Who would have thought the most relatable character of this fall’s television season would be a woman who began her life as a man?
Transgender people, who may have reached a tipping point earlier this year when Time magazine put them on the cover, take center stage in Transparent, a comedy/drama from Amazon that features Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show) as the aforementioned woman.
He/she grapples with issues that turn out not to be all that different from the challenges most grownups face: Who are we when we’re done with being day-to-day parents? What careers make sense to carry us into the coming years? How can we use our time wisely to find personal and spiritual fulfillment? And, male or female, is it possible to wear yellow or should we just forget about that whole color?
The new shows of every fall season look good before they start, but Transparent leads a season that appears unusually strong on paper, with very few shows about scantily-clad twentysomethings forced to live in a small house with nothing to do but have sex with each other. Instead, there are shows about actual adults facing new career challenges (Madam Secretary), relationships that need some oomph (Gracepoint) and, like the Tambor character in Transparent, questions about what they’re going to do in the next stage.
Here are eight good bets to get you started:
Death Comes to Pemberley — The answer to the question, “What am I supposed to do when those annoying Brits get to watch the new season of Downton Abbey right now but I have to wait until January because the pilgrims left England and founded this country and wrecked everything?” P.D. James’ novel, a murder mystery that builds on the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, had its flaws, but they’re easily corrected in this miniseries in which PBS faves such as Anna Maxwell Martin (The Bletchley Circle) and James Fleet (Coronation Street) try to get to the bottom of the corseted crime. Premieres Oct. 26, PBS
(MORE: The Women of Downton Abbey)
Gotham — No matter how old you are, you probably came of age in an era when Batman was a pop culture touchstone. In the 1960s, it was Adam West’s campy take on the caped crusader, then it was Michael Keaton’s subdued version in the ’80s and ’90s and, since 2005, it’s been the solemn superhero dreamed up by director Christopher Nolan and Bat-actor Christian Bale. Gotham is a prequel that takes place when Bruce Wayne is just a kid but it continues the somber tone of Nolan’s films, focusing on the adults who informed the development of the superhero, including cops Jim Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). Bonus points for figuring out which heroes and villains the many characters in Gotham are destined to become. Sept. 22, Fox
Gracepoint — In a perfect world, there would be no reason to remake the brilliant and disturbing British crime drama, Broadchurch, because everyone would already have seen it. But not many did see the series, which aired on BBC America (a second season is on the way). Word is this American version, with a dandy cast that includes Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as a frazzled cop and Jacki Weaver and Nick Nolte as mysterious locals, hews closely to the grief-stricken tone and twisty plotting of the show about the impact of a young boy’s death on a small tourist town. Oct. 2, Fox
How to Get Away With Murder — The movies have not known what to do with Viola Davis, beyond casting her as articulate authority figures who assist the above-the-title stars. Where’s her romantic comedy? Or, for that matter, any kind of a movie romance at all? Well, hopefully, she’ll get some loving in a difficult-to-categorize melodrama from creator Shonda Rhimes, who likes to sex things up on Scandal, which is co-produced by the man playing Davis’ husband in Murder, Tom Verica. Davis’ character is a manipulative attorney who specializes in defending killers and teaches law students to do the same. Sept. 25, ABC
Madam Secretary — Thinking of making a career change? CIA analyst Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) wasn’t, but she doesn’t have much choice when the President selects her as the new Secretary of State, a role that gave Leoni several real-life women to study, including Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton. Sept. 21, CBS
NCIS: New Orleans — Incredibly, there were still Naval Criminal Investigative Service units that did not have their own shows. This one’s unlikely to diverge from the formula that has made a dozen or so other NCIS procedurals work, but it does feature a couple of ’80s TV vets who are going strong at 60-plus: Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) and CCH Pounder (L.A. Law and, perhaps not coincidentally, a guest shot on Quantum Leap). Sept. 23, CBS
State of Affairs — As Scandal gets increasingly nutty, maybe its biggest contribution is that it has ushered in a wave of shows about strong black women of a certain age: Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder, Octavia Spencer on the medical show, Red Band Society, and the great Alfre Woodard as the president of the United States in this West Wing-like drama, which also stars Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst. Maybe Heigl got that job when Tea Leoni vacated it to become Secretary of State? Nov. 17, NBC
Transparent — Emmys are already being reserved for Jeffrey Tambor (already a six-time nominee) for his quiet performance as a sixtysomething man who comes to believe he was meant to be a woman. The show is largely about Mort/Moira’s relationship with her children (there’s a double-meaning in that title), but Transparent‘s creators have said they hope the show will investigate a multitude of ways in which people can feel as if they’re stuck in between two phases of their lives. Sept. 26, Amazon.com
Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country.