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Fall TV closeup: 'This Is Us,' 'Designated Survivor,' 'Speechless' stand out

There's no better illustration of the current richness - and relentlessness - of television than the next few nights of fall premiere week, which could tax even the most avid couch potato (or hungriest DVR).

Ron Cephas Jones, left, and Sterling K. Brown in a scene from “This Is Us.”
Ron Cephas Jones, left, and Sterling K. Brown in a scene from “This Is Us.”Read moreRon Batzdorff/NBC

There's no better illustration of the current richness - and relentlessness - of television than the next few nights of fall premiere week, which could tax even the most avid couch potato (or hungriest DVR).

On Wednesday night, the season finale of USA's Mr. Robot, starring brand-new Emmy winner Rami Malek, is up against the series premiere of 24 star Kiefer Sutherland's return to TV in ABC's Designated Survivor.

Want more Fall TV? Read Ellen Gray's season preview.

What could be more timely, in a fall that's posing some big choices for voters, than a series about a hacker who crashes the U.S. economy and another about a little-known Cabinet secretary who becomes president in the federal government's worst-case scenario?

If only we can find the time.

Broadcasters have learned to spread out their launches, but premiere week is still TV's equivalent of speed dating, and it's easy for even hot prospects to get overlooked.

Designated Survivor is one of five new network series launching on Tuesday and Wednesday, a stretch that also includes the return of CBS's NCIS, Fox's Empire, and ABC's The Goldbergs, Modern Family, Black-ish, and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD - to name just a few.

Of the five new shows, three are among the fall's most promising, one is better than I expected, and the fifth will probably be a hit whether I like it or not:

This Is Us (10 p.m. Tuesday, NBC). University of Pennsylvania graduate Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love) wears his heart on his sleeve (and has a small surprise up it) in this ensemble drama starring Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes), Mandy Moore, and Sterling K. Brown, who won his first Emmy on Sunday for playing Christopher Darden in FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson.

Thanks to a smartly cut NBC trailer that went viral on Facebook in the spring without giving away the pilot's twist, there's more anticipation than there might normally be for a hard-to-describe show that's being compared to both Lost and Parenthood.

Fogelman's charmingly intricate pilot benefits from strong performances. It isn't flawless, and there are at least a couple of points that probably shouldn't be overthought. But if you're looking for a show that's likely to leave you feeling better, not worse, about the world and its people, This Is Us isn't afraid to be that show.

Speechless (8:30 p.m. Wednesday, ABC). I've written already about ABC's expanding the diversity of its TV families to include one with a teenage son who has cerebral palsy. Praiseworthy as that is, it wouldn't mean much if Speechless weren't also very much a comedy.

Minnie Driver stars as Maya DiMeo, a mother whose efforts on behalf of her oldest, JJ (Micah Fowler), have made her notorious in several school districts. Driver has a terrific sparring partner in Cedric Yarbrough (Reno 911!), a groundskeeper who may be the only one at JJ's new school who's not terrified of her.

But it's not until JJ, who can't speak but who has plenty to say, seizes control, that Speechless finds its own funny voice.

Designated Survivor (10 p.m. Wednesday, ABC). I never wanted 24's Jack Bauer for president - too tortured, too quick to torture - but Sutherland's Tom Kirkman?

I'd vote for that guy in a heartbeat.

The beauty of Designated Survivor is that no one needs to. Kirkman, an earnest independent so lacking in political instincts he's about to be dumped from the Cabinet, becomes president in Wednesday's premiere through the most horrific of circumstances, and yet it's all somehow less stomach-churning than the current presidential campaign.

Sutherland, a thoughtful actor who was limited to a few expressions in 24, gets to show more of his range here, shedding his action-hero persona for something even more reassuring: a grown-up.

Lethal Weapon (8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox). Too many new shows this season are based on old movies, but try not to hold that against Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford (Rectify), whose odd-couple pairing as TV's answer to Danny Glover and Mel Gibson actually works.

These two don't just have chemistry. They have a script that reintroduces Roger Murtaugh and Martin Riggs as characters who are as interesting facing each other across a dinner table as they are during a shootout or car chase.

Bull (9 p.m. Tuesday, CBS). I doubt it's possible for a CBS legal drama starring former NCIS player Michael Weatherly and debuting between NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles not to be a hit.

Even (or especially?) a show in which Weatherly plays Dr. Jason Bull, a smug jury-whisperer whose story is loosely based on the previous career of daytime talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw.

And yet as much as I like Weatherly, I do think it's possible for this show, which begins, as so many do, with the violent death of a young woman, to continue for years to come without my watching another minute.





9 p.m. Tuesday, CBS.

This Is Us

10 p.m. Tuesday, NBC.

Lethal Weapon

8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox.


8:30 p.m. Wednesday, ABC.

Designated Survivor

10 p.m. Wednesday, ABC.