Fall seasons are confusing times for those of us who love television. The few ambitious network debuts seem to get axed earlier every year, leaving devotees with understandable intimacy issues. Nonetheless, here’s a quick rundown, a survival map to help you duck and weave through the usual early-cancellation carnage.
First up is Terra Nova, the ultraexpensive, gorgeously produced, endlessly delayed Fox action series that looks, at first nervous glance, like this year’s Lost. Take that description any way you like: Perhaps we’re in for an exciting, ambitious sci-fi mystery series—or maybe we’re just in for another bait-and-switch narrative that leaves us ranting about how badly we’ve been betrayed. But as Carly Simon once put it, there’s more room in a broken heart, and this Spielberg-produced environmental dystopia certainly has rugged good looks going for it, from cool dinosaurs and giant leeches to pouting teens in tank tops. Judging from the first two episodes, the plot is exciting, the characters are cardboard, and the effects are amazing. Fingers crossed the creators have a solid (and less superficial) endgame in mind.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the welcome wave of lady-centered sitcoms—with 2 Broke Girls as a front-runner—but there’s a parallel trend in dramas. Even as Desperate Housewives enters its final season, a line of female-ensemble soap operas are sashaying in, like waves of Rockettes—some campy, some retro, others offering full-on melodrama. My pet theory is that this is yet another case of reality TV’s leaking into the scripted side, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as The Osbournes inspired brilliant satires like Arrested Development, Real Housewives (which was itself inspired by Desperate Housewives) seems to have triggered a bunch of over-the-top series in which powerful bitches give one another the side-eye. At their worst, this might just mean more misogynist vaudeville on the schedule. But if they work, these shows might mimic the bejeweled intensity of their reality peers, but replace overturned tables with actual human stories.
The first one that caught my eye was Pan Am, a goofy-sleek sixties drama starring Christina Ricci and some amazing skirts. It features a very silly spy plot and a lot of Mad Men–rip-off design pornography, but it’s fluffy and fun, and refreshing if only because the stewardesses in question are collegial “new women,” not hissing frenemies. In contrast, the midseason Good Christian Belles is a Deep South catfight starring Popular’s Leslie Bibb, Kristin Chenoweth, and Annie Potts, produced by Darren Star—the kind of campfest you’ll like, if you like this kind of campfest. (It’s arch, but it has energy.) NBC has The Playboy Club (dreck) and ABC has Charlie’s Angels, while the CW has Ringer (evil twins!) and The Secret Circle (girl-power witches).
But to my surprise, the juiciest of the bunch appears to be ABC’s Revenge, which intriguingly takes its mean-girls warfare seriously instead of playing it for laughs. A full-stop melodrama set in the Hamptons, the show is loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo, stars the excellent Emily VanCamp and bitch goddess Madeleine Stowe, and has a pilot studded with vistas of private beaches and fantastically portentous dialogue like, “I can be just as powerful an enemy of any of them.”
There’s the usual array of quirky procedurals, in which hot people with large heads solve crimes or heal patients—with a twist. In Unforgettable, a tormented redhead has a rare neurological condition that causes her to remember everything (except the one thing she wants to remember, natch). The show is full of clichés (smoldering ex, children lost in the woods), but if you happen to find Poppy Montgomery charismatic (I do), don’t care about logic or originality, and have a weakness for literal show titles (guilty), this might be your new laundry-folder. Or maybe you’re really into Patrick Wilson and you miss Supernatural, in which case you could try A Gifted Man, in which an arrogant surgeon learns to care from the ghost of his ex-wife. But if you’re looking for something actively good, pick NBC’s Prime Suspect. Fans of the original may nitpick, but the adaptation is solid and atmospheric, and Maria Bello owns it with her vinegar charisma.
Then there are the sitcoms, the usual mix of promising and horrendous. Two of these series also feature Real Housewife–style bitchery: Suburgatory, an Easy A–like/Mean Girls–ish series starring the Emma Stone–like/Lindsay Lohan–ish Jane Levy, as well as I Hate My Teenage Daughter, which is basically Good Christian Belles as a sitcom. Each has a handful of working punch lines and a lively cast, but I preferred NBC’s Free Agents, a refreshing switch from the life-is-high-school theme, with its adult romance between divorced Hank Azaria and bereaved Kathryn Hahn. And I’m placing my vulnerable high hopes on Up All Night, this season’s new family comedy—it has an amazing cast (Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph), and the original pilot (which is being reworked; I haven’t seen the new one yet) treated men and women like actual humans, rather than mortal enemies, which, with Free Agents, makes it an outlier, just as Happy Endings was last year.
This is because of this year’s other notable trend, comedies fueled by the rage of emasculated men—a sour yang to all that cotton-candy yin. These shows are a little hard to tell apart, so here’s a primer: ABC’s Work It is the awful men-in-drag sitcom that defiles the memory of Bosom Buddies. CBS’s How to Be a Gentleman is the awful magazine sitcom starring Drama from Entourage. ABC’s Man Up has a few okay jokes, then becomes awful. ABC’s Last Man Standing is a vehicle for cranky old Tim Allen to rant about metrosexuals (sample line: “The only time when men should be dancing is when other men are shooting at their feet”). Both of these last two pilots had punch lines about citrus body wash; does someone at ABC have a grudge against kiwifruit? If you want a jolt of uncut man-comedy, you’ll have to wait for September 19—when Ashton Kutcher shows up on Two and a Half Men, a prospect I am perversely excited about—or turn to cable, which is overflowing with superior options: HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, reruns of FX’s game-changer Louie, the raunchy new season of FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (where the girl is as hilariously idiotic as the guys), HBO’s Bored to Death, or my personal guilty pleasure, HBO’s How to Make It in America, in which nothing happens except for fun party scenes, Lake Bell, and ridiculous dialogue like (from a guy marketing sweatshirts), “So, are you ready for some hooded perfection?” I am ready, Jeantourage. I am.