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Vulture’s Fall TV Preview: What to Watch and What to Flee From

The fall TV season begins next week, when the CW premieres its new shows, and continues on through the autumn. This season’s new offerings include reboots, Mad Men knockoffs, sitcoms about hip chicks, sitcoms about bitter middle-aged dudes, shows with dinosaurs, shows with airplanes, shows with dead people. Some are good, some are bad, some are middling, some will be swiftly canceled, and some will, with a bit of luck, become series you love. We here at Vulture have watched all the pilots and divided them into categories, keeping in mind that TV series often hit their stride a couple of episodes after their pilot. Those categories are: shows we’re unreservedly excited about; show’s we’re excited about, but with reservations; shows we’re nervous about; and shows for which we harbor no hopes at all. (Here’s looking at you, Last Man Standing.) Happy watching.

Related: Check out features on some of Fall’s biggest shows in NY Mag’s 2011 Fall Preview.

HomelandClaire Danes and Mandy Patinkin take turns out-intense-ing each other, she as a CIA agent who alone suspects a returning POW (Life’s Damian Lewis) of being a brainwashed terrorist, and he as her mentor. Their brows furrow, their frowns frown, the wheels whir in their conspiracy-busting brains! Danes is intriguing as a hyperdriven spook with a mess of an inner life, but the real star of the show is all that tension. (October 2, 10 p.m., Showtime)Up All NightChristina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph each have enough comedic credibility and experience to lead his or her own show, so together, they bring a naturalness and ease to the laid-back comedy about parenting and adulthood in general. Applegate is the new mom who’s conflicted about returning to work and Rudolph her nutty, self-centered boss, but the real treat is Arnett playing a non-douche stay-at-home dad. Night’s not reinventing the single-camera format, but there are worse places to settle than the sweet spot between Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. (September 14, 10 p.m., NBC)
The X FactorThe past season of American Idol was a total dud, and we needed neither Rizzoli nor Isles to deduct the cause: Without Simon Cowell’s brutal but exquisitely telegenic critiques, Idol became paralyzingly bland. X Factor, which tweaks the Idol format slightly by adding additional mentorship and expanding the pool of applicants, might as well be called Simon’s Back … and He Brought Nutty Paula. (September 21, 8 p.m., Fox)EnlightenedFollowing his 2007 Molly Shannon movie Year of the Dog, Mike White has created another complex portrait of a woman on the verge who is both sympathetic and off-puttingly obsessive. Amy Jellicoe (played by Laura Dern, who co-created the show with White) is a marketing exec who heads to a new age treatment center after suffering an office breakdown; she returns to proselytize about her new enlightenment, even as everything around her — her disapproving mom (Diane Ladd), lazy, drug-abusing ex-husband (a surprisingly poignant Luke Wilson), and demotion to a basement data-entry job among other can’t-be-fired misfits — strives to remind her that life sucks. Funny and uncomfortable, but, unlike most of today’s cringe comedy, very real. (October 10, 9:30 p.m., HBO)
Free AgentsA woman whose fiancé died and a man who still tears up at the thought of his recent divorce might not sound like the should-be couple every TV fan wants to root for. And yet Agents does just that, and it works. Based on the British show of the same name, the show captures both the record-scratch humor of post-relationship angst with the bouncy banter of workplace shenanigans. Kathryn Hahn and Hank Azaria have solid chemistry, and their rom-com will-they-won’t-they (and, spoiler, they will) feels earned, not contrived. (Sept. 14, 10:30 p.m., NBC)New GirlZooey Deschanel is an object of deeply held affection for a substantial percentage of Earth, so casting her as a dorky naif who gets cheated on has a major pitfall: It’s hard to buy her as someone unlucky in love. But New Girl plays up her character Jess’s credible silliness and lack of self-awareness, and it makes her borderline-patheticness both endearing and socially crippling. She sings herself little songs, quotes Lord of the Rings, and sobs inappropriately, and she just made three new guy friends who are all gently in love with her. (September 20, 9 p.m., Fox)
