CBS’ Fall 2015 Lineup: Attempting Change Without Changing At All

Most of the major networks are, understandably, gunning for change in the 2015-16 season. NBC is replacing smart comedies with absurd dramas, Fox is introducing a ton of new shows ranging from family sitcoms to literal Minority Report ripoffs, and The CW is cautiously trying out comedy (again) by pairing Jane the Virgin with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an hour-long comedy seemingly about a woman and a pretzel. (Meanwhile ABC is in the unique position where it’s stable enough to keep three nights’ lineup entirely intact.) CBS, too, is shaking things up a little bit, though not as much as it believes it is.

To keep up with the ever-increasing roster of superhero shows on television, CBS will debut Supergirl in the fall, the network’s first superhero show since 1990’s The Flash. Borrowing Greg Berlanti from The CW (The Flash, Arrow), Supergirl seems to be a snarky response to every viewer who dared to ask television for a series about a woman superhero. The preview is cringe-worthy and bears an uncanny and unfortunate resemblance to Saturday Night Live’s recent Black Widow sketch. Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), Superman’s cousin, is all bumbling assistant, unable to keep her cool around cute guys. After keeping her powers under wraps for 24 years, she’s finally ready to start using them to save the world. But the trailer is unbearably cheesy, trying so hard to pander to potential women viewers that it forgets to create a well-written character.

At best, it’s laughably bad, but at worst, it’s borderline offensive; at one point, Kara has a conversation with her boss Cat (Calista Flockhart) about the name “Supergirl,” and Cat more or less shoots Kara down for preferring “woman” over “girl” — which is, well, pretty nauseating to watch. To put it mildly, CBS doesn’t have the strongest grasp on the female demographic, and this trailer is remarkable in just how much it proves that. Will the actual series be any better? Possibly — and it will surely be a ratings hit — but right now it’s hard to get too excited.

CBS is also cashing in on the medical drama trend that refuses to die out with Code Black (which Nina Tassler, President of CBS Entertainment, introduced by boasting its “diverse cast”), the network’s answer to ER — six years after ER ended. It’s an emotional medical drama (yep, a baby is born in the preview) that mostly consists of busy doctors and nurses bustling around an emergency room and racing to save lives while a stern Marcia Gay Harden barks orders at them. CBS may think this is a new and original show (and considering that it doesn’t focus on white men solving crimes, I suppose it is relatively new for the network), but this type of simplistic medical drama is an old trick in the television world. The problem with creating a medical drama in 2015 is that everything has been done before, and pretending that it hasn’t results in shoddy, predictable plots. Greats like ER and, yes, even Grey’s Anatomy (in its earlier seasons) showed us how engaging, twisted, and heartbreaking a series like this can be, making it hard to craft a new medical show that will stand out — and Code Black seems sure to fade into the background.

See, the biggest problem with CBS’ new dramas is that they all have the guise of being original — a feminist superhero in Supergirl, a possibly intriguing series exploring the effects of a new superdrug — but are all really just stock procedurals. That’s what the network does best: mindless, comfort-food procedurals featuring a case-of-the-week where you can tune in to a random Season 4 episode and not have missed a thing. Supergirl is going to have a procedural format, with Kara solving a new case every week. Limitless, the inexplicable television adaptation of the Bradley Cooper film about an Adderall-like drug (Cooper will show up in a few episodes, possibly only because he wants an EGOT), will be a police procedural about a really smart guy, basically turning the source material into Scorpion but with a guy running everywhere. (At least that guy is Greek‘s wonderful Jake McDorman, though based on his last two leading roles, Limitless will only last one season.)

The less said about CBS’ two comedies, the better. Granted, most sitcom previews are pretty bad (and CBS’ especially so), but these two horrid trailers with virtually no good jokes suggest the shows will be just like every other basic CBS comedy. Yet they all have the potential to be good (and the potential to be huge hits, because CBS long ago sold its soul to the ratings devil), with premises that will be vaguely appealing to CBS’ demographic: Life in Pieces is about a big family who, I don’t know, talk to each other or something, while Angel From Hell stars Jane Lynch as a brassy, boozy guardian angel. Both are shows that people will likely openly hate but still secretly watch.

Even when trying to switch things up, CBS cannot leave its established comfort zone. All of their dramas are by the book and/or shoddy knockoffs of preexisting popular movies or shows, done a few years too late (in addition to Limitless, CBS will launch Rush Hour at some point in the future; a second Criminal Minds spinoff is also happening). It’s telling that CBS’ biggest move of the year — finally putting CSI out of its misery — isn’t necessarily so big when you realize that not only is CSI: Cyber returning for a second season, but CSI actor Ted Danson is jumping ship to that spinoff, as if CBS is just unable to let him go.