big Leap” (Fox) and “NCIS: Hawaii” premiere Sept. 20.
“Our Kind of People” (Fox) and “FBI: International” (CBS) premiere Sept. 21.
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.