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9 Returning Shows That Have Something To Prove This Fall

Individual TV seasons are kind of magical. Sometimes, everything comes together for a show over the course of 13 or 22 episodes, producing consistently great stories and performances. Other times, one problem snowballs into three more, and previously good series stumble into weak stretches. But a lot can change between seasons, when shows have a chance to regroup, reset, or—hopefully—continue on an already successful path. As we head into the fall, a number of returning shows are facing some pretty big questions. One thing that's so fun about this time of the year is that we truly don't know which shows will answer the proverbial call, but it can't hurt to try to guess.

Just like last season, I've listed a handful of series that have something to prove, along with any obstacles they may face. The only question that remains is, can they do it?

Arrow 

The question Arrow faces heading into the fall season: Can the show find any semblance of consistency?

Arrow is not a bad show, but it was, for much of Season 3, actively frustrating to watch. As Noel has so magnificently chronicled over the years in his reviews here on TV.com, Arrow has always had trouble making its story work across the 23-episodes-a-year structure, and last season things sprawled off track almost immediately. And say what you will about the supporting characters—I'm more #TeamLaurel than most—but last year, the significant problems were withStephen Amell's Oliver. Remember when he cared about getting his company back for a good two episodes? Or when he hatched one terrible plan after another, forcing him to lie to everyone, just to... something? Woof. Arrow did that bad thing where it had one big idea—can Oliver truly live these separate lives—that it tackled early on, ignored for a long stretch, then came back to with a couple triumphant romantic scenes, and called it "character development." With Oliver cordoned off in a "normal" life and a slew of new characters (again), the show will have to hustle to reorient everyone, including us at home. But the real test will be whether or not the middle stretch of episodes is any good.

The Blacklist 

The question The Blacklist faces heading into the fall season: Which version of the show will we get in Season 3?

Last season, The Blacklist made the classic sophomore year tactic for a show with macro-level mysteries, questions, and/or "mythology": it doubled down on them. Say, you liked James Spader's Red needlessly ignoring direct questions and enjoyed amusingly vague-yet-sinister Illuminati-like organizations plotting against Red and Lizzie (Megan Boone)? Well here's a lot more of that—and very little of it makes sense! This focus wasn't entirely devoid of successful stories or enjoyable moments, but the conspiracies and the unanswered questions swallowed up what was previously a sturdy and occasionally surprisingly weird procedural. The expectation on the Internet is that all TV shows should have more serialization and be more complex. That's not nonsense. Season 2 concluded with Red and Lizzie on the run, suggesting the titular blacklist FBI detail is more or less dead, and that more serialized stories could be on the way. Let's hope that's not actually the case, and that The Blacklist finds a better balance between the standalone and the serialized in Season 3.

Doctor Who 

The question Doctor Who faces heading into the fall season: Will the obsession with the past—and repeating stories—continue until the end of time?

TIME PUNS. See, my writing is about as clever as Steven Moffat's work on Doctor Who! Seriously though, despite a magnificent turn as the Doctor from Peter Capaldi and an equally as impressive run of work from Jenna Coleman, Season 8 of Who was, like all seasons in the Moffat era, a haphazard mess with a litany of great individual moments. For me, there are two central concerns: the constant need to return to past stories and bring back older characters, to varying degrees of success, and of course, the perpetually mediocre treatment of the female companions. Season 8 snuck a Master return through the back door while concentrating on another "guy or the Doctor" story, both of which were fine on their own but ultimately shrug-inducing by the end of the season—so, like every Who season. Coleman and Capaldi are tremendous, individually and as a duo. The show simply needs to build something better around them.

Empire

The question Empire faces heading into the fall season: Is there any way to keep this going?

You know the story: a show blasts onto the television landscape like a supernova, electrifying audiences with its wild pacing, zeitgeist-y stories, and a couple of boss performances. You also know how that story goes in Season 2, which is almost always right off a cliff in a fiery blaze of "too much, too soon." No recent smash hit has been as primed for this trajectory than Empire, a show that was teetering into madness by the end of its blazing 13-hour first season, and one that is now expected to run much longer and anchor Fox's cratering schedule. Low stakes! Predictably, Empire has spent the last three months jamming in big guest stars and presumably buzzy storylines—Marisa Tomei, hello—and you're almost certain to see at least a dozen "What's Wrong With Empire" takes by Veteran's Day (maybe one written by me!). On the bright side, this show was so joyously outrageous from the jump that careening further into insanity might actually be more entertaining. Not every show has to be serious art, ya know?

The Good Wife 

The question The Good Wife faces heading into the fall season: Is Season 7 one last hurrah or the final nail in the coffin?

