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9 Q’s (and A’s) About the New TV Season

After the long, dry TV spell that was the summer (Mad Men, we don’t know what we have done without you), the annual fall boob-tube deluge has finally begun. Tonight five new shows and six returning shows will kick off; over the next two weeks, so will dozens more. To prepare, we’ve assembled answers to nine of the most pressing questions about the upcoming season: Can Glee and Modern Family continue to dominate? When will Parks and Recreation be back? Which fall show is most likely to be canceled? Click through the slideshow for answers to these, and more.

Last season delivered a heaping helping of really good network TV, from big hits like Glee and Modern Family to CBS’s unexpected drama delight The Good Wife and promising young comedies Community, Cougar Town, and The Middle. Family should only get bigger this fall, while we’re betting a summer of repeats on CBS will help Wife go from critical darling to unquestioned hit status. As for the trio of sitcoms, networks should remember that Modern Family is the exception: Most modern comedies take at least two years to really find their audience. Finally, there’s Glee: Some inevitable backlash against Ryan Murphy’s peppy entertainment began within months of the show’s mid-season return last spring, but while some of the concerns were valid — like the complaint that Mr. Schue should never rap, ever —attacking Glee at this point is like taking on Bieber Fever: futile. Plus, with American Idol likely to be even less about the contestants in the J.Lo-Tyler era, Glee now works best when you view it not as an Emmy-worthy masterpiece but as the best musical variety show on TV by a mile.
Since Tony Soprano arrived on HBO in 1999, cable television has been a haven for antiheroes. Stringer Bell, Dexter Morgan, Vic Mackey, Don Draper, and, as of last night, Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson are all morally ambiguous men capable of bad deeds who still can hold onto the audience’s sympathies. But that audience only has to be cable-size. Tonight, an antihero in the cable mode shows up on a network series: Lone Star’s Bob Allen (played by James Wolk) is a handsome Texas con man with two lives, one with a fiancéée, one with a wife: He wants to go straight, and, yet refuses to give up either. Will a mass audience tune-in to watch a charming, handsome, and likable liar and cheater? Or does an antihero on network TV inevitably have to transform into a plain old hero?
Probably not as long as you think. Benched to make room on Thursdays for the dreadful new Outsourced (even the NBC Universal–owned Television Without Pity called it both “unfunny” and “offensive on every possible level”), NBC promises the show will be back “mid-season,” which normally means January at the earliest or as late as March. But this assumes that Outsourced manages to quickly get traction with viewers, something we’re betting (okay, praying) doesn’t happen. Unless Outsourced proves to be a case of audience/critic disconnect (see Rules of Engagement, the movie Grown-Ups), expect the show to be gone by November. Another plus for Parks: Last week’s return of The Apprentice bombed on Thursday, and if ratings sink further when the Donald shifts to 10 p.m., NBC may have to scramble. One option could be resurrecting a considered-but-rejected plan to expand comedy into the last hour of prime time. Bottom line: Don’t give up on spending Thanksgiving in Pawnee just yet.
Coco could go the nostalgic route and ask John Goodman or Drew Barrymore, two of his first Late Night guests back in 1993, to return — it could be a symbolic gesture meant to hint at a return to O’Brien’s anything-can-happen early years. (Though perhaps he doesn’t want to remember his critically shunned and network-exec-disparaged early-early years.) Will Ferrell — who book-ended Conan’s first and last Tonight Shows, and whose new movie Megamind opens three days before O’Brien’s return — is also a logical bet. But both moves would probably seem forced. Instead, perhaps Conan could offer a hat tip to his rebirth as an Internet hero by asking Sarah Killen to be on his first show. In case you forgot, she’s the first (and only) person Coco followed when he signed on to Twitter earlier this year; this meeting of host and tweeter could remind fans of his stint as a populist pop-culture hero.
