The 2021 fall TV season: What to watch and what to skip this year

Brooke Cain, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Entertainment News

With new TV shows premiering pretty much year-round now, fall TV seasons don’t splash quite as hard as they used to.

But broadcast networks still craft fall lineup packages, and TV freaks like me still get excited for them.

If the new 2021 Fall TV season has a motto, I’d say it’s “Reboot or Die Trying.”

We’ve not only got new versions of “The Wonder Years” and “4400” (ABC and The CW, respectively), there’s a sort of sideways reboot of CBS’ original “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” hit, with the new “CSI: Vegas” (same city, much of the same cast). They call it a sequel.

And when we’re not rebooting, we’re expanding: “NCIS: Hawaii” and “FBI: International” are new franchise additions.

But there are fresh takes, too, particularly in NBC’s trippy “Ordinary Joe” and mystery-thriller “La Brea,” and in the soapy Fox drama “Our Kind of People.”

And there is more diversity in this year’s schedule, with more than half of the premieres spotlighting people of color. One of those series, Lee Daniels’ “Our Kind of People,” is filmed in Wilmington.

Here’s a quick look at what’s coming up over the next couple of months. We’re only including broadcast networks here — ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW — since cable and streaming networks premiere shows weekly (and we try to hit most of those in our daily What to Watch posts).

Not all of the shows here were available to preview before press time. If shows were not available to preview, we provide a synopsis and skip the “my take” part (that part will update online as preview episodes become available).

Monday, Sept. 20

— The Big Leap (9 p.m., Fox) — This drama series is billed as “a modern tale about second chances, chasing your dreams and taking back what’s yours.” It follows a group of people trying to change their lives by participating in a reality dance show that ends with a live production of “Swan Lake,” and works as a sort of “show-within-a-show.” The cast includes Scott Foley, Teri Polo, Piper Perabo, Simone Recasner and Ser’darius Blain.

— Ordinary Joe (10 p.m., NBC) — This new series follows one character — Joe Kimbreau, played by James Wolk — through three different trajectories, based on his reaction at one pivotal moment in his life. That moment is the day of his college graduation at Syracuse, when he has to decide his immediate next move: follow the beautiful fellow graduate that he just met, join his equally beautiful best friend-with-benefits on a trip, or leave for a dinner with his family.

After this quick introduction to Joe and the main “players” in his life, we flash forward 10 years to see him living out the three different futures he would have had based on the decision he made that day: a rock star, an ER nurse, a New York City beat cop. His details of his life are very different in each scenario, but the people and the problems are the same. It also stars Natalie Martinez, Melissa Lail and Charlie Barnett.

My take: The butterfly-effect concept here is interesting, and Wolk (the fantasy love child of Kyle Chandler and George Clooney) is always watchable. What I can’t figure out here is the end game. Does this triple-life journey just keep playing out forever, or will we eventually get to see which path Joe actually chose?

— NCIS: Hawaii (10 p.m., CBS) — This will come as no shock to you: “NCIS: Hawaii” follows the cases worked by an NCIS team, but this time, they’re in Hawaii. The big difference in this series is that it will be led by a woman, the first female Special Agent in Charge of NCIS Pearl Harbor, Jane Tennant, played by Vanessa Lachey. (In case you’re wondering, Lachey is not Hawaiian: her father is of Italian and Irish descent and her mother is from the Philippines. Many Filipinos identify as Pacific Islanders.) Other cast members: Alex Tarrant, Noah Mills and Yasmine Al-Bustami.

Tuesday, Sept. 21

— Our Kind of People (9 p.m., Fox) — This new series, filmed in Wilmington, is inspired by the Lawrence Otis Graham Book “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” and takes place in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard — “a historical stronghold where the rich and powerful black elite have come to play for over 50 years.”

The soapy series, from executive producer Lee Daniels (“Empire”), will follow Angela Vaughn (Yaya DaCosta), a strong-willed single mom as she works to reclaim her family’s name and promote her haircare line for Black women. But of course, there’s plenty of family drama. There’s a secret about her mother’s past that is revealed, and shakes up her life and the community. And Angela’s mother, Eve, is played as a young woman by Raleigh native Ashley Nicole Blake. This also stars Morris Chestnut, Rhyon Nicole Brown, Alana Bright and Nadine Ellis.

My take: The pilot dragged a bit for me, then Joe Morgan showed up as businessman and patriarch Teddy Franklin, made a very loud “Scandal”-style speech, and snapped me to attention.

— FBI: International (10 p.m., CBS) — Another in Dick Wolf’s “FBI” series, this one following the elite operatives of the FBI’s International Fly Team. The team is headquartered in Budapest, but they “travel the world with the mission of tracking and neutralizing threats against American citizens wherever they may be.” They are not allowed to carry guns, so this team has to rely on intelligence, quick thinking and pure brawn. The team is led by Special Agent Scott Forrester (Luke Kleintank). The cast also includes Heida Reed, Carter Redwood, Vinessa Vidotto and Christiane Paul. Bonus: the show also features a dog, a Schutzhund named Tank.