Just one year ago, The Good Wife was coming off its best season yet and operating at such a high level of propulsive, character-driven storytelling that it wouldn't have been remotely unwise to call it the best show on all of TV. Yet here we are, after an ambitious but ultimately repetitive, intermittently amateurish, full-on tire fire of a sixth season, wondering if Michelle and Robert King should simply wrap it up and move on to that insane D.C. alien zombie show. On one hand, you might suggest that all the cast turnover was a kind of addition by subtraction, finally removing the seemingly petty uneasiness between Julianna Margulies and the now departed Archie Panjabiand gaining further distance from the traumatic departure of Josh Charles (turns out when you lose one of our best actors, bad things happen). On the other hand, the just-released Season 7 trailer is chock-full of more political campaigns, performed domesticity between Alicia and Peter (Chris Noth), and almost none of Matt Czuchry's Cary. Still, you have to imagine a show that was so good not that long ago could find its rhythm again.

How To Get Away With Murder

The question How to Get Away With Murder faces heading into the fall season: Can the story structure work for another 15 episodes?

In almost any other TV season, How To Get Away With Murder runs away with all the new show buzz, takes over the world, and comes into the next fall with all sorts of anticipation and questions. Alas, with Empire around—and ABC's murder mystery ending earlier in the spring—How To Get Away With Murder perhaps faces slightly lower expectations this fall, but that doesn't mean there aren't concerns about the sustainability of its storytelling approach. Though the basic premise—badass attorney leads and corrupts her younger students—could and probably will sustain a half-decade's worth of TV, the heavy reliance on flashbacks, sudden twists, and not a lot of good stuff in the middle 30 minutes of an episode already started to work against the show by the end of Season 1's 15 episodes. With one of the show's more poorly conceived characters, Kate Findlay's Rebecca, out of the picture, there's potential for improvement. However, Rebecca's death also doesn't seem like an appealing central case, given that so much of the audience actively hated her anyway. How the show manages its twists and the core characters is something to focus on this fall. 

The Leftovers 

The question The Leftovers faces heading into the fall season: With the source material—and Mapleton—behind it, how does the show evolve?

HBO's The Leftovers was one of the more divisive shows of 2014—I personally loved it to pieces—and after more than a year away, the story has moved away from both Tom Perrotta's source material and the idyllic northeastern town it was set in. Season 2 somehow moves a significant chunk of the cast from New York to another small town, this time in Texas, that was seemingly immune to the Great Departure. While you have to admire Damon Lindelof's ballsy decision to literally uproot his story and praise your higher power of choice that Carrie Coon is still here to look into your soul, there's also a reason shows don't suddenly export entire fleets of people from one homestead to another on the reg. Likewise, all indications are that the show is going to be more plot-driven in this year, which might be the antidote needed for those viewers who didn't especially enjoy the never-ending wave of pain and emotional catharsis, but also could alienate those of us who simply love to watch people FEEL, man. 

Sleepy Hollow

The question facing Sleepy Hollow faces heading into the fall season: Have all the bad decisions damaged the show for good?

Last fall in this space, I framed Sleepy Hollow similarly to my Empire analysis above (much lower stakes for the network, but still), and now 12 months later, it's not crazy to ask if the show has been flat-out ruined by truly terrible creative choices that plagued a miserable, overlong second season. It is confounding to me that Fox has multiple new shows on its schedule this season (Minority Report and Lucifer) that are explicitly trying to recapture Sleepy's core charm and yet it spent all of 2014-2015 stripping away that charm. The prevailing narrative is that the show has experienced a necessary reboot, including a relocation for the entire production to Atlanta and the departure of some of the less enjoyable characters, but it's going to be a long road back to competence, let alone the levels of pure, unfiltered fun from Season 1. 

The Vampire Diaries 

The question The Vampire Diaries faces heading into the fall season: What does an Elena-free TVD look like?

Say whatever you want about The Vampire Diaries' handling of Elena Gilbert in the last few seasons of Nina Dobrev's time on the show, but it's so severely uncommon for a show with a clear central character to lose that character and simply trek forward into the uncertain abyss that it has to be mentioned on this list. While the CW has rightfully been selling us on reframing the story around the Salvatore brothers and there are dizzying, shiny story gimmicks here to distract us from the departure of Elena (and Katherine, and whomever else), Mystic Falls will absolutely be lacking without its heart and, at least at one point, its core humanity (thank God for Matt, right?). If anything else, this is going to be one heck of a must-watch televisual experiment.

What shows do you think face big questions heading into the fall season?

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