Prime SuspectHelen Mirren purists may never come around to an American adaptation of the British series, but the Maria Bello-starring police drama wears its influence lightly. Yes, it’s still the story of a tough female detective dealing with discrimination, but where the British version took a more cerebral approach to season long cases, the American version, overseen by Friday Night Lights’ Peter Berg, skews straight-up procedural, while being both grittier (Maria Bello gets beat up) and also more crowd pleasing (Maria Bello beats people up). (September 22, 9 p.m., NBC)Terra NovaThe Steven Spielberg–produced Terra Nova basically begins where Battlestar Galactica left off — an advanced society reeling from the apocalypse escapes by time-traveling hundreds of millions of years into the past. There, stuck in a jungle, the mysterious Lost-ian tricks start, but with dinosaurs instead of polar bears. It has an epic feel, looks beautiful, and zips along so energetically that the lack of character development hardly matters. Standout: the “stinger” dinos, who are this year’s raptors. (September 26, 8 p.m., FOX)
Pan AmABC’s sixties-set airline soap has got potential: great costumes, a light touch, Christina Ricci, a goofy spy subplot, and Kelli Garner, the best thing about ABC’s canceled My Generation, as the main sexy stew. The problem is that the pilot is all potential: It feels oddly anodyne, just a show about a bunch of similar-looking characters who aren’t unique in any particular way, walking around a world that Mad Men has already made familiar to us. The sudsy, fun feel makes us optimistic that it could jump a category once all the exposition is out of the way, but we’re not going to call it preemptively. (September 25, 10 p.m., ABC)American Horror StoryRyan Murphy’s shows always operate on their own bizarre level of reality, so it’s about time he ventured into the unreal realm of the supernatural with this haunted-house tale. AHS is wildly overplotted, borderline cray-cray, and illogical at its core — why would Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott stay in their new bespooked home past the pilot episode, let alone for an entire season? And yet, it’s all ridiculously watchable, and what else is like this on television? (October 5, 10 p.m., FX)
2 Broke GirlsOne of the better entries in the very dense Hip Single Girl Sitcom category, 2 Broke Girls co-stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs as a street-smart poor girl and less-street-smart formerly rich girl who waitress together at a Williamsburg diner. The leads (especially Dennings) are charismatic, and the pilot, written by Whitney Cummings (also of NBC’s Whitney) and Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King, has some good jokes and strong setup. But there’s also a lot of jarring ethnic humor and failed attempts at raunch. Fingers crossed it doesn’t go the lowest common denominator route of many a CBS sitcom. (September 19, 9:30 p.m., CBS)Hell on WheelsWhether good (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) or bad (The Killing), AMC shows are almost never boring. (Rubicon, you streak-breaker, you.) The net’s newest show, Hell on Wheels, is a historical drama set in Nebraska after the Civil War, while the transcontinental railroad is being built. Best case, it’s the new Deadwood; worst case, it’s an impenetrable Deadwood knockoff. If the pilot skews a bit more to the latter, the show arrives after some bad AMC PR stumbles, so we’ll be watching for the meta-narrative about the network if nothing else. (November 6, 10 p.m., AMC)
SuburgatoryJane Levy is Emma Stone 2.0, which makes her Lohan 3.0, and makes this riff on Spunky Rebel Takes On Bullshit Social Conventions of New High School even more reminiscent of Mean Girls than it needs to be. Levy plays an indie-chick Manhattanite who gets unhappily transplanted to a posh and plastic New York suburb, courtesy of a protective single dad (Jeremy Sisto). Cheryl Hines is wasted as a dumb but perfectly coifed neighbor who’s inexplicably Southern, but Levy’s a total find, and tossed-off lines like “What are you cooking? It smells like Passover in here!” point to real potential. (September 28, 8:30 p.m., ABC)The Secret CircleIf The Vampire Diaries is your thing, Secret Circle — Vampire Diaries with witches — may be, too. It doesn’t have quite as many hunky boys, but it’s also being overseen by TVD’s Kevin Williamson and has got its YA source material to fall back on. If Vampire Diaries isn’t your thing, then back gingerly away. (September 15, 9 p.m., CW)
