Thanks to lingering effects of the Hollywood writers’ strike, as well as increasing network indifference to critics, only about half of this fall’s new network shows were available to preview by press time. Here’s a rundown based on what I’ve seen, as well as speculation on shows I haven’t yet had a chance to catch.
Must-see: Of the shows I’ve seen so far, only one stands out as worth setting the DVR or making a couch-time appointment for each week, and that’s Fringe (Fox, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), which premiered last week. The sci-fi/action show is exciting and fast-paced, with some high-level production values and an appealingly tough female star in Anna Torv. It arrives on a wave of hype that it may not be able to live up to, but setting all that aside, it’s an involving, well-written and well-acted show with plenty of promise, and that’s more than you can say for almost everything else coming up this season.
Could-be must-sees: The original pilot was scrapped, and the original executive producer was fired, but there’s still hope for Life on Mars (ABC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.; premieres October 9). It’s based on an acclaimed British drama about a cop who gets in a car accident and wakes up in the 1970s, and then has to deal with fighting crime in an outdated fashion while also trying to figure out what exactly happened to him. American remakes of foreign shows are a hit-or-miss proposition, but this one has a top-notch supporting cast (including Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol and Harvey Keitel) to back up its appealingly quirky premise, and may just break away from its early behind-the-scenes troubles.
Another high-concept show with just as much chance at success as failure is My Own Worst Enemy (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m.; premieres October 13), starring Christian Slater as a man with a split personality: Half the time he’s a ruthless secret agent, while the other half he’s a suburban dad. When his two sides start intermingling, things go a bit haywire. Creator Jason Smilovic has done smart thrillers as the creator of short-lived shows Kidnapped and Karen Sisco—but he’s no longer overseeing the show’s day-to-day operations, so Worst Enemy may not benefit much from his experience.
Almost good enough: The revamped version of 90210 (The CW, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) is every bit as hokey and contrived as the long-running original, which is both strangely refreshing in an era of deliberately shocking teen dramas and a little disappointing given the pedigree of executive producers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah (Freaks and Geeks, Life as We Know It). The nostalgia runs thick here, with guest appearances from original stars Jennie Garth, Shannen Doherty and Joe E. Tata, and callbacks to obscure bits of continuity from the previous series. It’s less a remake than a continuation, and that may be nice for fans still nursing fond memories of the old show, but it isn’t necessarily a positive sign for moving forward.
Simon Baker, who’s bounced around his share of doomed TV series, gets another crack at success with The Mentalist (CBS, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.; premieres September 23). It’s yet another crime procedural from CBS, although Baker gives the show a few above-average moments with his portrayal of a snarky, damaged detective who used to make a living as a sham psychic. If the show can deepen the angst and liven up the ho-hum mysteries, it might manage to distinguish itself.
Stay away: Unfortunately, most of this season’s new offerings, even the ones networks are willing to let critics take a look at, are pretty dire. There are unfunny comedies, including Jay Mohr as a divorced dad in Gary Unmarried (CBS, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.; premieres September 24), which manages to embrace every sitcom cliché imaginable; Do Not Disturb (Fox, Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.), a tired and shrill workplace comedy about hotel employees; and the startlingly horrible Worst Week (CBS, Mondays, 9:30 p.m.; premieres September 22), an aptly titled show about a bumbling moron trying to impress his fiancée’s parents. I barely managed to get through the pilot without hiding under my couch.
There’s the third in The CW’s trifecta of shows about pretty rich people, Privileged (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), which is not nearly as clever as Gossip Girl nor as warmly familiar as 90210. Instead, this show about the tutor to a pair of spoiled Palm Beach teens is annoyingly high-strung and strained, with an especially grating performance from star JoAnna Garcia. There’s the self-consciously wacky relationship dramedy The Ex List (CBS, Fridays, 9 p.m.; premieres October 3), which works so hard to make its protagonist likeably quirky that it ends up just seeming pathetic. And of course there’s the spectacularly dumb game show Hole in the Wall (Fox, Thursdays, 8 p.m.; premieres September 11), in which contestants attempt to, er, fit themselves through holes in moving walls. Shows like this are always more entertaining in their original foreign incarnations (in this case, Japanese), when they seem more like curious artifacts than things you’re supposed to actually pay attention to.
The new version of Knight Rider (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.; premieres September 24) wasn’t available to preview, but based on the response to the February TV movie that served as a backdoor pilot, it’s going to be a very bumpy ride.
Who knows: And then there’s pretty much everything else, which is left a mystery. Will the America’s Next Top Model spinoff Stylista (The CW, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.; premieres October 22) make people care as much about aspiring fashion writers as they do about aspiring models? Will Molly Shannon and Selma Blair wring humor out of the remake of Australian sitcom Kath & Kim (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.; premieres October 9)? Will a focus on cutting-edge science differentiate Eleventh Hour (CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m.; premieres October 9) from the rest of CBS’ crime procedurals? Will swashbuckling make a comeback in Crusoe (NBC, Fridays, 8 p.m.; premieres October 17), a new take on the Robinson Crusoe story? Will The CW regret farming its entire Sunday night out to production company Media Rights Capital and then neglecting to promote it? I’ll just have to tune in along with everyone else to find out.