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Fall TV: An Opinionated Primer

Expect the usual mediocre mix—and some promising exceptions

Illustration: GlueKit; Photos courtesy networks.

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People like to grumble about the state of television, and for good reason. Truly great shows are a rounding error in the qualitative calculus. For every Modern Family, there’s a torrent of programs like Cavemen and The Paul Reiser Show. Most shows are just stuck in the middle; while it consistently struggled to stay in the top 50, According to Jim managed to eke out an eight-season run on ABC.

The good news about the 2011-12 broadcast season is that it’ll be hard to be worse than the previous year’s, when the failure rate for new series was 77 percent and three were yanked before Columbus Day. At least a half-dozen new shows look particularly promising. As for the others, well, there’s no accounting for taste.

Monday
CBS goes schizoid with the female-powered 2 Broke Girls scheduled as lead-in to Two and a Half Men. Entertainment president Nina Tassler says the former, a Kat Dennings comedy, tested better than any pilot in CBS history, and the opener is solid. (Points off for the laugh track, however, which seems to be making an unwelcome return.)

The OC’s Rachel Bilson is a sassy New York doctor who moves to the sticks in the CW’s Hart of Dixie, which airs after the rickety Gossip Girl. On NBC, The Playboy Club—a Jiggle TV show that Gloria Steinem has called a “net minus” for the culture at large—has plot holes through which you could fly the Playboy Jet. Fox could crush the competition with Terra Nova, a sci-fi epic that marries apocalyptic dread and rampaging dinosaurs. Its $15 million budget is the most expensive since ABC’s Lost.

Tuesday
Although ABC’s lineup is particularly women-friendly, the network’s Tuesday night comedy block lolls in the backwaters of emasculating-wife jokes. Tim Allen, whose Home Improvement went dark 12 years ago, is back with Last Man Standing, and the pilot seems woefully anachronistic. Airing after is Man Up, 22 minutes of videogame and fart gags.

Fox stays true to the season’s defining motif with Zooey Deschanel in New Girl, a genuinely funny single-camera comedy that airs in the plum post-Glee slot. In a twist, The CW goes after a more sophisticated crowd of young women with Sarah Michelle Gellar in Ringer. A noir fantasy about addiction, murder, and decidedly un-Buffy sex, Ringer will likely get decent sampling.

Lastly, on CBS, Without a Trace’s Poppy Montgomery stars in Unforgettable at 10 p.m. She plays a cop with a rare condition that gives her the ability to remember everything she has ever experienced.

Wednesday
Simon Cowell’s new musical competition on Fox, The X Factor, was the most sought-after program in this year’s upfront. Advertisers are forking over as much as $400,000 for a 30-second spot—making it the most expensive newcomer in TV history. The smart money’s on full-year support, as corporate sponsors include Pepsi (which paid $60 million), Chevrolet, and Sony. Cowell’s return as a judge could outstrip American Idol’s season 10 average (24.8 million viewers).

Facing it down are new comedies, including NBC’s Will Arnett-Christina Applegate effort Up All Night, in which they’re given too little to do, and Hank Azaria’s workplace sex romp, Free Agents, about life on the other side of the relationship spectrum, where people are single and desperate. ABC’s Suburgatory is in limbo—literally and figuratively—between Modern Family and The Middle. And at 10 p.m. the network goes up against two ancient procedurals on NBC and CBS with Revenge, a 21st- century interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo starring Emily VanCamp. It’s a perfect panacea for the post-Madoff era, as VanCamp exacts retribution from some vile Hamptons swells.

Thursday
ABC reboots Charlie’s Angels, but their comely kick-assery may be short lived as it airs opposite The X Factor results show. Starring Annie Ilonzeh, Rachael Taylor, and Minka Kelly, it’s a bit “darker” than the original in that these crime fighters were once crooks. CBS’ bone-crunching, brain-melting Person of Interest, according to research firm Networked Insights, is one of the most anticipated new fall dramas, thanks in part to contributions from ex-Losties J.J. Abrams and Michael Emerson. The lone 9 p.m. entry with the potential to draw a male-skewing crowd, it airs after the fall’s third Paleolithic-man comedy, How to Be a Gentleman.

NBC’s lineup includes Whitney, created and co-produced by Whitney Cummings. A polarizing stand-up, Cummings can dole out the jokes, but a pedestrian script and a laugh track are a drag on the pilot. Although she’s no Helen Mirren, Maria Bello nails down a strong leading role in the remake of the BBC classic Prime Suspect, also on NBC. Still, given a subplot in which Bello must fight for the respect of her male colleagues, the pilot feels a bit musty. Thursday is supernatural night at the CW, which airs Kevin Williamson’s witchy teen-angst drama, The Secret Circle, after The Vampire Diaries.

Friday
There are only two new series in the works for Friday night, and that number could be slashed in half before the sun sets on October. NBC’s Grimm is strictly for the kiddies. After a homicide detective discovers that he’s actually a monster hunter descended from the Brothers Grimm, the titular hero engages in all sorts of ham-fisted genre frippery. And Friday night remains ghost-friendly as CBS follows up on its old Ghost Whisperer and Medium franchises with A Gifted Man, a weepy, I-see-dead-people drama starring Patrick Wilson as a surgeon with a God complex.

Saturday
The last time anyone watched scripted TV on a Saturday night, Captain Stubing was at the helm of the Pacific Princess. So, no, there are no new series airing on Saturday nights in the fall. Go out and make some friends, why don’t you?

Sunday
The season’s second paean to the joys of 1963, Pan Am boasts the swooping cinematography and luscious set design of a Martin Scorsese film. Sony Pictures TV spent some $10 million on the pilot, which stars Christina Ricci as a boho beatnik chick and international flight attendant. The show squares off with NBC’s Sunday Night Football and CBS’ pairing of The Good Wife and CSI: Miami, but if the pilot is anything to go by, here’s hoping ABC gives Pan Am some time to spread its wings. Earlier in the evening, another fairy tale procedural (ABC’s Once Upon a Time) must contend with the first quarter of NFL action and CBS’ Amazing Race. The show may get more sampling if it ditched the generic title for something more explicit, like Hansel and Gretel and Murder or The Tortoise and the Heroin Distribution Ring.