Fall TV 2012: The best, the worst and a lot in between

Some strong shows at the top in 'Last Resort' and 'Nashville,' and then many question marks

<p>&quot;Last Resort,&quot;&nbsp;with Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman and Robert Patrick, as this critic's favorite fall pilot.</p>

"Last Resort," with Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman and Robert Patrick, as this critic's favorite fall pilot.

Credit: ABC

It's that time again, folks: fall TV is here.

Well, arguably, fall TV has been here since the summer, when NBC aired the pilots of "Go On" and "Animal Practice" during the Olympics. And it's definitely been here since Monday night, when NBC debuted "The New Normal." The broadcast network TV season doesn't officially begin until Monday, Sept. 24, but a lot of notable new and returning series (including "Parks and Recreation," "The Office," "Revolution" and "Mob Doctor") will have debuted before then, not to mention the return of cable shows like "Sons of Anarchy" or "Boardwalk Empire."

As always, this time of year is as busy as it gets for any TV critic. Lots of new shows to review — usually based only on a pilot episode that (as I said last year at this time) isn't likely to be representative of what follows — lots of returning favorites to get caught up on, Emmy predictions to make, rapid cancellations to report, etc. Within a few weeks, things will have settled down, as some shows will go away and others will prove not worth the time, but at first, it's a deep dive into choppy waters.

Also as always, I'm going to be making things up as I go during these early weeks. I'll be reviewing a lot of the new series in advance, but far from all of them. I'm going to do weekly episode reviews for a lot of shows, but other than the absolute gimmes ("Parks and Rec" and "Homeland," to name two), I'm not 100 percent sure what they'll be yet.

And as I said last year, you should never take my choice of what shows I do and don't review weekly as some kind of qualitative ranking. In some cases, the shows I pick are my favorites, while in others, they're just shows where I feel like I have something to say every week. There were a bunch of sitcoms last fall I liked a lot better than "How I Met Your Mother," but "HIMYM" gave me fodder that, say, the much funnier "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" didn't. This year, I have a feeling that "Treme" is something that will get brief write-ups at best each week, not because I didn't enjoy the season (I've seen all the episodes, and I liked them a lot), but because it's a show that really (especially this year) doesn't lend itself to episode-by-episode analysis.

So we'll see what happens. But in the meantime, let's run through all the new broadcast network offerings in brief, just to give you a sense of what I liked unreservedly, what I think has potential, what I know simply isn't for me and what I think you should just avoid at all costs. (And if you want a second opinion, there's a link to Dan's best/worst gallery below.) 

CREAM OF THE CROP

"Last Resort" (ABC, Sept. 27): Some years, I get a bunch of pilots that leave me desperate to see the next episode now now now now now. Some years, there aren't any. This year, I got one: this drama, co-created by Shawn Ryan ("The Shield," "Terriers," "The Unit," etc.) and Karl Gajdusek, starring Andre Braugher as the commander of a nuclear submarine who goes rogue after getting a shaky order to nuke Pakistan, and takes over a small Pacific island to hang out while figuring out his next move. It's a slick, exciting pilot, deliberately reminiscent of "Crimson Tide" and other classic sub dramas, it provides Braugher with a lot of great material to play (including the kind of monologues he's the best in the business at), and it doesn't feel like 57 other shows already on television. That may ultimately be a detriment — I interviewed Ryan about how he's going to keep generating story for the show — but as pilots go, it's splendid.

VERY GOOD

"Nashville" (ABC, Oct. 10): Mrs. Coach plays the Grand Ole Opry, y'all! Connie Britton plays an aging country star (read: Faith Hill) threatened by Hayden Panettiere as a pretty blonde upstart (read: Taylor Swift). Written by Oscar winner Callie Khouri ("Thelma & Louise"), "Nashville" is an unapologetic soap, but also a smart one, and one that offers a good taste of Nashville as both a community and the center of country music (T-Bone Burnett is working on the fake songs, and they sound good), and it has an excellent cast that also features Eric Close as Britton's husband, Powers Boothe (Cy Tolliver!) as her power broker father, Robert Wisdom (Bunny Colvin!) as a mayoral candidate and Charles Esten (Josh Porter!) as Britton's longtime bandleader. Assuming the pilot's not a fluke, "Nashville" becomes one of those shows where I'm in no way the target audience but will be watching every week.

