In every TV season, shows and minds change.
A pilot is a template for what lies ahead, not a guarantee - which is why top-10 lists should be carved in wax, not stone. Inevitably, some shows on the list of fall's best new network series get a little better, such as Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has built on the promise of its pilot by strengthening the links among its cops; and Sleepy Hollow, which has overcome the over-complicated nature of its own pilot to become one of the year's giddier pleasures.
Some get a little worse, including The Blacklist, a still-intriguing series that has too often succumbed to the pull of gratuitous gore and a Criminal Minds-style freak-of-the-week villain, and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., an enjoyable throwback adventure that has yet to develop - or create much interest in - its supporting characters. Some seem poised to move up, such as Mom, as soon as it proves it can build a story that doesn't revolve around Anna Faris - and as soon as it brings Faris' performance, appealing as it often may be, down just a notch.
Sometimes, shows remain on the cusp as we wait to see which way they'll break. The Millers has some very funny moments and a fabulous trio of stars in Will Arnett, Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges, but it has yet to combine those assets into a completely satisfying episode. Trophy Wife and The Goldbergs are well-cast shows that ooze charm, though both have a hard time moving past "mildly amusing." But they all hold their ground, if only because none of the shows ranked below them are good enough to pose a challenge.
The news comes in the bigger shifts that cause shows to shuffle in and out of that list. (The best new fall show anywhere? Showtime's Masters of Sex). Remember, TV is fluid and minds could change again - but for now, these four shows are on the move.
The Crazy Ones
CBS, Thursday, 9 ET/PT
If you're looking for the season's most pleasant surprise, look no further than this comedy from David E. Kelley (his first half-hour series) starring Robin Williams as a brilliant but eccentric ad man. For all his enormous talent, Williams can be a hard actor to contain, but Crazy Ones has done so admirably, giving him a character to play who seems real rather than a skit cartoon or an actor's showcase, and keeping his manic bursts short enough to amuse rather than exhaust.
Nor is Williams in it alone. With Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Wolk, Hamish Linklater and Amanda Setton The Crazy Ones has one of the best ensembles on TV, and each week it's allowed one of them to shine. The product placements can still be jarring but even so, The Crazy Ones has evolved into a heady blend of sophistication and silliness, and a good fit for a generally strong line-up. And what could be more pleasant than that?
Back in the Game
ABC, Wednesday, 8:30 ET/PT
Looks can be deceiving.
At first glance, this sitcom about a divorced mother (an instantly likable Maggie Lawson) coaching a team of little-league losers with the help of her tough-guy father (the great James Caan) seemed like little more than a Bad News Bears update. But like the wonderful ABC shows surrounding it - The Middle and Modern Family - Game is really far more interested in what constitutes a family these days. In this case, that means following the struggle of Lawson's Terry Gannon to support her son (Griffin Gluck, the newest member of ABC's stable of terrific child actors) and repair her relationship with her father while tentatively re-entering the dating world.
In truth, the baseball team remains a stumbling block: They're one-note stereotypes, not people. But the family dynamic is well-written and extremely well-played, the blue-collar atmosphere rings true, and the show has a knack for the kind of throwaway jokes that make you laugh a split second afterward. So naturally, it's the comedy ABC chose to cancel when its initial 13-episode run is completed, probably in January. Sometimes now matter how well you play the game, you still lose.
CBS, Monday, 10 ET/PT
You know that initial impression you probably had that Hostages was a bad idea? You should have gone with that.
To be fair, it was a very good pilot, one that effectively set up a cat-and-mouse game between a doctor (Toni Collette) and the rogue agent (Dylan McDermott) who took her family hostage to force her to kill the president. Unfortunately, as many of us feared and as each ever-worsening episode has proven, that's a movie idea.
McDermott's character is trapped in one grim expression and Collette's is essentially passive: She's trying not to do something. Her only bursts of activity come in her increasingly inept attempts to escape, which would only work if the show were actually attempting to be comic.
Sadly, rather than helping, the condensed time frame - each episode marks a day - makes things worse. One night she's operating on her gut-shot husband; the next morning, she and the family are all at the breakfast table, washed and coiffed and looking little the worse for wear.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the show. Weepy and wearisome, Hostages fails both as drama and as entertainment. Reward its remaining viewers by letting it complete its 15-episode season, and then set the family, and us, free.
The Michael J. Fox Show
NBC, Thursday, 9:30 ET/PT
Some shows you want so badly to work.
Michael J. Fox is a true TV star: One who proved, in his Good Wife role, that Parkinson's disease has not robbed him of his ability to act. And he's working here with some equally talented actors, including Betsy Brandt and Katie Finneran (whose talent TV, alas, continues to waste).
Unfortunately, none of them have been given anything much to work with. Fox is less a series than a collection of styles and attitude borrowed from other, better shows: A little Modern Family in the monologues and the messages, a little Mary Tyler Moore Show in the workplace. Sometimes the show makes jokes about Fox's condition; more often, it attempts to ignore it, even when you'd expect it to come up. Traits come out of the blue; behavior changes on a whim; situations are strained; and practically nothing is funny.
Here's hoping The Good Wife has kept the door open. As much as we may love Fox, it's better to see him rarely on a great show than weekly on a bad one.
Old Top 10
1. Blacklist, NBC
2. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox
3. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC
4. Mom, CBS
5. The Michael J. Fox Show, NBC
6. Hostages, CBS
7. Sleepy Hollow, Fox
8. The Millers, CBS
9. Trophy Wife, ABC
10. The Goldbergs, ABC
New Top 10
1. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox
2. The Crazy Ones, CBS
3. Sleepy Hollow, Fox
4. Blacklist, NBC
5. Mom, CBS
6. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC
7. Back in the Game, ABC
8. The Millers, CBS
9. The Goldbergs, ABC
10. Trophy Wife, ABC