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Stay Tuned ... Or Not

The Washington Post

Well, America, you finally did it: You've freaked out the networks so completely with your haphazard and fickle viewing choices, with your love for reality shows and your customized viewing habits that they are unrolling a mere couple dozen new scripted TV shows this season (instead of the usual four dozen or more).

Your critics have only one thing to say to that: Thanks.

Because of the new manageability of the fall season, television reporters Tom Shales (T.S.) and Hank Stuever (H.S.) of Yhe Washington Post were able to throw together a darn-near complete capsule guide to this fall's offerings from the broadcast networks and some cable channels, too, ordered from Pretty Great to the Merely Meh to the New Dreck. The 'Sight Unseen' category is essentially a "shrug" — meaning a finished pilot was unavailable for screening before this paper went to press.

When it comes to fall and new television shows, you know the drill: Don't watch any of it until your friends and co-workers force you to, or until the sweet praise of the critics draws you in. Make those networks sweat.

"Cougar Town"

(Sept. 23, ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30)

Courteney Cox plays single mom and real-estate agent Jules Cobb, living in a cookie-cutter suburb of Cougar Town, Fla., obsessed with "bingo wings" arm flab and her dry sex life. This ferociously smart comedy seems a tad late to the "cougar" trend, but make room for it.

Easily the bawdiest thing on the networks' fall lineup (has an oral-sex scene ever made it this far on broadcast?), "Cougar Town" deserves to become thinking person's trash, as it moves along at that supersonic Tina Fey-inspired editing speed.There's a huge supporting cast — neighbors, an ex-husband, a rival real-estate agent, a smirking Lothario across the cul-de-sac — and they're all good, especially Dan Byrd as Jules's perpetually mortified teenage son. This is Cox's best gig since the end of "Friends" and she attacks the material at full tooth-and-nail. (H.S.)

(Sept. 9, Fox, Wednesdays at 9)

I never stopped smiling while watching the first few episodes of this pitch-perfect comedy, which finds that elusive sweet spot between snark and heart. It's a hilarious homage to everything from "Square Pegs" to "Heathers" to "Hairspray" to "Election" to "American Pie" to "Bring It On" to the oeuvre of the late John Hughes.

Charmingly earnest teacher Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) works to revive McKinley High School's derelict glee club with a ragtag group of outcasts — among them the Aretha-wannabe, the gothy loner, the overachieving drama club diva, the wheelchair kid, a Beyonce-worshiping gay boy and a good-hearted football jock who, goshdarnit, loves to sing. Conniving cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (the ultra-wry Jane Lynch) is the villain here, working to snuff out glee club and subsume its small piece of the school budget. It's been a long time since high school looked this fun. (H.S.)

(Sept. 30, ABC, Wednesday at 8:30)

"The Middle" is an odd title for a smart and funny sitcom starring Patricia Heaton — Emmy-winner for "Everybody Loves Raymond" — as Frankie Heck, American wife and mother doing a balancing act in the little town of Orson (after Welles or Bean?), Ind., and updating the mom image as it exists in the sitcom sphere. Heaton is splendid as Heck, with a high-profile supporting cast, including Chris Kattan as a co-worker at a car dealership where Frankie picks up some extra dough; and Brian Doyle-Murray, as her boss. Sort of a cross between Erma Bombeck, Donna Reed and "Thelma and Louise," and a triumph for Heaton. (T.S.)

(Sept. 22, CBS, Tuesdays at 10)

Everything feels exactly right in this drama, to an almost clinical degree, especially Julianna Margulies' tough-but-wounded portrayal of Alicia Florrick. We meet Alicia at the lowest point of her life and marriage — as the clenched, stoic-but-catatonic, by-his-side-at-the-shocking-news-conference wife of a disgraced Chicago politico (Chris Noth). After hubby is caught in an affair and sent to jail on related conspiracy and bribery charges, what happens now to the poor, devoted wife?

