The early reviews for the new fall TV season? Well, they're not great. Sure, there are a few gems in the mix — NBC's A to Z and The CW's Jane the Virgin look particularly promising — but sadly, the vast majority of this fall's new shows look to be either uninspiring retreads (another Batman origin story? Another NCIS spinoff?) or just out-and-out disasters (The Mysteries of Laura, we're looking at you).
But this fall TV season does have one thing going for it: the number four. Yes, it turns out that recent TV seasons that begin in years ending with a 4 have been incredibly successful of late, spawning a bumper crop of certified hits. Here, we look back at three all-time great TV seasons — 1984-85, 1994-95, and 2004-05 — and see if their wild success might (improbably) be repeated this fall.
The Cosby Show (NBC, 202 episodes)
Miami Vice (NBC, 111 episodes)
Murder, She Wrote (CBS, 264 episodes)
Who's the Boss? (ABC, 196 episodes)
Hunter (NBC, 153 episodes)
Highway to Heaven (NBC, 111 episodes)
NBC already had Cheers and Family Ties in place when the 1984-85 season kicked off, but the addition of The Cosby Show at 8 p.m. cemented the Peacock Network's Thursday night lineup as a ratings powerhouse. Cosby became TV's #3-rated show in its first season, lifting NBC into a strong second place behind CBS after a decade of last-place finishes.
NBC also cornered the market on cool with Miami Vice, the definitive '80s cop show that used fast-cutting MTV visuals and high-octane car chases to lure in young eyeballs. Maybe Angela Lansbury wasn't "cool" in the '80s, but her top-rated mystery series Murder, She Wrote served as a Sunday night anchor for CBS for a dozen seasons. And over on ABC, Tony Danza and Judith Light kicked off an eight-season flirtation as a single-dad housekeeper and his yuppie employer on Who's the Boss?.
Hunter doesn't seem to hold the same nostalgic pull these days that Miami Vice does, but the Fred Dryer-Stepfanie Kramer cop show was a solid hit for NBC on Saturday nights for seven seasons. ("Works for me.") And Highway to Heaven, starring Michael Landon as an earth-bound angel helping downtrodden mortals, cracked the Nielsen Top 20 in its first season. As then NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff put it at the time, "What did I do right? I put my money down on Bill Cosby and Michael Landon."
More Notable Debuts:
Punky Brewster (NBC, 88 episodes)
Moonlighting (ABC, midseason; 66 episodes)
Mr. Belvedere (ABC, midseason; 117 episodes)
Cutie-pie star Soleil Moon Frye made Punky a nice companion to Silver Spoons in NBC's Sunday night kiddie block. And ABC found success with two midseason additions: Moonlighting, with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd bickering (on-screen and off) for five seasons; and Belvedere, a not very fondly remembered sitcom about a refined British butler living with a blue-collar family that nonetheless survived long enough to reach syndication — the ultimate finish line for any TV show.
One Glaring Misfire:
E/R (CBS, 22 episodes)
No, this is not ER, the '90s medical drama featuring George Clooney that ran for 15 seasons. This is E/R, the '80s medical comedy also featuring George Clooney that flatlined after just one season. Despite a strong pedigree (Norman Lear produced; Elliott Gould starred as a womanizing doctor), E/R got creamed on Tuesday nights by The A-Team. Its cancellation, though, did free up Clooney for another somewhat similar project a decade later…
Friends (NBC, 236 episodes)
ER (NBC, 331 episodes)
Touched By an Angel (CBS, 211 episodes)
Party of Five (Fox, 142 episodes)
Chicago Hope (CBS, 141 episodes)
Star Trek: Voyager (UPN, midseason; 172 episodes)
Ten years after its Cosby-led renaissance, NBC found itself stuck in third place again heading into the 1994-95 season. But they hit a pair of grand slams with Friends, which immediately reached the Nielsen Top 10 and stayed there for all ten seasons, and ER, which piled up a staggering 331 episodes along with 124 Emmy nominations. The pair of overachieving rookies helped NBC rise to second place that season, this time behind ABC.
[Related: The Recipe for the Perfect 'Friends'-giving]
Again, CBS doesn't specialize in flash, but the faith-tinged mainstay Touched By an Angel rode out a few modestly-rated seasons and developed into a full-fledged hit. Party of Five was never a full-fledged hit (or even a half-fledged one) for Fox, but a loyal teen audience and a 1996 Golden Globe win for Best TV Drama propelled it to a six-season run full of family drama.
ER's runaway success didn't keep David E. Kelley's medical drama Chicago Hope from tallying a very respectable 141 episodes. (Although CBS did wisely move it out of ER's timeslot midway through the first season.) And Voyager didn't debut until January of 1995, but it helped launch UPN as a network (for as long as that lasted) on its way to a seven-season mission.