Most of the broadcast networks have been using Fridays as an I-give-up night of reality shows, newsmags, and scripted shows with scant hope of long-term survival, like Ugly Betty or Dollhouse. This year, the nets say they’re more serious about Fridays: ABC has said it’s slotting the Dana Delany drama Body of Proof there, while NBC has Big TV Star Jimmy Smits in the legal drama Outlaw, and Fox is transferring Human Target and The Good Guys to that night. But we’re still not buying the Friday-night hype. The lack of a premiere date for Proof indicates ABC might be thinking about keeping the show on reserve for use on another night of the week (or doesn’t think it’s strong enough to fight it out early in the fall). And Target and Guys failed to wow viewers when they aired earlier this year on higher-rated nights; it’s hard to see them doing much on Fridays. The most likely winner on Friday will be the one network that never abandoned the night: CBS. Faded former hits The Ghost Whisperer and Numbers have been dumped in favor of established success CSI: NY and well-reviewed newcomer Blue Bloods (starring Tom Selleck). Those shows should shine, but the prospects for Friday’s other fare remain dim.
In recent weeks, ABC has been doing its best impression of perennial punching bag NBC. The Alphabet’s head of entertainment (Steve McPherson), news (David Westin), and prime-time marketing (Mike Benson) have all exited (or announced their intention to do so). And while Detroit 1-8-7 has the makings of a sleeper hit, the conventional wisdom is that ABC had a bad development season and is unlikely to score any new hits this fall (even as stalwarts Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy slowly erode). NBC, meanwhile, should do a bit better this fall if only because its numbers are going to be compared to last fall’s Jay-pocalypse, which saw ratings plunge at 10 p.m. Still, the Peacock has an uncanny ability to foster backstage drama, and with Comcast expected to take over the network by year’s end, a wholesale executive shake-up is a very real possibility. Meanwhile, new ABC entertainment boss Paul Lee is by many accounts a very nice British guy with a good track record from his ABC Family days, all of which should give him something of a honeymoon, even if the network’s fall slate collapses. Sorry, NBC: You’re very likely to be Nikki Finke’s chew toy for at least a little while longer.
As popularized by the British Office and reality TV, the mockumentary format — with its characters talking directly to the camera — has become a sitcom staple (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family) used largely to deliver extra jokes without the pesky need to work them into conversation. This season, dramas are picking up the format. ABC’s No Ordinary Family and My Generation both use it — and watching the pilots, it feels like Family would have worked just as well without it, and My Generation seriously overuses the once-trendy, now-tired crutch. ABC’s Detroit 1-8-7, in comparison, was originally filmed as a faux-doc, but the network recut the first episode without the gimmick, thus forcing the writers to show us what kind of cops we’re dealing with, instead of telling us.
For the last few years, The Biggest Loser has been network TV’s acknowledgment that people who are not size 4s exist. But given that Loser is a weight-loss contest, its implicit message is: Being overweight is unhealthy. This week, Mike & Molly, a sitcom about a couple that meets in an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, takes a different tack. Yes, Mike and Molly both want to lose weight — they’re constantly dieting, and joking about their size — but they’re also large people who are likely to remain large, and are not defined exclusively by their size. (Though in the exposition-heavy episode, it’s hardly an incidental plot point.) After telling you to lose weight, your TV is now also telling you to try and accept yourself as you are…or, at least until Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition gets started.
Early cancellations aren’t solely about quality. With enough publicity, a network can keep a profoundly unfunny show alive for longer than it should be: CBS can afford to be patient with the ultrahyped Bleep My Dad Says. On the other hand, NBC’s Outlaw, with Jimmy Smits, hasn’t been overly publicized and is airing on the tough night of Friday (see slide No. 5): NBC could cancel it quietly, without losing much face. Other, less quiet, potential early cancellations include Outsourced (see slide No. 3), which has a strong backup waiting to step in, as well as ABC’s My Generation and Fox’s Running Wilde. ABC has heavily touted My Generation, but it’s a polarizing show in a tough, prime-time slot (Thursdays at 8), and ABC’s new management (see slide No. 6) may not believe in it as much as the old one that scheduled it did. And then there’s Will Arnett’s Running Wilde: While we hope this show is given the time to develop into the Arrested Development follow-up it should be, if the ratings are bad, Fox might kill it rather than have another underperforming show that some, but not enough, people love clogging up its schedule. That said, it did keep Arrested Development on the air for three low-rated years, so don’t underestimate the power of a small but fervent fan base.
9 Q’s (and A’s) About the New TV Season