In Florrick's case, she returns to work as a junior-level lawyer at a big firm, where various supporting cast members (including Christine Baranski as the cruel mentor and Josh Charles as a supportive chum from law school) treat her with skeptical curiosity. (H.S)

(Sept. 23, ABC, Wednesdays at 9)

Hilarious and surprisingly good-natured, this new pseudo-documentary romp tells the interlocking stories of three couples, of which there are so many that you could say they have "issue issues."

For middle-aged Jay, played by "Married ... With Children" vet Ed O'Neill, there's an age issue — not his but that of his much-younger wife, to whom he's been married for six months and with whom he's having trouble keeping up. He's terribly insulted when, having accidentally blended in with a crowd of marauding senior citizens, he's mistaken for a "mall walker." Phil and Claire, meanwhile, have been married for 16 years and Phil's desperately trying to be "a cool father" to his teenagers, peppering his conversation with e-mail shorthand and "Just keep it real." And there's a gay couple who've adopted a baby from Vietnam and yearn to be accepted as regular folks-next-door.

They're all bound together in a clever, intriguing way in the long run. And a long run is just what they deserve. (T.S.)

"Accidentally on Purpose"

(Sept. 21, CBS, Mondays at 8:30)

This show should fit so snugly into the CBS Monday-night comedy lineup that some viewers won't realize it's new — both good news and bad.

Jenna Elfman, whose "Dharma & Greg" went bye-bye in 2002, returns to sitcoms as a perky-kooky San Francisco film critic named Billie, whose carefree single life goes blooey when she absent-mindedly gets pregnant by her boyfriend, Zack (Jon Foster). Obviously having a baby shouldn't be done absent-mindedly, and Billie will have to stop being indecisive (and answering questions with "abso-maybe") and turn into a grown-up.

"Accidentally" is a slickly competent piece of work made by people who know what they're doing — but who fail to prove conclusively that it needs to be done. (T.S.)

(Sept. 17, NBC, Thursdays at 9:30)

As the nastily funny host of E!'s "The Soup," Joel McHale has certainly earned a chance to become a network sitcom star, if that's what he wants. But other than money or fame, why would he want that? Here he plays Jeff, a proudly conniving lawyer who has to enroll at Greendale Community College after his diploma-mill bachelor's degree is rendered worthless by the state bar.

The first day of classes finds Jeff working to simultaneously subvert the whole process (by stealing exams for the semester) and making passes at a woman (Gillian Jacobs) in his Spanish class. It all leads to a study group in the library populated by the ne'er-do-wells who flesh out "Community's" cast: Chevy Chase is here, as a strange-old-man version of Chevy Chase. Danny Pudi plays Abed, whose talkative nerdiness is explained by Asperger's syndrome jokes. The dialogue, while quick, has all the calculated bite of a smirky cellphone commercial. The grading scale here is strictly Pass/Fail. Its preseason hype aside, "Community" needs to buckle down to survive the semester. (H.S.)

(Nov. 3, ABC, Tuesdays at 8)

The cheesy 1980s sci-fi series is back, having been put through the "Lost" and "24" recombobulator machine, with intriguing results: a taut, steely, action-packed pilot episode, in which enormous alien ships arrive and hover menacingly over the world's 29 largest cities. But everyone remain calm! The aliens — call them "the visitors" — are nice, good-looking and promote a media-friendly message of hope, interstellar cultural exchange and (uh-oh) ... universal health care? The Obamanation parallels — intentional or otherwise — are sure to gin up lots of ire and will have some viewers checking to see if Karl Rove is on the writing team.

This is actually a good thing, if "V" follows through on this intriguing counterintuitive vibe. The excellent Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet from "Lost") stars as an FBI counterterrorism agent who is among the first to sense that the aliens are not at all what they seem. The series is thus built around the brave, paranoid few who will form a patriotic rebellion. Look for them all at the aliens' next town hall meeting. (H.S.)