Wednesday, Sept. 22


— The Wonder Years (8:30 p.m., ABC) — A much anticipated reboot of the beloved Fred Savage “Wonder Years” series from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s (and set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s), but this time with a Black family at the center of the story. The show, set in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 1960s, focuses on 12-year-old Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams), the youngest child in the Williams family, trying to figure out where he fits in: his brother is athletic (and serving in Vietnam), his sister (Laura Kariuki) is popular, his mom (Saycon Sengbloh) is smart and his dad (Dule Hill) is cool. Dean decides to be “The Great Uniter,” and starts by trying to organize the first integrated baseball game between his team and his friend Brad’s (Julian Lerner) team. And of course, Dean has to have a crush, and that will be Keisa, played by Milan Ray. Don Cheadle narrates the story as older Dean.

My take: Sweet, funny and socially relevant. If you like to smile with a lump in your throat, or laugh one moment and cry the next, this is for you. We needed this.

— Alter Ego (9 p.m., Fox) — Another singing competition show, and another one with a twist: this one uses avatars instead of images of real people (and instead of masked/costumed people — Fox has already done that one!). Singers “from all walks of life become the stars they’ve always wanted to be” when they perform as they’ve always wanted to be seen, reinventing themselves to present their true personalities through motion capture technology. The judges are singer Alanis Morissette, singer Nick Lachey (you can watch his wife on “NCIS: Hawaii”), singer and visual artist Grimes, and singer/actor will.i.am. The host is Rocsi Diaz.

Tuesday, Sept. 28

— La Brea (NBC) — his new NBC drama opens with a heart-racing disaster: a massive sinkhole tears open in the middle of Los Angeles (with the La Brea Tar Pits at the center of the hole), pulling hundreds of people down with it. While the people above ground grieve their lost loved ones, the people in the sinkhole find themselves in a “mysterious and dangerous primeval land,” and must band together to survive.

The show tracks what happens above ground, as people try to figure out what happened to those who disappeared, but the most exciting action is what happens in this new LA Land of the Lost.

It stars Natalie Zea, Eoin Macken, Jon Seda, Nicholas Gonzalez, Chiké Okonkwo, Karina Logue, Zyra Gorecki, Jack Martin, Veronica St. Clair, Rohan Mirchandaney, Lily Santiago, Josh McKenzie and Chloe De Los Santos.

My take: Did I need to get sucked into another “Lost”-style mystery? No. Was I on the edge of my seat throughout most of the first episode? Heck yes. The first episode — the only episode available at press time — was thrilling. Although, I watched on the heels of all of the 9/11 look-backs, so the beginning, with all of the collapsing buildings and people running for their lives through clouds of dust — that was a lot. So be prepared if you think you might be sensitive to that right now (it doesn’t last long). The story is strongest when it leaves behind the ruin in the middle of Los Angeles and follows the “lost” survivors in this new (or is it?) world.

Wednesday, Oct. 6

— CSI: Vegas (10 p.m., CBS) — Somehow this new “CSI: Vegas” series is not the same as the original “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” series (2000-2015), which was also set in Vegas — even though it has many of the same actors. This one is considered a “sequel” to the original “CSI,” and follows a new investigator, Maxine Roby (Paula Newsome), who enlists the help of ... you guessed it, characters from the original series: Gil Grissom (William Petersen), Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) and David Hodges (Wallace Langham).

Friday, Oct. 15

— Home Sweet Home (NBC) — This new unscripted show, created by acclaimed film director Ava DuVernay, is a sort of updated (and more high-minded) version of the old “Wife Swap” show. The premise is that two very different families will exchange homes for a week, and see what it’s like to live in someone else’s world. The idea is to challenge our notions of racial, religious, economic, geographic, gender and identity assumptions.

Tuesday, Oct. 19

— Queens (10 p.m., ABC) — A new musical drama series about four women from a defunct hip-hop group who reunite in their 40s to attempt a comeback and reclaim their former glory. The women — Brianna (aka Professor Sex), Jill (Butter Pecan), Valeria (Da Thrill) and Naomi (Xplicit Lyrics) — are played by Eve, Nadine Valesquez, Naturi Naughton and Brandy, respectively. The show comes from “Scandal” writer and producer Zahir McGhee.

Friday, Oct. 22

— The Activist (8 p.m., CBS)- This started out as a competition series, hosted by Grammy-winning performer Usher (with co-hosts Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough) in which six activists from around the world would work to bring meaningful change to one of three urgent universal causes: health, education and the environment. The activists were to compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at getting the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers, demanding action. Their success was to be measured via online engagement, social metrics and hosts’ input.

But after a good bit of backlash, the show format changed from reality competition to docuseries.

Monday, Oct. 25

— 4400 (9 p.m., The CW) — Another new show that’s not really a new show. This is a reboot of the USA sci-fi drama “The 4400,” in which 4,400 people who had previously disappeared from Earth are returned unchanged to Washington state. In the new series, the people who vanished were “overlooked, undervalued or otherwise marginalized,” and are returned all at once to Detroit, with no memory of what happened to them. An empathetic social worker (Joseph David-Jones) and a community corrections officer (Ireon Roach) play two civil servants who deal with the refugees.

Among the people they are trying to help: a young mother (Brittany Adebumola), who has a rocky reunion with her estranged husband (Cory Jeacoma); a WWI Army surgeon fresh from the Harlem Renaissance (TL Thompson); an influential figure from the Mississippi civil rights movement (Jaye Ladymore); a black sheep born to a notable televangelist family in Chicago (Derrick A. King); a misunderstood D-list reality TV star (Khailah Johnson); and two wildly different teens — a vibrant girl (Autumn Best) with a 1970s upbringing, and a prescient boy (Amarr) whose origin remains a mystery.

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