PROMISING, BUT WE'LL SEE

"The Mindy Project" (FOX, Sept. 25): I find Mindy Kaling very charming as the familiar "great professionally, a mess personally" heroine of her own sitcom, and I liked what she told me about shifting away from the cliched love triangle in the pilot. That said, the writer who gave us the most hilarious "Office" episodes ever ("The Injury") here creates a pilot that's clever but only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. But there's a clear voice, some well-delineated characters (after Mindy herself, I quite like Chris Messina as her Springsteen-defending pre-ordained opposites attract love interest) and supporting actors I always enjoy (Stephen Tobolowsky, Anna Camp). Definitely my favorite comedy pilot, and lots of growth potential.

"Vegas" (CBS, Sept. 25): Much like combining Shawn Ryan, Andre Braugher and nuclear missiles, Dennis Quaid plus Michael Chiklis plus Las Vegas in the early '60s sounds like a winning formula for me. The "Vegas" pilot — with Quaid as real-life Vegas sheriff Ralph Lamb and Chiklis as a new wiseguy in town — is just okay, though, and feels much more like a traditional CBS procedural in period drag than it does a 21st "Crime Story." The producers say they want to aim for a middle ground between those two — to balance standalone cases with bigger arcs in the same way "The Good Wife" does — and if they can succeed, then those two stars and the setting will have me watching.

"Ben and Kate" (FOX, Sept. 25): Another one with a bunch of appealing people but not a ton of laughs. I like all three of Dakota Johnson (level-headed single mom), Nat Faxon (her goofball older brother) and Maggie Jones (her precocious daughter), and chuckled a time or two at Lucy Punch as Kate's best friend, but found the pilot just pleasant overall. We'll see.

"Elementary" (CBS, Sept. 27): Yes, CBS approached Steven Moffat about adapting "Sherlock" for the U.S. (he turned them down) before going with this take on Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) in the 21st century — and New York, and with Lucy Liu as a female Watson. No, it is not a shameless rip-off of what Moffat, Cumberbatch and Freeman are doing for the BBC. "Elementary" is your classic CBS procedural — many of which (notably the first "CSI" and "The Mentalist") already featured Holmes-esque detectives — buoyed by Miller's lead performance and his (the producers insist only platonic) chemistry with Liu. Not really my kind of thing — and the mystery in the pilot doesn't seem challenging enough for the world's smartest detective — but executed well enough that I can see coming back to it on occasion.

LESS PROMISING, BUT NOT WORTH WRITING OFF JUST YET

"Arrow" (CW, Oct. 10): Green Arrow gets the "Batman Begins" treatment courtesy of Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, in which the DC Comics hero's origin story is taken very, very seriously, and he's given both hardcore reason for vengeance and skills that go well beyond his trademark archery. I like Stephen Amell in the title role, and it's competent meat-and-potatoes TV superheroing, but it also feels like the show has stripped away most of what I find interesting about the character when his comics are at their best.

"Go On" (NBC, already premiered): I was lukewarm on the pilot and lukewarm on the second episode, and barring radical improvement in show three, my plan is to come back later in the season and see what it's become.

"Revolution" (NBC, already premiered): Mostly this drama — set 15 years in the future after all electricity on earth has mysteriously ceased to work — feels like a generic post-apocalyptic, mythology-obsessed goof featuring two strong performances by Giancarlo Esposito and Billy Burke. But those two are both quite good, and the assembled talent — "Supernatural" creator Eric Kripke, "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau and that J.J. Abrams guy — warrant at least a few more looks before definitively saying Not For Me.

"Animal Practice" (NBC, already premiered): Was the pilot too frantic? Yes. Did it lean much too heavily on Annie's Boobs for laughs? Yes. Did I mostly not care about the human characters? Yes. But such a weird show could find itself in time, and until it gets there... Annie's Boobs!