(Oct. 5, Lifetime, Tuesdays at 10)

"The View" co-host and comedian Sherri Shepherd adds a vanity-persona sitcom to her day job; she plays a single mom who works as a paralegal in between TV acting gigs. Pilot centers on her anger at her ex, who had an affair with a "Quiz-ho," which in Sherri-speak is a strumpet who works at the Quiznos sandwich shop. There are a few easy laughs here and that sort of ultimately debasing "single lady" humor — as with all sitcoms now, she ends up with her friends in a meat-market nightclub. It's "ooh, girrrrrl" in extremis. (H.S.)

(Sept. 20, HBO, Sundays at 9:30 p.m.)

Frustrated Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is dumped by his girlfriend, starts reading lots of Raymond Chandler, smokes a lot of pot and drinks white wine and then seeks diversion by billing himself as a private detective for hire on Craigslist, where he imagines a more suave life for himself in noir undertones. As he bumbles through his first case (a woman is looking for her missing sister), the result is a mildly alluring dark comedy. Schwartzman is difficult to like, but he always has been. The show is lifted greatly by "The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis as Jonathan's strange friend, Ray, a comic-book artist with a complementary set of his own strange-but-cute neuroses.

As with anything that features Brooklyn ennui and a guy with a retro-Sonny Bono haircut, viewers should keep their hipster meters on to detect any dangerous levels of coy bemusement. (H.S.)

(Sept. 23, NBC, Wednesdays at 8)

A slickly feverish medical drama from NBC may have been upstaged by Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" with Edie Falco (introduced in early summer), but after 60 years of TV doctor shows, there's certainly room for more than one nurse in that great mythic health-care system of the airwaves.

As Veronica Callahan, a formidable force of nature toughened up by a tour in Iraq, Taylor Schilling makes a strong impression right off the bat. "I'm a nurse," she huffs to the head of the hospital, "who knows more than all your little residents combined." Like Nurse Jackie, Nurse Veronica is married though having an affair at the hospital, but she's less cynical and more forgiving. Looking for a show to stave off "ER" withdrawal? Have "Mercy." (T.S.)

(Sept. 25, Fox, Fridays at 8)

Fizzy but unremarkable sitcom about a black family living in suburban Houston luxury, thanks to the oldest son's football career. But now that he's retired, and apparently lost his money to a shady accountant, Mike Trainor (Michael Strahan) has moved back home, where his wheelchair-bound brother, Chill (Daryl Mitchell), is a bundle of resentments and laughtastic trash-talk. The parents (Carl Weathers and CCH Pounder) give as much lip as they get, as the family must now figure out how to make it all work. The pilot features a number of one-liners and insults, and there's no crisis going on here that 22 minutes of by-the-book sitcomming can't solve. (H.S.)

(Sept. 28, NBC, Mondays at 9)

NBC whistles for the paramedics again, only now they're called EMT guys and are much better equipped in this proficient and prodigious new heart-stopper, which features bombastic special effects (at least in the pilot) and deeper-than-usual characterizations. As a risk-taking hotshot nicknamed Rabbit, Cliff Curtis could prove to be — dare we say it? — a Randolph Mantooth for Our Time (remember "Emergency"?). "Whatever you've heard about me, I'm cool," Rabbit tells a curvy nursie, even as choppers collide, cars crash and buildings explode around him! (T.S.)

(Sept. 24, ABC, Thursdays at 8)

ABC, the starry-eyed network that brought us "Lost," "Life on Mars" and "Pushing Daisies" — among many another other-worldly weirdees — trots out a new one, replete with super-spectacular special effects and scripts full of unsettlingly ominous portents.

"FF" conjures a catastrophic moment when everybody on our fair planet blacks out for a few minutes, in unison, and then snaps out of it with a shudder, fires a-burnin' and wheels a-turnin'. But who, what, where, why?

Scientists and journalists investigating make one scary discovery in the first episode: screening security footage from a baseball game, they notice that everybody at the game conked out — except for one mysterious figure who peeped and darted among the spectators. Who, what, where — oh, we asked those already. Still, it's bound to be talked about on the morning after. (T.S.)

