There are no network pilots this season with the wow factor of the opening episodes of shows like Lost or Friday Night Lights, but there’s enough potential in a handful of shows to be worth sticking with to see what develops. The most intriguing drama pilots are two high-concept genre series, which are always risky propositions (hello, FlashForward) but can turn out to be exhilarating. Former Lost writer-producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are behind Once Upon a Time (ABC, Sundays, 8 p.m., premieres October 23), one of two new shows this year that deal with fairy-tale characters invading the real world. Time is the more creative and whimsical of the two, with a structure that switches back and forth between the fairy-tale world and the modern setting, where characters are imprisoned in a small Maine town with no awareness of their magical nature. The pilot sets up a detailed mythology, and Kitsis and Horowitz may or may not be able to sustain that excitement over time. But as a first episode, it does a very good job of making you want to see more.
Similarly laying out a detailed mythology and raising a lot of questions is the expansive sci-fi drama Terra Nova (Fox, Mondays, 8 p.m., premieres September 26). With Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and one of the biggest TV budgets in history, Terra Nova is a high-profile gamble for Fox, and the well-crafted pilot lives up to expectations, even if it doesn’t do much to stretch beyond its well-worn sci-fi elements. Star Trek veteran Brannon Braga brings a familiar vibe to the show about citizens of a dystopian, environmentally ravaged future who flee back to the Cretaceous era to start a new civilization. The concept allows for both an alien landscape (complete with a mix of historically accurate and made-up dinosaur species) and a recognizable core of human relationships and institutions. While the elaborate sets and special effects are certainly impressive and give the show an epic scope, the mysteries are equally intriguing, and the focus on a single, newly arrived family allows the show to remain grounded in genuine emotions.
Along with fairy tales, swanky early-1960s period pieces are hot this season, and of the two shows looking to steal a little of Mad Men’s thunder, the glossy Pan Am (ABC, Sundays, 10 p.m, premieres September 25) is much more successful, although it’s still breezy and insubstantial in comparison to AMC’s acclaimed drama. Pan Am follows the jet-setting lives of stewardesses on the once-glorious airline, with a mix of relationship drama and caper-movie intrigue. A subplot involving one of the stewardesses working undercover for the CIA is kind of ridiculous, but the rest of the show is entertaining, stylish fun.
This year’s new crime procedurals are almost all built on some sort of gimmick, but the best is the one that has no need for distracting theatrics. Based on a British series that starred Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect (NBC, Thursdays, 10 p.m., premieres September 22) is a meat-and-potatoes cop show driven by an excellent lead performance from Maria Bello as a New York City homicide detective who faces an impenetrable boys-club atmosphere in her department almost as daunting as the murderers she tracks down. The cases are standard-issue, but Bello’s performance and the balanced look at the main character’s work and home life promise a show that won’t need outlandish plotting to remain compelling.
On the comedy front, the best new shows are led by acerbic young women, including the teenage outcast played by Jane Levy in Suburgatory (ABC, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., premieres September 28) and the surly Brooklyn waitress played by Kat Dennings in 2 Broke Girls (CBS, Mondays, 8:30 p.m., premieres September 19). Suburgatory takes a fresh approach to the tired idea of suburban conformity, with Levy’s Tessa being forcefully relocated from New York City by her protective dad (Jeremy Sisto). Levy’s narration is clever and honest, and the show’s world of cul-de-sacs and tract homes is depicted as horrifyingly hilarious.
The plastic suburban teen girls on Suburgatory are a variation on Beth Behrs’ heiress and socialite Caroline Channing on 2 Broke Girls, who loses her fortune and finds herself rooming and working with Dennings’ cynical hipster. Surprisingly raunchy and sarcastic for CBS, Girls is a sometimes awkward cross between vulgar nastiness and traditional sitcom heart, and those elements may be tough to balance over time. But the jokes are funny, the lead actresses are strong, and the concept is simple but durable. That’s a recipe for long-term sitcom success.
Wait and see
There are a couple of other decent sitcoms on tap for this season, a nice change of pace from the comedy drought of the last few years. New Girl (Fox, Tuesdays, 9 p.m., premieres September 20) is the sunny, optimistic counterpoint to the snark of 2 Broke Girls, with Zooey Deschanel as a gawky, goofy girl who moves in with three male roommates in New York City. Deschanel’s Jess is probably a little too quirky, and the roommates seem a little interchangeable, but the actress’ charms go a long way toward alleviating those issues.
Free Agents (NBC, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., premieres September 14) is also surprisingly endearing and funny, although its premise, with Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn as a pair of newly single coworkers who fall into bed together, seems inherently limited. But the show does a good job putting together a pool of amusing supporting characters, so that when the central will-they/won’t-they romance loses steam, there might still be a funny show left over.
