Fall Television: Top 10 Picks
How can a TV fan not love fall, with its new hopes for new hits? From happy
families and dancing teens to teen vamps and revamped aliens, here are USA TODAY critic Robert Bianco's top picks, plus a look at the rest:
1. Modern Family
ABC, Wednesdays, 9 ET/PT, Sept. 23
Remember when ABC used to make funny family comedies?
Considering the time gap, maybe you don't. Luckily, the folks at ABC have finally had their own memories jarred, or perhaps they simply noticed they haven't had a sitcom hit in the decade since Home Improvement. With Modern Family, ABC may return to form.
Improvement fans should note that "modern" in the title: Times and TV have changed, and this big-hearted comedy reflects the switch by expanding its family view. You get the traditional mom-dad-kids mix in the center, but you also have a gay couple with an adopted child on one side, and an older man with a new young wife and stepson on the other.
The shooting style is new-ish, as well: Family is shot as an Office-style faux-documentary. But Family has three things that separate it from most cinematic, one-camera sitcoms. The characters are warmer and more relatable than is the norm for filmed comedies. And Family actually makes you laugh. (A Lion King sight gag is one of the pilot episode's best.)
And the third? Talent, with a team led by Frasier's Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan and a cast that includes Ed O'Neill, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Sofia Vergara and Eric Stonestreet.
Maybe together, they can bring back ABC's family glory.
Fox, Wednesdays, 9 ET/PT, Sept. 9
And now for something gleefully different.
If Modern Family represents a return to tradition, albeit tweaked and updated, Glee represents a singing-and-dancing break. Created by Ryan Murphy, the man behind Nip/Tuck, this outrageously outsized musical comedy is sort of what you'd get if High School Musical had been done by, well, the man behind Nip/Tuck.
Fans already know what to expect, as the show got a post-Idol sneak peek last spring. The good news is that three episodes in, Glee's wild mix of comedy, drama and production-number flair continues unabated, with scenes of football players as Beyoncé backup dancers alternating with real teen traumas and a standout comic performance from Jane Lynch. Joy abounds - but so do odd tonal shifts.
There are shows that have something for everyone, and then there's Glee, which has something to chase away everyone. If those prancing players don't get you, two jarring paternity plots just might. But if you can resist the urge to click off at the first sign of something you don't like, you may just find that the high points compensate for the things you find bad, boring or just too much.
Yes, it's a risk. But if the networks don't take risks, we'll end up with an entire schedule made up of reality shows and CSI clones. And how gleeful would that be?
3. The Middle
ABC, Wednesdays, 8:30 ET/PT, Sept. 30
Right place, right time, right star. Welcome to The Middle, an extremely well-done domestic comedy that arrives just when its network, ABC, is clearly back in the market for one - and with a star who clearly knows a thing or two about the genre. Best yet, it's built around a family humorously battling a tough economy at a time when viewers have never been more likely to empathize.
After a one-season stint as a glamorous news anchor, Patricia Heaton returns to more familiar family waters as a wife and mother struggling to raise her kids while keeping her job at the town's last auto dealership. The role brings her back to Everybody Loves Raymond territory, but in this show, she's generally fighting for her family rather than with them, and that includes a husband winningly played by Scrubs veteran Neil Flynn.
The narration can be a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise The Middle may strike you as the kind of comedy a network should be doing right now: a smart, amusing take on middle-class concerns. Plus, it's worth watching just to see Atticus Shaffer as an adorably strange child who repeats the last thing he says in an eerie whisper. It's one of those water-cooler moments every sitcom dreams of delivering.
ABC, Tuesdays, 8 ET/PT, Nov. 3
They're back - and this time, they have bigger effects and smaller hair.
If you're of a certain age, you probably remember V, a much-loved 1983 miniseries about hamster-chomping aliens that became a much-less-loved series. But you don't have to have seen those to enjoy this well-made remake, or to know the visitors are up to no good.
V may not be completely original, but it quickly establishes its own identity (and not just by flattening those hideous '80s hairdos). And unlike many sci-fi shows, it seems designed to be easy - and maybe even fun - to follow. This is sci-fi light: good guys, bad guys, with the lines brightly drawn. The only downside is that, so far, nobody eats a hamster. But we can always hope.
ABC, Thursdays, 8 ET/PT, Sept. 24
There's no doubt FlashForward is one of the year's best pilots. But will it be one of the year's best series?
Yes, there's a difference.