(Sept. 23, ABC, Wednesdays at 10)

Ostensibly based on the John Updike "Eastwick" novels — one of which already begat a so-so movie with Jack Nicholson — but 10 minutes into this sardonic drama, it's clear that ABC executives wanted, and got, something more along the lines of "Desperate Witches." In tone, characters, narration and even musical score, the show resembles "Desperate Housewives" a tad too much, especially since "Housewives" has become preeningly self-referential as it is.

"Eastwick" does have a comely trio of lovable happy harpies: Jaime Ray Newman as Kat, Lindsay Price as Joanna and Rebecca Romijn as Roxie, with the nearly immortal Veronica Cartwright as a witch-wise friend of theirs named Bun. Together they make the most of the show's dark-comic shenanigans and coyly irreverent antics. (T.S.)

(Oct. 4, CBS, Sundays at 9)

After a tepid pilot episode was sent to critics, CBS announced that Alfre Woodard will be joining the cast, replacing Julia Ormond, who now never existed. Though slick, the original pilot for "Three Rivers" had only one message to impart, over and over, as befits the paranoia that coats all CBS drama: It could happen to you. Someone dies but is kept alive by machinery while the next-of-kin anguish over the donor forms, and then our sexy docs must rush to helipads or landing strips with Igloo coolers on a last-minute race to speed the hearts, lungs and livers off to the right recipients. "Come on, come on," pleads Dr. Yablonski, at a newly transplanted heart. It sits there, inert, in the patient's chest cavity. Camera zooms in on it. C'mon ... c'mon. No, really, c'mon. Just beat already, or something. (H.S.)

(Oct. 23, USA, Fridays at 10)

Mildly funny, occasionally charming crime drama about an FBI agent, Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), who turns to his nemesis, the infamous Neal Caffrey (an ingenious but incarcerated thief played by eye-candy Matthew Bomer), for assistance in tracking down elusive thieves, forgers, hoaxers and standard-issue ne'er-do-wells. Burke cuts Caffrey a deal: He can get out of prison, but he has to work full time as a consultant to the FBI and wear a tracking device on his ankle.

The pilot episode is drum tight (there's some business about catching a forger), and the lead actors seem to genuinely relish playing out their characters' mutual humor and distrust. Lots of smirky dialogue is whipped up in a stylish New York vibe, but the overall effect is pro forma. Tiffani Thiessen plays Burke's neglected wife; Diahann Carroll is in it, too. (H.S.)

"The Cleveland Show"

(Sept. 27, Fox, Sundays at 8:30)

Not a sequel to Drew Carey's old sitcom, which was set in Cleveland, this animated domestic sitcom is instead a smugly smutty spinoff from Fox's "Family Guy," with one of that show's very few minority characters as the star. Cleveland Brown, friend and neighbor, decides to head West with son Cleveland Jr. but gets no farther than Stoolbend, Va., Cleveland's home town and the lair of a predatory ex-girlfriend. There's also a talking bear who wears a shirt and tie (but no pants); Cleveland's daughter, Roberta, and her boyfriend, "Federline Jones" (a rare risible detail); and squalid sex jokes.

Proudly crude, lewd and low-minded, the show does have one tiny promising moment — when Cleveland stops to observe, "It can't get any worse than this." Experienced Fox viewers, however, may respond with, "Wanna bet?" (T.S)

(Sept. 8, CW, Tuesdays at 9)

Would you believe that all this time mean little Sydney Andrews (Laura Leighton) was still living at the courtyard apartments known as Melrose Place? She is! Like a cockroach. But not for long.

In the pilot of this revivified and completely uncalled-for update of the original series (which aired from 1992 to 1999, though it seems so much longer ago), Sydney is sacrificed for the greater good and winds up floating dead in the MP swimming pool. The new crop of lovelies who live there are now suspects in the murder mystery (as is Thomas Calabro, back for a little more abuse as Dr. Michael Mancini). In a way, "Melrose Place" has always been a rumination on eternal punishment. How long can it be until the happy couple cheat on each other, until the good-girl med student turns bad, until the bad girl turns lesbian, until the new tenant turns out to be a conniving witch, after she bags the hunky bachelor downstairs, who is embroiled in any number of desperate decisions and dramas? (H.S.)