More Notable Debuts:
My So-Called Life (ABC, 19 episodes)
NewsRadio (NBC, midseason; 97 episodes)
Cybill (CBS, midseason; 87 episodes)
My So-Called Life was never, like, super popular, you know? But its searing honesty about the tiny tragedies of teen life and star-making turns from Claire Danes and Jared Leto etched its all-too-brief run in the TV history books anyway. Two midseason comedies had better luck: the often brilliant and still underrated NewsRadio, which somehow endured 11 (!) timeslot changes over five seasons; and CBS's caustic showbiz sitcom Cybill, which not only brought Cybill Shepherd back to TV, but introduced us to the wonders of Christine Baranski.
One Glaring Misfire:
The Cosby Mysteries (NBC, 20 episodes)
You can't blame NBC for trying to put their money down on Bill Cosby one more time. (In fact, they're doing it again!) But this ill-conceived detective series, with Cosby as a retired NYPD cop who won the lotto but still solves cases on the side, was more Ghost Dad than The Cosby Show. It lurched its way through a single, much-maligned season (even The Simpsons made fun of it) before NBC closed the case for good.
Lost (ABC, 121 episodes)
Desperate Housewives (ABC, 180 episodes)
Grey's Anatomy (ABC, midseason; 220 episodes*)
House (Fox, 177 episodes)
The Biggest Loser (NBC, 221 episodes*)
The Office (NBC, midseason; 201 episodes)
It's entirely possible that ABC programming executives sold their souls to the devil prior to the 2004-05 season. And if they did, it was certainly worth it. Entering the season in fourth place in total viewers, ABC soared to a second-place finish behind a trio of freshman smashes: the puzzling-to-this-day island mystery Lost, campy suburban romp Desperate Housewives, and medical soap Grey's, still going strong into Season 11 this fall. All three debuted in the Nielsen Top 20 — a remarkable feat for any new show, let alone three on the same network.
Fox went to the medical-drama well, too, with House, as Hugh Laurie grumbled his way through eight seasons as a curmudgeonly doc. And NBC found two building blocks for its primetime lineup: fat-burning reality competition The Biggest Loser, helping overweight contestants get yelled at for 15 seasons (and counting); and U.K. import The Office, which never ranked among the top 50 rated shows but rode critical acclaim to an admirable (if a bit overlong) nine-season run.
More Notable Debuts:
Boston Legal (ABC, 101 episodes)
Medium (NBC/CBS, midseason; 130 episodes)
Veronica Mars (UPN/The CW, 64 episodes)
As if the Lost/Desperate/Grey's trifecta weren't enough, ABC also scored a solid hit with another David E. Kelley creation: Boston Legal, where James Spader and William Shatner chewed courtroom scenery for five seasons. Patricia Arquette's supernatural procedural Medium was a modest performer and even hopped from NBC to CBS midway through its run, but still eked out a syndication-worthy seven seasons. And Marshmallows everywhere got hooked on teen detective Veronica Mars and her high-school sleuthing, earning it canceled-too-soon status right along with My So-Called Life.
One Glaring Misfire:
Who's Your Daddy? (Fox, 1 episode)
The 2004-05 season gave us plenty of duds to choose from: the woeful Friends spinoff Joey, which managed to air for two seasons despite no one actually liking it; or the Pam-Anderson-in-a-bookstore comedy Stacked. But we're going with a reprehensible reality show that even Fox should feel ashamed for airing: Who's Your Daddy?, which featured an adopted adult woman trying to guess which of 25 men is her biological father. Adoption rights advocates complained, an affiliate pulled out, and Fox yanked the series after just one airing. Contestant T.J. Myers did correctly choose her dad, though… so that's nice.
So with all that in mind, let's circle back to the current fall TV season: Maybe it's not as bad as we thought? Sure, the critics don't see much to like, but they also pounced on Friends (Time: "a phony-to-the-core twentysomething sitcom") and Grey's Anatomy (The Washington Post: "the script is… a casserole of equal parts ham and corn") when they first aired. Maybe this season will defy the bad buzz, too, and launch a slew of hits, keeping the Law of Four intact?
Crunching the numbers, at least six new shows reached the 100-episode milestone in each of the three seasons we've looked at. Which new shows this season have the best chance of hitting that mark?
Gotham and The Flash seem like easy calls, with the superhero craze showing no signs of waning; fans will stick around long enough to see Batman all grown up, and The Flash is more fun than recent entries Arrow and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Over on CBS, NCIS: New Orleans has a strong brand name and the luxury of airing after the original NCIS — still TV's top-rated drama. That makes three.
With a hospital full of sick (but still photogenic) teens, Red Band Society could build an audience out of disenchanted Glee viewers. Shonda Rhimes's new legal drama How to Get Away With Murder will certainly get a healthy sampling in the post-Scandal slot. And at least one new comedy has to be a hit, right? We're betting on Black-ish, a very likable ABC sitcom starring Anthony Anderson as the dad of an affluent African-American family. Sound familiar, Huxtable fans?
Look, we made it to six! And that's not even counting critical darlings like the aforementioned A to Z and Jane the Virgin and possible cult hits like NBC's Constantine that could leg out a multi-season run. So cheer up, network execs: Maybe this TV season will be one to remember after all.
Take a look behind the scenes of "A to Z."