Let's start with what we know: This complex what-if fantasy has fall's most interesting premise. For as-yet-unexplained reasons, almost everyone falls faint for exactly two minutes and 17 seconds and gets a "flash forward" view of the future. Some see happiness; more see sorrow. (The pilot is bleakish.) And some see nothing, which could be a really bad sign.
Is this a natural occurrence or did someone flash the planet? Are these events predetermined or can, say, the very nice married couple (Joseph Fiennes and Sonya Walger) save their marriage? And if they can't and what we've seen happen must happen, will you want to see it happen on a weekly basis?
Good questions all. All we can say for now is that the pilot is intriguing. Whether it's one-shot-movie intriguing or long-run-TV intriguing, we'll see soon enough - and without a flash forward to show us.
6. The Good Wife
CBS, Tuesdays, 10 ET/PT, Sept. 22
For CBS, Good may be good enough.
Indeed, while it may not be the most exciting new show, The Good Wife could end up being the most popular. It has all the hallmarks of TV success: a proven TV star in Julianna Margulies, a good spot on TV's top-rated network, and a solid series idea - wife and mother tries to re-establish herself as a lawyer.
As a bonus, Good puts a new ripped-from-the-headlines spin on its procedural plot. Margulies' character is back at work because her high-power politician husband (Chris Noth in a recurring role) got caught in a sex and corruption scandal.
Ultimately, Margulies has to carry the show, and she seems up to the job. And that may be enough.
NBC, Thursdays, 9:30 ET/PT, Sept. 17
Among the many things NBC hasn't done well lately, "sweet" is near the top of the list.
Enter the slightly gentler Community. The Soup host Joel McHale stars here as a lawyer forced to attend a community college, where he sets up a scam study group. But the group - which includes SNL founding father Chevy Chase - bonds, leading to the kind of huggable moment NBC shows generally ban.
McHale is a charming lead, and the show has its share of funny pop-culture riffs. But it's walking a fine line, trying to mine humor from community colleges without belittling the people who actually attend them. If it can keep the snark to a minimum, it may go beyond the network's current niche limits and actually draw a big-hit-sized audience.
Which is another thing NBC hasn't done so well lately.
8. Cougar Town
ABC, Wednesdays, 9:30 ET/PT, Sept. 23
Let's pause to consider the idea that Courteney Cox is now old enough to be called a "cougar."
Well, that's just a matter of time passing. The harder sell for this surprisingly agreeable comedy is the idea that Cox could be so embarrassed by her looks that she wants to be seen only by candlelight. Vanity knows no sensible bounds, but Cougar Town will work only if viewers relate to the character, rather than dismiss her as a Hollywood neurotic.
Cox may just pull it off. Her good-sport appeal shines through, even at those moments when her show is trying too hard to be risque. And she's aided by a good ensemble led by Christa Miller and - as Cox's teenage son - Dan Byrd.
And yes, she is old enough to have a teenage son. Get over it.
9. The Vampire Diaries
CW, Thursdays, 8 ET/PT, Sept. 10
Think of it as One Tree Hill with sharper teeth.
Chances are, your first inclination is to think of Vampire Diaries as a rip-off of True Blood and Twilight - even though the book it's based on predates both. But beneath the gothic trappings, Vampire (produced by Dawson's Creek's Kevin Williamson) is just CW doing what it does: building a teen soap around the complicated lives of impossibly pretty, alarmingly worldly young people who manage to seem prosperous even with no visible means of support.
Adults are likely to steer clear, but the show isn't made for them. It's made for young women and girls who have a current affection for vampires and a long-standing affection for the good boy/bad boy dynamic. That should be enough to draw them in.
And that's the only ratings hill CW has any interest in climbing.
10. NCIS: Los Angeles
CBS, Tuesdays, 9 ET/PT, Sept. 22
On CBS, nothing repeats like success.
Because you watched one CSI, CBS gave you two more, along with a thinly veiled military rip-off, NCIS. And because you watched NCIS, you're now getting NCIS: Los Angeles, which was introduced last season in an NCIS two-parter starring Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J.
A stand-alone Los Angeles has not yet been made available for screening, but it's probably safe to expect an efficient, standard-issue bit of weekly entertainment that will stick closely to the NCIS formula - and will appeal to the same largely older audience.
Mock CBS for serving those viewers if you like, but they have as much right to be entertained as anyone else. If LA does the trick, more success to it.