RingerSarah Michelle Gellar plays identical twins: one a former stripper on the run, one an Upper East Sider with secrets of her own. After the former takes over the latter’s identity — there’s a lot of plot here! — the show settles into a soapy, if semi-serious mix of secret identities, clandestine affairs, and occasional action sequences. It’s unclear whether this will all amount to anything other than plot, but for Buffy, we’re willing to find out. (September 13, 9 p.m., CW) A Gifted ManPatrick Wilson is a curmudgeonly doctor who gets less curmudgeonly when he starts being visited by the ghost of his dead wife, played by Jennifer Ehle. There’s a nice helping of the supernatural alongside some procedural elements, and a focus on character, which is rare in procedurals. Jonathan Demme directed the pilot, and the whole thing comes together much more appealingly than you might expect, if, admittedly, it’s still all a bit goofily hocus-pocus. (September 23, 8 p.m., CBS)
BossBoss stars Kelsey Grammer as the terminally ill, Daley-esque mayor of the Windy City, though his sickness pales in comparison to the corruption plaguing his city and his administration. The show’s production values are unimpeachable, and Grammer nails the politician-style bluster that serves as a cover for emotional instability, but the show could go a lot easier on its grandiose posturing. (October 21, 10 p.m., Starz)RevengeA dead serious melodrama set in the Hamptons and based on the Count of Monte Cristo, Revenge stars Emily Van Camp (Everwood, Brothers & Sisters) as a woman whose father was wronged, and the un-aging Madeline Stowe (seriously, she and Demi Moore should have an non-age-off) as her nemesis. This is a captivating soap with no winks, no nods, just mood and plot, and we mean that as a compliment. (September 21, 10 p.m., ABC)
Persons of InterestBen Linus and Jesus — Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel — team up in what could be a show rich in mythology, but instead seems to be just a dull procedural by Bad Robot. Emerson plays a millionaire with a computer program that spits out a Person of Interest (someone involved in something bad, but whether as victim or perpetrator is unclear, as is the crime itself); Caviezel is the bland former special agent deputized to investigate each case. Unless there’s a bigger picture, even Ben’s — sorry, Michael Emerson’s! — spectacular line delivery can’t make this interesting. (September 22, 9 p.m., CBS)UnforgettableA perfectly well-executed procedural that could have been created by committee or Mad Libs. A woman (Poppy Montgomery) with a special talent/curse — in this case the ability to remember everything/inability to forget anything  — solves crimes, while being haunted by the one thing she can’t remember, the night of her sister’s murder. If this is the kind of thing you like, this will do. (September 20, 10 p.m., CBS) Photo: Barbara Nitke/?2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved
Once Upon a TimeIn the small town of Storybrooke, Maine, the inhabitants are the regular-world alter egos of fairy-tale characters: The evil queen is a mean mayor, Snow White is a kindly elementary school teacher, etc. The worlds are separate, but occasionally permeable, and now the baby who escaped massacre on the fairy-tale side of the universe has reluctantly and accidentally found herself in Storybrooke, fulfilling some kind of prophecy. Once was created by two former Lost writers who should know better than anyone that concept might sell a show, but character is what keeps it going. If the show can focus on personalities with compelling wants and needs, and not just the tropes of fairy-tale romance, there could be something here. (October 23, 8 p.m., ABC)​GrimmFairy-tales-are-real effort #2 is a Law and Order with fairytale crimes. This mash-up should be a gimme, but Grimm doesn’t get enough mileage out of either concept: Its fantasy elements are clumsy and not particularly fantastic, and its crime of the week, while deeply creepy, doesn’t distinguish itself from other outlandish procedurals. The concept behind the show is reliable if a little silly, but the execution needs to catch up. (Oct. 21, 9 p.m., NBC)