Of this season’s various gimmicky procedurals, Person of Interest (CBS, Thursdays, 9 p.m., premieres September 22) has the best pedigree, even if its opening episode isn’t that impressive. Created by screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) and produced by J.J. Abrams, it features Lost’s Michael Emerson as a mysterious tycoon with a machine that predicts which people will be involved in future crimes, and Jim Caviezel as his investigator/enforcer. The actual case in the pilot is unremarkable, but the hints at a larger mythology could broaden the scope of the storytelling down the road.
Soapy twists abound in two thrillers about rich people with secrets, Ringer (The CW, Tuesdays, 9 p.m., premieres September 13) and Revenge (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m, premieres September 21), and both are a little silly but also juicy and well-acted. Ringer features Sarah Michelle Gellar as twin sisters who are both trying to outrun troubled pasts (one by taking over the other’s identity), and Revenge has Emily VanCamp as the daughter of a wronged man seeking vengeance on his behalf. These sorts of shows can exhaust their narrative possibilities quickly, but they can also head off into lurid, unexpected directions that deliver pulpy guilty pleasures.
The inferior versions of some of this season’s better shows serve mainly to highlight the strengths of their more successful counterparts. The Playboy Club (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m., premieres September 19) tries too hard to add thrilling complications (in the form of murder and mob ties) to its 1960s period exploration of an iconic brand, and lacks Pan Am’s charm. Grimm (NBC, Fridays, 9 p.m., premieres October 21) makes fairy-tale characters into dull adversaries for its even duller cop protagonist, proving a lesser version of both the fantasy of Once Upon a Time and the crime-solving of Prime Suspect. And the detective with the perfect memory on Unforgettable (CBS, Tuesdays, 10 p.m., premieres September 20) is well realized by star Poppy Montgomery but very hard to take seriously. The hokey gimmick tanks the show by dominating every step of the already uninspired murder investigation.
Other shows just lack the spark to rise above mediocrity: The remake of Charlie’s Angels (ABC, Thursdays, 8 p.m., premieres September 22) is a little grim for what should be a lighthearted adventure show, and its three stars lack the charisma of previous Angels, both on TV and in movies. The medical drama A Gifted Man (CBS, Fridays, 8 p.m., premieres September 23) wants to be a meaningful exploration of faith and reason, but its silly premise (with Patrick Wilson as an arrogant doctor prodded by his ex-wife’s ghost into helping the unfortunate) undermines the self-importance. It’s House meets Touched by an Angel, and it’s just as lame as that sounds. Fans of The Vampire Diaries might be pleased to see the very similar The Secret Circle (The CW, Thursdays, 9 p.m., premieres September 15), which comes from the same creative team. Just substituting witches for vampires and inserting them into a bland teen drama, however, isn’t enough to carry a whole new show (although lead actress Britt Robertson is charming).
In the case of the ill-advised sitcom trend advocating some sort of return to manliness, the harmless How to Be a Gentleman (CBS, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., premieres September 29) actually comes off better than its cruder peers, but it still wastes a whole cast of offbeat comedy talents (David Hornsby, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Dave Foley, Rhys Darby) on tired shtick and labored setups, involving an effete magazine writer getting in touch with his masculine side. Only Darby comes out of it with any of his unique appeal intact.
Brighter talents are also wasted in the lackluster Up All Night (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m., premieres September 14), with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as a pair of harried new parents, and Whitney (NBC, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m., premieres September 22), which takes brash stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings and strands her in the middle of an obnoxious, worn-out sitcom that feels like it escaped from 1996. Night is being retooled from its pilot, with an expanded role for co-star Maya Rudolph, so it may find a funnier groove by the time it airs, although its perspective on parenthood isn’t likely to get any more amusing.
Stay far away
The worst new drama of the season is the saccharine, painfully contrived Hart of Dixie (The CW, Mondays, 9 p.m., premieres September 26), which features a woefully miscast Rachel Bilson as a big-city doctor who moves to Alabama’s most disgustingly quaint small town. It piles on the manufactured quirks and lame, obvious plot twists, managing to make both the heroine and all of her nemeses completely annoying and unlikable.
The forgettable inoffensiveness of How to Be a Gentleman is genius compared to the other two new sitcoms about recapturing masculinity in the modern age: Last Man Standing (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m., premieres October 11), starring Tim Allen, and Man Up! (ABC, Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., premieres October 18) both revel in reductive gender stereotypes and borderline homophobia, belittling both their male and female characters (not to mention the suffering audience) in the process.
And finally, saving the worst for last: I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Fox, Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m., premieres November 30) is this season’s bottom of the barrel, a shrill, ugly sitcom about two insecure divorced mothers (Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran) whose teenage daughters are exactly the kind of bitchy popular girls they themselves were tormented by in high school. It’s a whole cast of unpleasant, mean people doing unpleasant, mean things to each other in the loudest, unfunniest way possible. As many future reviewers are bound to say: I hate this show.