In my first column, I was a little condescending toward the broadcast networks and their new offerings for the season. For most of the offerings, I feel like they’re generic attempts to modulate overused formulas. Still, within the group of new series I’ve sampled so far, there’s a trend: the return of the kind of show that, for the most part, has disappeared from the air — the show with the good heart.
When “Parks and Recreation” and “Parenthood” ended within a month of each other last year, it seemed to mark the end of an era for NBC. The network was undergoing a period of transition from niche programming into mainstream TV. But, when they did that, they lost an identity they cultivated over the years. NBC found a home with shows such as “Parenthood” and “Parks and Recreation,” shows that had a genuine heart to them. They cared about their characters and their development and growth. In turn, that made me care about them, too.
But, when I watched a handful of this fall’s new offerings, I was reminded of the series I thought was mostly gone — the show with genuine heart. “The Good Place” and “This is Us” are exactly the kind of shows the broadcast networks should make and that NBC made for so many years. They have the characters to back up their twisting-and-turning plots. Through their first few episodes, they’re showing signs that they can fill the holes in my heart left by the shows like “Parks.”
I’ve already written about “This is Us,” and it remains one of my favorite dramas of the fall. The second episode continued where the first hour started, building its characters and hitting the emotional points. What I really want to celebrate about this show is how much I love these characters after two hours. While the family clearly has imperfect relationships — especially with brothers Kevin and Randall, who have grown apart between childhood and the start of the series — there’s love despite it. There’s no hatred flung back and forth, just people who care about one another. It’s a type of relationship that’s rare in dramas today, with so many relying on hostility in character relationships; so, I’m grateful to have a show that feels good to watch.
I should’ve known that a show from the creator of “Parks and Recreation” would be able to fill its place in my heart. “The Good Place” focuses on Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, a mean-spirited person who somehow ends up in a Heaven-like “good place.” In the pilot, she realizes she needs to become a better person in order to stay there and not get sent to “the bad place.” It’s remarkable that Michael Schur realized every character on “Parks,” even the most minor ones, and it reached a point where spending time with the people on the show outweighed the story arcs. With “The Good Place,” Schur appears more interested in developing the story rather than character, but he’s also investing in the ensemble early. He’s been making supporting characters more integral to the show earlier than “Parks” ever did. Given the talent in this cast and how much I already care about this group, I can easily find myself loving to spend time with these characters as much as I did with Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson.
When I watch these shows, I feel happy. But this joy isn’t derived from the plot. Rather, it’s about caring about the people on the screen. These shows are genuine in how they care about the people populating their worlds. They’re not just focused on making sure the plot twists land with an impact — though “This is Us” and “The Good Place” are quite good at that. But, more importantly, they’re also looking to make you feel for the characters on a weekly basis.
My favorite type of show is the one that makes an impact with its characters rather than its story. I’m so delighted to have a group of new shows that join “Jane the Virgin” and ABC’s comedies in doing exactly that.