Fox catapulted to the top of the network heap — in popular perception, at least — during the 2014-15 season with the massive, unprecedented, and wholly deserved success of Empire. The hip-hop-centric soap opera never slowed down and had viewers obsessing over it from beginning to end, with Cookie’s outfits and an endless parade of guest stars taking over our daily conversations. Hoping to keep up the momentum, Fox has just introduced a handful of new series featuring big names who, the network hopes, will have viewers talking all next year. And it isn’t just betting on well-known actors — it’s also investing in well-known characters and franchises.
In contrast to NBC’s inevitable disasters, Fox’s new series are mostly charming (which makes up for the few that are a bit formulaic), and its fall schedule actually makes sense: Gotham will introduce Minority Report on Monday nights; a Tuesday block that might as well be called “Foxy Men Who Apparently Don’t Age,” starring John Stamos and Rob Lowe, will take effect at midseason.
On the drama side, Fox has Minority Report on Monday nights. The series, which stars Meagan Good and Wilmer Valderrama, is banking on the fact that potential viewers will tune in based on the success of the 2002 Tom Cruise film. It’s a huge brand name, even if the trailer feels a little lackluster. Similar is Rosewood, a procedural starring Morris Chestnut (who is reason enough to tune in) as “the most brilliant private pathologist” who partners up with a beautiful woman he will probably get together with. Even that is basically capitalizing on the familiarity of Bones (and, as the network’s most forgettable new series, it’s getting a push by being paired up with Empire).
Two 2016 dramas have somewhat interesting premises, but their appeal largely rides on the big-name characters they feature. The Frankenstein Code puts a spin on Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel: An aging, resigned sheriff is killed and then brought back to life as a younger (and presumably hotter) version of himself, who has to decide whether he wants to seek revenge on his killers or repair his old life. The second is Lucifer, based on the DC character, in which the devil (Tom Ellis) gets bored in hell and moves up to Los Angeles to open a night club and fight bad guys. Although both series may end up as nothing more than by-the-book procedurals, Fox is aware that each will appeal not just to fans of the original novel or comic book, but also boasts such a big, mythical name that people will tune in just to see yet another modern iteration of Frankenstein or a charismatic version of the devil.
By far the most promising of the dramas is Scream Queens, from Ryan Murphy — who must be the first name in every Fox/FX networks executive’s phone — a well-known showrunner who viewers flock to, even if it’s just out of pure curiosity. The series is about a string of murders that occur at a university, with one killing per episode, and a whole mess of potential suspects — basically, a murder mystery. It’s billed as a comedy-horror show, which is Murphy’s wheelhouse, and since it will air on the relatively tame Fox (American Horror Story is on FX), Murphy can focus on characters and plot rather than gruesome visuals. Fox is betting huge on Scream Queens; it has embarked on a nearly yearlong promotional campaign and packed the series with stars like campy horror-flick veteran Jamie Lee Curtis, Ryan Murphy darling Emma Roberts, and teen-pop stars Nick Jonas and Ariana Grande. The teasers are a fun mix of comedy and horror — I recommend watching all of them; they’re very short — and certainly build up the show’s intrigue.
Three upcoming comedies include the animated Bordertown, which takes place on the United States/Mexico border and “takes a satirical look at the cultural shifts occurring in America” by focusing on a white Border Patrol agent who lives next door to a Hispanic man and his family. Culture clashes abound! It doesn’t sound too promising — but, again, Fox is promoting it with big connections: Seth MacFarlane is a producer, and creator Mark Hentemann also hails from the inexplicably still-popular Family Guy.
The other two, better-sounding sitcoms are Grandfathered and The Grinder, both of which were seemingly cast to evoke some warm and fuzzy nostalgic feelings. Grandfathered stars John Stamos as, well, a grandfather. Stamos plays a cool, career-focused man who suddenly learns that he has a son (Josh Peck) who has a daughter — turning him into a grandfather overnight. The preview isn’t too promising (though the show has the potential to end up funny and sweet), but Fox is likely assuming that Stamos’ name will be enough to pull in viewers; it’s telling that he’s essentially playing Uncle Jesse, if Uncle Jesse owned a restaurant instead of played music. (Of course, that impending Full House reboot has recently brought Stamos back to the spotlight).
The Grinder has the best preview of any Fox (or NBC) comedy so far. It’s fun and fast-paced, and the show stars Rob Lowe as an actor in a popular TV-lawyer drama who decides to join his family’s real law firm after his show is canceled. Not only is Lowe an established, beloved name (especially after his great stint on Parks and Recreation), but The Grinder casts The Wonder Years’ Fred Savage as Lowe’s brother, marking Savage’s first major role in front of the camera since 2006’s The Crumbs. In a year of baffling reboots/sequels (Girl Meets World just premiered its second season, Full House and Coach will premiere next year), it’s great that Savage is taking on a different type of role, rather than trying to reboot The Wonder Years in 2015.
Fox’s fall strategy seems to focus on two things. First, the network is breaking down and rebuilding: Two of Fox’s biggest staples are done or on the way out — Glee recently ended, while American Idol‘s next season will be its last . New Girl is pushed to January (where it will air its fifth, and hopefully last, season uninterrupted), while new sitcoms anchor the fall. And multiple 2014-15 shows were canceled (bores like Backstrom, Mulaney, Red Band Society, and Utopia; the eternally struggling Mindy Project, which could continue on Hulu; straight-up terrible fare like Weird Loners and The Following). There are shake-ups within current shows: Sleepy Hollow will have a new showrunner and no Orlando Jones when it returns, and even MasterChef Junior has a new judge.
The second — and most important — is just plain name recognition, from familiar actors (Stamos, Savage) to popular franchises (Minority Report) to once-popular series (The X-Files sequel will premiere January 24!!) to big-name showrunners or producers (Ryan Murphy, Seth MacFarlane) to literary characters (Frankenstein). Even Empire, which needs no help in the ratings, is ramping up the big names next season with appearances from Chris Rock and Alicia Keys. And because of Empire, Fox basically has leeway to do whatever it wants for the year, to play trial and error with its shows. But based on its smart and relatively promising lineup, it looks like it will do just fine.