It's September, which means it's time for a new television season. But the plethora of new shows arriving this year can be equal parts gift and curse. Before you start setting your DVRs and planning your premiere parties, here's our comprehensive guide to the best and worst shows for women this fall--as well as five more where the jury's still out.
1. Masters of Sex (Showtime): Lizzy Caplan playing sex researcher Virginia Johnson, in a gorgeous-looking period piece from creator Michelle Ashford and executive producer Sarah Timberman--do I really need to say more to convince you? If not, Masters of Sex also has Michael Sheen playing Dr. William Masters, fascinating gender role reversals in its romantic relationships, and some of the smartest, steamiest sex scenes you'll see anywhere on television this fall. And most of all, the show is a welcome and important break with the overwhelmingly male anti-hero stories that have dominated prestige drama for a decade and a half, substituting scientific curiosity and humor for violence and moral darkness. There's ambiguity, for sure--Masters of Sex would be boring if it didn't aim to make you think--but the characters' dilemmas are ones contemporary women and men actually face, rather than fantasies about cooking meth in the desert or running a New Jersey crime family. Masters of Sex makes the ordinary seem extraordinarily fascinating.
2. Mom (CBS): When we first meet Christy (Anna Faris), she's crying while making the rounds at her tables at the high-end restaurant where she works as a waitress. "I think you'll find our Napa Chardonnay to have hints of vanilla and caramel with a silky-smooth finish," she tells a couple. "2004 was a great year for this wine. Not so much for me." It's a silly gag, but it marks how promising Mom, which follows Christy as a newly-sober single mother reluctantly reconnecting with her own mom, Bonnie (Allison Janney), who's also recently in recovery, that Faris pulls it off. By turns goofy and astringent, Mom has real stakes, from Christy's fragile hopes to go back to school as a psychologist, to the possibility her teenaged daughter might be pregnant, to the risks Bonnie poses to Christy's sobriety and hard-won calm. When Christy's daughter Violet points out that she'd been dating her boyfriend for a year, but "You only noticed when you stopped drinking," it hurts. And when Christy tells her AA meeting, "Mine taught me how to beat a cavity search and still feel like a lady," the laugh lands just as hard.
3. Lucky 7 (ABC): Television doesn't have a lot of heavier women, working-class women, or women of color, and when characters in those molds do appear, the shows they're in are often unkind to them. But Lucky 7, which follows a group of gas station employees who pool their money on a lottery ticket and finally strike it rich, has all these kinds of women, and treats them with sensitivity and complexity. There's Denise Dibinsky (played by Lorraine Bruce, who starred in the British original that Lucky 7 is based on) for whom the lottery win provides an opportunity to stop trying to win the affections of a husband who ignores her, and to start thinking about what will make her happy. Samira Lashari (Summer Bishil) is an immigrant from Pakistan with hopes to rise from store clerking to a career in music. And Leanne Maxwell (Anastasia Phillips) is a single mother. Particularly given the rise of aspirational reality programming that paints women as catty and materialistic, Lucky 7 is a nice change of pace, exploring what happens when characters who have never had enough money suddenly become financially secure, and what happens when characters who have growth close through work lose their needs for the day job that initially brought them together.
4. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox): This police sitcom from the guys who brought us Parks and Recreation, one of the most feminist comedies in recent years, may be a star vehicle for Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher. But Braugher's character, NYPD Captain Holt, is one of the most intriguing gay characters we've seen on television in a long time. Out before the department was ready to really embrace a gay detective, Holt built a sterling service record, and when the politics were right, finally got his own precinct, which he's determined to run perfectly, despite the antics of Samberg's talented but goofy detective Jake Peralta. In other words, he's a black, gay Ron Swanson (the tough, libertarian feminist played by Nick Offerman on Parks and Rec). And Brooklyn Nine-Nine also boasts a terrific roster of young actresses, including relative newcomer Stephanie Beatriz, who plays a terse, intimidating cop, Melissa Fumero as Amy, Jake's rival in the precinct, and Chelsea Peretti as the precinct's secretary. Let the crime-solving begin!
5. Sleepy Hollow (Fox): I never in a million years would have anticipated putting a seemingly-inexplicable adaptation of Washington Irving's short story about colonial America set in the modern day on any sort of best list. But Sleepy Hollow, which features Ichabod Crane as a former Revolutionary War spy who wakes up in the present day after cutting the head off a demonic warrior, and finds himself partnered with a local cop named Abbie Mills (the always-welcome Nicole Beharie), is oddly compelling. Much of the charm of the show comes from the back-and-forth between Ichabod and Abbie, who's alternately impatient with Ichabod and intrigued by him. In their initial conversation, Ichabod's totally confused by Abbie. "A female leftenant. In whose army?" he demands to know once she gives her rank. "You've been emancipated, I take it? From enslavement?" "Slavery has been abolished 150 years. It's a whole new day in America," Abbie tells him wearily. But once they're on the road together, talking about the prevalence of Starbucks outfits and digging up weird embalmed heads that were buried by witches, they make a great team. None of this is to say that Sleepy Hollow makes sense. But it's far more entertaining than I expected.