TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For the major broadcast networks tonight is the official start of the new TV season. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has a list of the new shows you should make an effort to sample. He says it is not a very long list.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: On broadcast television each fall in the best years there's at least one new show that clearly is a must watch. You must watch "Pushing Daisies." You must watch "Lost." You must watch "Friday Night Lights." But that doesn't always happen. And it certainly doesn't happen this fall.
There's not a single must-see show in the mix, but most of the network have at least one ought-to-try show. And two of them premiere tonight. One is the Fox networks' "Gotham," the most talked about show of the new season. It's a prequel to the DC Comics "Batman" franchise. Set in Gotham City at the very moment a young boy named Bruce Wayne witnesses the death of his parents by an armed robber. Investigating the crime is the hero of "Gotham" - a hero without a costume - a straight-arrow, young detective who eventually will rule the police force as the man named Commissioner Gordon. But here he's just a cop named Jim, consoling a young boy named Bruce who's just become an orphan. Ben McKenzie, star of "Southland" and "The OC", plays Jim Gordon.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOTHAM")
BEN MCKENZIE: (As Detective Jim Gordon) When I was about your age a drunk driver hit our car, killed my dad. I was right next to him. I know how you feel right now. And I promise you however dark and scary the world right might be right now, there will be light; there will be light, Bruce.
BIANCULLI: But at that moment in Gotham City the dominant shade is darkness. Organized crime controls most of the town and much of the police force. And the series introduces us to characters who in time will dawn alter egos and become Catwoman or The Riddler or The Penguin and so on. To put it in terms of an SAT analogy question - "Gotham" is to Batman as "Smallville" is to Superman. A prequel series where we don't get the costumes, but we do get lots of motivation and character development. The "Gotham" pilot, which airs tonight on Fox, looks cinematic and features some strong performances. Especially by Donal Logue as a somewhat shifty detective and Robin Lord Taylor as the man who would be Penguin.
It's definitely worth a look. So is "Scorpion" - a CBS series that also premieres tonight. It sounds like a superhero show, and in a way it is. Like the "X-Men," it's about a team of young misfits with extraordinary gifts, crafted into a crime-fighting and world-saving team by a gruff, father figure - except these misfits are geniuses. It's like the gang from "The Big Bang Theory," only their spending their time stopping terrorists rather than buying comic books. The off-center personalities of these team members are what make might "Scorpion" a hit. Along with the unexpectedly sincere and effective appeal of Katharine McPhee, a former "American Idol" contestant who proves a much better actress here than she did as one of the leads in NBC's musical drama "Smash."
The other show worth sampling during this premiere week is ABC's "Black-ish," which premieres Wednesday. Most of the jokes in the first episode are too obvious, but at least this is a sitcom that's about something, that has a definite point of view. Anthony Anderson plays a husband and father who worked hard to hand his family the American dream, only to worry - even if they don't - that their dream may have turned out to be a little too white. It's a concern amplified by the live-in grandfather, played by Larry Fishburne, whose scenes with Anderson are the best part of the pilot. It's still rare for a prime-time TV series to tackle a significant topic, which is why it's worth taking "Black-ish" for a spin, and even giving a little time to grow. I have the same reaction to a new Fox drama series that premiered last week - "Red Band Society" - which is about teens facing serious illnesses. I like the effort these shows are making, even if I'm not as completely sold on the shows themselves. The other shows worth noting don't premiere until October, but I'll at least identify them now.
Fox has "Gracepoint," a remake of the British miniseries "Broadchurch" which even has the same leading man - David Tennant, but this time adopting an American accent. I like the original just fine, but this American remake has its merits. Starting with Anna Gunn from "Breaking Bad." Finally, the CW network has two new dramas, and they're both surprisingly entertaining. One is another DC Comics-inspired show - "The Flash." That's actually a spinoff of "Arrow," but is much lighter and much better than that returning superhero series. And then there's "Jane The Virgin," based on a telenovella from Venezuela starring Gina Rodriguez as a 23-year-old single woman who gets artificially inseminated by mistake. Of all the new fall shows, "Jane The Virgin" is the one where I'm most looking forward to episode two. With most of this year shows, it isn't even any fun slogging through episode one.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website "TV Worth Watching" and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by pianist Jason Moran. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.