"Emily Owens M.D." (CW, Oct. 16): I enjoy watching Mamie Gummer act. I did not enjoy being beaten over the head with the message that for Emily Owens, adult life is exactly like high school. Could turn into an acceptable poor man's "Grey's Anatomy" at some point, but the pilot's not super-promising.

"Made In Jersey" (CBS, Sept. 28): This one — starring Janet Montgomery as a bridge-and-tunnel girl trying to make her mark as an associate at a ritzy New York law firm — is pretty close to going into the next category. Lots of watered-down "Erin Brockovich" riffs and off-key class warfare jokes (I felt embarrassed for Stephanie March as the snobby Manhattanite who has to insult Montgomery in every scene), but I do like Montgomery. 

MAYBE FOR OTHERS, BUT NOT FOR ME

"666 Park Avenue" (ABC, Sept. 30): This show about a cursed New York apartment building has been described as a clever ABC mash-up of the two shows leading into it: "Once Upon a Time" and "Revenge." But I don't watch either of those, and I can't see myself coming back for more than an additional episode of this cheese-fest, even with Terry O'Quinn from "Lost" as the Faustian landlord.

"Malibu Country" (ABC, Nov. 2): A corny, old-fashioned multi-camera comedy that feels closer to something on Disney Channel than even to its lead-in "Last Man Standing." But Reba and Lily Tomlin both have their charms, even if they have to work very, very hard to sell these weak jokes.

"Chicago Fire" (NBC, Oct. 10): Dick Wolf has had some success branching out from the "Law & Order" franchise ("New York Undercover," for instance), but not a lot, and this wooden, by-the-numbers show about sexy Chicago firemen and first responders (including Taylor Kinney and Jesse Spencer) doesn't seem to be in his comfort zone.

"The Mob Doctor" (FOX, already premiered): I liked "My Boys." I miss "My Boys." Jordana Spiro gets a whole lot of slack from me for being in "My Boys" — just not enough to watch a show that lives down to its goofy title in nearly every way. (Credit where it's due: I like William Forsythe as an aging wiseguy the mob doctor has to treat.)

"The New Normal" (NBC, already premiered): You already know I wasn't a fan of the pilot, and that I'm generally skeptical about a Ryan Murphy show's capacity for self-improvement. That said, there were a few encouraging signs in episode two, so perhaps I'll revisit this one the same time I check back in on "Go On."

NO. JUST NO.

"The Neighbors" (ABC, Sept. 26): I've got no problem with either dopey humor or high-concept comedies, but this show about a gated community populated by aliens in disguise isn't clever enough in its stupidity, nor enthusiastic enough, to work at all. Unless, that is, you think it's hilarious that all the aliens are named after famous athletes like Reggie Jackson, Dick Butkus and Jackie Joyner Kersee.

"Partners" (CBS, Sept. 24): David Krumholtz and Michael Urie star in a sitcom from, and based on the friendship of, "Will & Grace" creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick. I can only hope that Mutchnick in real life is less self-involved and irritating than the character Urie's been asked to play. I usually give the show that airs after "HIMYM" a few weeks just based on timeslot, but I don't especially want to spend another half-hour with that character.

"Guys with Kids" (NBC, already premiered): Hey, did you know that sometimes, men have to take care of their own kids? Isn't that just hilarious?!?!? Ugh. Several actors here deserve much better (as Fienberg and I said on a recent podcast, I'd love a well-written family sitcom starring Anthony Anderson and Tempestt Bledsoe), but this is just ill-conceived in addition to being unfunny.

"Beauty and the Beast" (CW, Oct. 11): That the eponymous beast in this remake of the '80s TV show with Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman is, in fact, incredibly hunky other than the scar on his cheek just illustrates the overall folly and misguidedness of this silly, stupid fantasy show.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Alan-sepinwall-sm
Alan Sepinwall
Sr. Editor, What's Alan Watching
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
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