(Sept. 30, ABC, Wednesdays at 8)

The pilot for this Kelsey Grammer vehicle was so leaden that it appeared to be more of a museum exhibit to the American sitcom than an actual show. So it's been sent back to the drawing board, reportedly to tone down the "Frasier"-ness in Grammer's portrayal of an economically humbled sporting-goods mogul named Hank Pryor.

Fired by his own board of directors, Hank moves his family (including Melinda McGraw as his wife) from Manhattan splendor home to fictive Virginia, where they will begin life anew. As the Pryors unpacked in the original pilot, it seemed like everything came out of the box, including the "middle class" sitcom floor plan and kids who felt like they were genetically designed to audition for TV shows.

"(We'll go out and) throw a baseball!" Hank tells his pilot episode son, excitedly. "At what?" the pilot episode son asks.

At the television, the TV critic suggests. (H.S.)

(Sept. 10, CW, Thursdays at 8)

Oh no — the bats are out of the belfry yet again. Maybe vampires really are immortal, considering how often producers dig them up to get yet more mileage from the myth.

Anemic and wimpy when compared with HBO's bloodlusty "True Blood," or even network TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997-2003), "The Vampire Diaries" doesn't even have a heart through which a stake could mercifully be driven. CW's version details the dull, dull doings of the world's clammiest vamps, who may flash fangs and skulk around in dark cemeteries (ever see a bright one?) but who come up fatally flat in terms of mayhem and menace.

Naturally there's a youthful, teen-age angle to the skullduggery — a bid to cash in on the "Twilight" phenom — but the pacing is arthritic and the concept reeks of mothballs. Even the moths, however, are likely to shrug it off. (T.S.)

"The Forgotten"

(Sept. 22, ABC, Tuesdays at 10)

A peculiar trend in modern American folklore is this notion that unidentified murder victims and/or the long-missing dead are transmitting clues to their whereabouts — and not just the specially mysterious cases, but all cold cases. Mystery bones are all lovely, it seems, and speaking to us.

That is, speaking to a select few who psychically hear their cries. Christian Slater stars in this crime-solving drama as a former cop who leads a team of amateur, differently skilled sleuths who intuit the identities and stories of victims of unsolved murders. Preview scenes from the pilot failed to solve at least one mystery: Who here believes, after his wan movie career, that Slater was meant to be a TV star instead? (H.S.)

(Sept. 16, CW, Wednesdays at 9)

Although only a 25-minute sampler of this series was available for preview, it's clear that the show brings a fresh eye to one of cable TV's most hackneyed, hokey and overexposed arenas: the decreasingly fascinating world of models, fashion and all that baloney about designing divas. In the premiere, a young male model is discovered fresh off the farm, but Simon, the fashionista who discovers him, tries to tuck him too snugly under his wing. "Simon, I need you to quit touching me," the boy says when being trotted around at a party — and this turns out to be one of those things that Simply Isn't Done, or Said. Punching Simon in the nose isn't considered too cool, either. (T.S.)

(Sept. 22, CBS, Tuesdays at 9)

This show sounds like a sure thing for CBS, spun off from its gigantically popular "NCIS" police-procedural and populated by a top-drawer, top-flight, top-gun cast. But you never know. In late summer, CBS was still revamping its original pilot, adding characters and actors and refusing to make the new version available for screening in time for our deadline.

The cast includes LL Cool J, Chris O'Donnell and Linda Hunt. They all work out of L.A.'s Office of Special Projects, with Hunt as the big boss. If this doesn't work, it'll be the year's most most embarrassing tip-top flop. (T.S.)

(Nov. 7, Fox, Saturdays at 11)

Fox didn't send a preview copy in time for this guide, but you can bet that Wanda Sykes is sassy. (H.S.)