TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Viola Davis, the star of ABC's "How To Get Away With Murder," made history last night by becoming the first African-American to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama series. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, is going to look back on last night's Emmy ceremony and look ahead to the new fall TV season which begins tonight.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Last night's Emmy awards managed to honor the past and move forward at the same time. Jon Hamm finally won his first dramatic actor Emmy in his final year of eligibility for AMC's "Mad Men." And Jon Stewart's much-honored "Daily Show" on Comedy Central won three final enemies under his watch. But mostly the Emmy's signified a year of change.
Amazon's transgender comedy "Transparent" won three Emmys, including one for star Jeffrey Tambor. HBO's "Veep" ended the streak of ABC's "Modern Family" as best comedy. And the same network's "Game Of Thrones" won best drama series, a somewhat baffling surprise as well as a rarity for a genre show.
Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" won best supporting actress in a drama for Uzo Aduba, one of three African-American actresses to win Sunday night. The others, both from ABC shows, were Regina King as supporting actress for "American Crime" and Viola Davis as best actress for "How To Get Away With Murder." It was the first time a black woman had won TV's top dramatic acting honor. Bill Cosby had won in the men's category for "I Spy" in the '60s, and both Robert Guillaume and Isabel Sanford, stars of "Benson" and "The Jeffersons" respectively, had won top comedy acting Emmys in the '80s. For Viola Davis, her win was much more than just a personal victory.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMMY AWARDS)
VIOLA DAVIS: In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can't seem to get there, no how. I can't seem to get over that line. That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.
DAVIS: You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.
BIANCULLI: ABC executive Paul Lee, one of the people thanked by Davis in her acceptance speech, has pushed aggressively for diversity in casting on his network, and it shows. The biggest loser last night, on the other hand, was the host network for the ceremony. Fox didn't win a single enemy, not that the other broadcast networks did much better.
But today, the day after the Emmys, is the official start of the 2015 fall TV season. But don't get too excited. With only a couple of exceptions, this is a sadly unexceptional year for new fall TV shows. Most of the dramas are either dreadfully derivative or absurdly unbelievable. And some, like NBC's "Player" and Fox's "Rosewood" manage to be both. Most of the comedies don't even come close to being funny. And one of them, NBC's "Truth Be Told," is so unfunny and repugnant, the only reason I single it out is to beg you not to watch it.
Even the high-profile shows have problems. "Supergirl" on CBS is kind of a mess. Fox's "Minority Report" is a disappointment, and NBC's "Blindspot" has a great opening scene, but goes downhill fast. It starts with a naked woman covered with fresh tattoos emerging from a bag in Times Square with no memory, but with lots of quickly emerging latent skills. It may win the award for most illogical and improbable new show of the season. And this season, that's saying something.
So what stands out in a positive way? The one sure winner and absolute treat is ABC's "The Muppets," a new incarnation of characters that first delighted children on "Sesame Street" and children and adults on "The Muppet Show" back in the '70s. ABC last tried a primetime Muppet show 20 years ago, but this time producer Bill Prady has come up with two new twists that make it fresh. Premiering Tuesday, "The Muppets" has Kermit and company still putting on a TV show. But this time, it's a talk and variety show hosted by Miss Piggy, with Fozzie Bear as her warm-up act and old grumps Statler and Waldorf in the studio audience. And this time the behind-the-scene antics and personality clashes are covered by a documentary crew who follow around Kermit and the rest of the Muppets and interview them privately, like they were characters on NBC's "The Office" or ABC's "Modern Family."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MUPPETS")
STEVE WHITMIRE: (As Kermit the frog) You know, when Piggy and I were a couple, I found her unpredictable and spontaneous and quirky. You know, it was kind of sexy. But if you take dating out of the equation, she's just a lunatic. (Laughter). Oh, I'm getting this signal from Bobo the stage manager, which means wrap it up, either that or I'm about to be blown away by a tornado. (Laughter).
DAVE GOELZ: (As Waldorf) Every night he tells that same joke.
WHITMIRE: (As Statler) And every night I pray for the tornado.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Live from the City of Angels, it's "Up Late With Miss Piggy."
BIANCULLI: Two other companies, both of them on Fox, also stand out, primarily for being more entertaining than I expected them to be. Both premier next week and star popular performers from a previous generation of sitcoms. "Grandfathered" stars John Stamos as a bachelor who suddenly discovers he's the father of a grown son and that his son is a father too. And "The Grinder" stars Rob Lowe as an actor who plays a lawyer on TV whose once-popular show is canceled and who retreats to his hometown where his younger brother, played by Fred Savage from "The Wonder Years," is a lawyer. Both of these new shows are better than they might sound in a fall season when most new shows are worse than they sound.
And then finally there's "Crazy Ex-girlfriend," which doesn't premiere until next month. Rachel Bloom stars as a young New York attorney who impulsively decides to move to the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina just because a childhood crush she ran into told her he was moving back there. This show is on the CW, which emerged with one of the best and most original new shows of last fall in "Jane The Virgin." And the CW has done it again here with another hard-to-categorize one-hour comedy series built around a breakout female star. Oh, and did I mention that "Crazy Ex-girlfriend," just when you least expect it breaks out into song like a Broadway musical?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND")
RACHEL BLOOM: (As Rebecca) West Covina, Calif., in my soul, I feel a fire 'cause I'm heading for the pride of the inland empire. My life's about to change - oh, my gosh - 'cause I'm hopefully, desperately in love with (inaudible). West Covina...
BIANCULLI: We'll revisit some of these shows and more in the coming weeks and months. But this week, if you see only one new TV series - and to be honest, that's about all you should see - make it "The Muppets."
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new complete edition of Erroll Garner's "Concert By The Sea," which was recorded 60 years ago. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.