How to Be a GentlemanWe’re grading on a curve here because this CBS comedy isn’t as offensive as the season’s other bitter man sitcoms, Last Man Standing and mid-season’s Work It. Kevin Dillon co-stars as a gym-rat slob who teaches a prissy dandy (show creator David Hornsby) how to be a real man, and doesn’t seem to learn much about being a gentleman in exchange. What marginally elevates Gentleman is the cast — Dave Foley is Hornsby’s beaten-down boss — and the fact that one of the leads is not a brutish misogynist, even if he aspires to be one. (September 29, 8:30 p.m., CBS)Man Up!Man Up tries in its own ham-fisted way to confront the apparent identity crisis American men — straight, rich American men, of course — face on account of their self-perceived wimpiness. How can Craig teach his teenage son how to be a man when Craig and his video-game-loving friends themselves don’t really know how? What the comparatively harmless show fails to acknowledge, though, is that manliness as a virtue isn’t about machismo or physical strength. It’s about maturity. Man Up should worry less about trying to define the difference between men and women and more about the difference between men and boys. (October 18, 8:30 p.m., ABC)
The Playboy ClubNBC’s The Playboy Club, set in early sixties Chicago at Hef’s nightclub, wants to be Mad Men so badly, it’s cribbed everything it can, from the Don Draper–ish leading man (played by the too-sleazy Eddie Cibrian) down to casting the very same actress (Naturi Naughton) who played an African-American bunny on Mad Men to play one here. But copying tics won’t make your show any good. Playboy Club is a cut-rate copy with the bogus premise that women who were Playboy bunnies were the freest women in all the world. All that plus a ridiculous murder mystery plot. (September 19, 10 p.m., NBC)Last Man StandingTim Allen’s new sitcom about a dad perplexed by his wife and daughters isn’t just dated by its multi-camera format and its “hurf durf what is this Internet you speak of” subplots: Its strenuous misogyny and completely casual homophobia were past their expiration date 25 years ago. Standing is completely out of step with ABC’s relatively progressive fare like Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family, and what’s worse is that it’s positioned as a family show, even though its lead character seems to bounce between barely knowing his family and completely loathing them. (October 11, 8 p.m., ABC) Photo: Randy Holmes/? 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
WhitneyWhitney Cummings has two sitcoms on the air this year: She might have considered putting her name on the good one. But instead of 2 Broke Whitneys, there is her eponymous comedy, which egregiously landed the plum spot on NBC’s Thursday night lineup but belongs there even less than Outsourced did. The laugh track seems to enjoy the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus jokes (some of which could fit right in on Tim Allen’s new sitcom), but you won’t. (September 22, 9:30 p.m., NBC)I Hate My Teenage DaughterIt’s hard not to hate everyone on this blaring sitcom, from the two mean teens to their incompetent caricatures of needy moms (Jamie Pressly and Katie Finneran) to their noncustodial yet still jerky dads. It doesn’t have to all be Ozzie and Harriet stuff, but the amount of vitriol these characters feel for each other screams “get some family therapy before it’s too late” and not “ha-ha, families, they’re so hilarious.” (November 30, 9:30 p.m., Fox)
Charlie’s AngelsThe reboot of the 1976 series is an empty-headed procedural with a totally bogus girl-power message that’s trifling, but not trifling enough to be a campy good time. And between the three angels — Minka Kelly, Rachael Taylor, and Annie Ilonzeh — there’s not even one good Farrah do. (September 22, 8 p.m., ABC)Allen GregoryJonah Hill voices the titular Gregory, an ultraprecocious 7-year-old who has to start attending regular school, and the show should play out like a Judd Apatow stab at writing Stewie from Family Guy. Instead, though, it’s disappointingly derivative, pulling from every Adult Swim show, Archer, any number of Comedy Central series, and of course The Simpsons, but diluting their influence so much even its commitment to absurdity feels like an imitation. (October 30, 8:30 p.m., Fox)Hart of DixieRachel Bilson plays a, ahem, doctor who returns home to the South in this CW series, that stretches credulity at every turn. We like Rachel Bilson, but she is not a doctor! And this series was only sort of bearable when it was a two-hour movie called Sweet Home Alabama or Doc Hollywood. (September 26, 9 p.m., CW)
Vulture’s Fall TV Preview: What to Watch and What to Flee From