For the second year in a row, the new shows served up by the broadcast TV networks are dull and disappointing — not a great new program in the bunch. There are a pair of terrific new series on the horizon, on cable. But the entire fall TV season concept has been defined and dominated by broadcast television for half a century now — and though that changes a little each year, it's still the biggest game in town, with the most viewers and the most attention.
So here we go again.
On broadcast TV this season, the biggest excitement, for the most part, is generated by changes to some returning shows — all of them on CBS. The network is so certain of a growing audience for The Good Wife, especially against pro football, that it's moving that drama series from Tuesdays to Sundays.
There are high-profile changes in leading men, too. Ashton Kutcher, hoping to keep Two and a Half Men going after Charlie Sheen and that sitcom parted ways, is guaranteed must-see TV — at least for week one. CBS hasn't shown that to critics yet, but it did give us a taste of Ted Danson as the newest star of the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. And judging from only one brief but tender and funny scene, Danson looks like the best replacement hire on a TV drama since Jimmy Smits took over for David Caruso on NYPD Blue. All three of those changes will take effect the week of Sept. 19, when the 2011 TV season begins officially.
Unofficially, though, it starts this week, with NBC premiering two new comedies, and the CW network unveiling three new shows. Of the five, easily the best is CW's Ringer, a drama premiering Tuesday night. It marks the return to TV of Sarah Michelle Gellar, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. She plays a dual role, portraying both Bridget, an ex-stripper on the run, and Siobhan, her rich and pampered sister with her own dangerous secrets. In the pilot, these identical twins meet after six years apart, as Siobhan welcomes Bridget for a secret reunion at her opulent beach house.
If that leaves you intrigued but not overwhelmed, join the club. That's my reaction to a handful of new series this year: They aren't bad, but I sure wish they were better. That said, here are the broadcast TV shows to remember, and sample, as the fall season rolls out this month and next:
New Girl is a Fox comedy starring Zooey Deschanel as a young woman who moves in with three guys — platonically, at least at first — after a painful romantic breakup. The pilot's not that endearing, but the actress certainly is. Once Upon a Time is a high-concept ABC fantasy about fairy-tale characters who are put under a spell and banished to our world, with their memories removed. What makes this interesting is that it comes from the network owned by Disney, so its Snow White and other characters get very close to the iconic animated versions, with no fear of lawsuits.
We haven't seen X Factor yet, but since that Fox competition show marks the return of both Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, I wouldn't bet against it. However, despite the name of Steven Spielberg behind another Fox series, Terra Nova, I might bet against that one, even though I'll keep an eye on it for a while. Its premise is classic sci-fi: People in the future escape from a toxic Earth by time-traveling back to prehistoric days and setting up camp. The CGI dinosaurs are cool and seem real. The human characters, not so much.
Period dramas are big this year because of Mad Men — and while NBC's Playboy Club is horrible, ABC's Pan Am, starring Christina Ricci, is slicker, smarter and a lot more watchable. I'd give that a try. And the same goes for NBC's remake of Prime Suspect, starring Maria Bello in a cop show inspired by the fabulous British program starring Helen Mirren. The new show itself isn't bad, but it's got almost nothing to do with the original Prime Suspect — so much so that using the title almost amounts to false advertising. In any event, it's infinitely better than ABC's remake of Charlie's Angels, one of the worst new shows of the season. And that's in a season with H8TR on CW and I Hate My Teenage Daughter on Fox. I hate them all.
They're the worst. But what about the best?
In October, two new shows are coming that you absolutely must watch — but they're coming on cable. One is Showtime's Homeland, which stars Damian Lewis, from Band of Brothers and Life. He plays an American POW rescued after years of captivity. He returns as a hero, but a CIA agent, played by Claire Danes, suspects him of having been turned, and actually being a double agent for al-Qaida. Only one of them is the real hero of this series — and for a while, at least, we don't know which. This unusual drama comes from some of the producers of 24, and the pilot is wonderful.
Also unusual, and wonderful, is the new FX series American Horror Story, which may be the scariest TV show I've ever seen. It's about a couple who try to save their marriage by moving across the country — but unfortunately, they move into a house with a history of being haunted. It's from the team behind Glee and Nip/Tuck, and it's got an unbelievably talented cast: Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights as the wife, Dylan McDermott from The Practice as the husband, Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under as the housekeeper — and, as the spooky neighbor, Jessica Lange.
One month from now, my guess is that you'll be talking about both of those shows. And another guess: A month from now, you won't be talking about most of the other TV shows about to premiere. But be patient. Good stuff is on the way.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.