TV Feature: The 10 Most Promising New Shows of Fall 2011

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CHICAGO – Do you want the good news or the bad news, TV fans? The good news is that the upcoming crop of new Fall programs from the five major networks (totaling 27 new shows) is not as bad as last year’s incredibly-horrible debut slate. The bad news is that it’s still pretty bad. There is no “Lost,” no “Glee,” no “Modern Family,” no instant stand-outs of any kind.

There are a few comedies and dramas that could develop their way on to the list of the best shows on TV, but none would make it based solely on their pilot. Even the best need some work.

So how do we judge them? How do we rank them? Honestly, the reason this Fall TV Preview is later in the season than any I’ve done in the decade I’ve been covering television is simple — it’s one of the hardest seasons to rank. We’ve all seen comedy pilots for series that went nowhere shortly thereafter and were dimply treading water until they were canceled. We’ve all seen dramas that started slow and took time to find their footing. So how do we judge this crop of pilots, most of which are pretty damn mediocre? (The good news is that things will look up at mid-season with a much-more-daring crop of programs including “Awake,” “Alcatraz,” “The River,” “Smash,” and more.)

We can only go based on the key question that faces every first episode — Will you watch episode two? That’s really all that matters. These are the ten shows for which we’re most interested in episode two. (And come back for full-length reviews of all of these programs plus the ones for which we don’t see quite as much promise — Sorry Chicagoans, “The Playboy Club” doesn’t do your city justice.)

Ringer
Ringer
Photo credit: The CW

10. “Hart of Dixie”/”Ringer”
Network: The CW
Premieres: September 26th at 8pm CST/September 13th at 8pm CST
Starring: Rachel Bilson, Scott Porter, Cress Williams, Wilson Bethel, Nancy Travis, and Jaime King/Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ioan Gruffudd, Kris Polaha, Tara Summers, Nester Carbonell, and Mike Colter
Why You Should Set Your DVR: Because Rachel Bilson and Sarah Michelle Gellar could turn this network around. The CW is in dire straits. “Smallville” is gone. Their staple hit in “America’s Next Top Model” is sinking fast, as are “Gossip Girl” and “90210.” They could use a water-fountain hit (other than “The Vampire Diaries), the kind of show that gets people talking, and who better to bring that to this network than a veteran like Bilson or Gellar? These two talented young ladies proved they could carry not just hits but pop culture phenomena in “The O.C.” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Now, of course, neither of these programs appear to be in the league of those shows based on their premieres, but they both have reason for hope. “Dixie” has a “Sweet Home Alabama” affability about it that fits Bilson’s girl-next-door personality perfectly while “Ringer” plays to Gellar’s unique skill set with elements of “Cruel Intentions” mixed with Brian De Palma oddity. For these shows to work, “Dixie” will need to get less cliched and “Ringer” needs to be more stylish (we’ll get into more detail in the individual reviews), but there’s reason to believe that at least one of these star vehicles could drive this network back in the right direction. If not, they may just want to close up shop.

Whitney
Whitney
Photo credit: NBC

9. “Whitney”
Network:
NBC
Premieres: September 22nd at 8:30pm CST
Starring: Whitney Cummings, Chris D’Elia, Zoe Lister-Jones, Rhea Seehorn, Maulik Pancholy, and Dan O’Brien
Why You Should Set Your DVR: Because she’s pretty damn funny. Sometimes a personality doesn’t just tiptoe into the TV landscape, she busts down the door, screams a few profanities, does a little dance, and makes sure you don’t forget her name. Stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings is involved in three shows this season — starring in her own NBC series, co-creating the CBS comedy “2 Broke Girls,” and a mid-season program for her friend and collaborator Chelsea Handler. In front of the camera, Cummings proves to be a deft comedian (not all stand-ups are), carrying the show over most of its screenwriting bumps. “Most.” This program definitely still needs some work on the writing level and has a supporting cast that is going to take some time to click. Honestly, the only reason it works is because of its titular star. She won’t be able to carry a program on her own every week, but if the other elements improve around her then her dance card could stay full beyond her rocking debut year.

Person of Interest
Person of Interest
Photo credit: CBS

8. “Person of Interest”
Network: CBS
Premieres: September 22nd at 8pm CST
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Henson, and Kevin Chapman
Why You Should Set Your DVR: Because Ben Linus is back. God, I miss “Lost.” It feels like when all the Losties went into the neverending light, they took most of the creative network TV writing with them. Most of the dramas this season are high-concept-low-execution as if the hook is everything and it doesn’t matter that there’s nothing on it. The hook of “Person of Interest” may be the most interesting of the season and it’s not just because J.J. Abrams and Michael Emerson have reunited. The concept is devilishly clever — Emerson plays a man with advanced knowledge of a crime. He is not unlike The Adjustment Bureau in his ability to predict the future. But he can’t intercede. Enter Jim Caviezel’s mysterious hero, who Emerson hires to push people away from impending tragedy. Blending sci-fi elements that should attract fans of “Lost” with a plot that allows for a weekly procedural dynamic was a stroke of genius. The pilot is a bit disappointing (more on that in the individual review, hence the relatively low position on this list) but the potential for this series is high. “Lost” high? A bitter TV critic can still dream.

Charlie's Angels
Charlie’s Angels
Photo credit: ABC

7. “Charlie’s Angels”
Network:
ABC
Premieres: September 22nd at 7pm CST
Starring: Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly, Rachael Taylor, and Ramon Rodriguez
Why You Should Set Your DVR: Because it’s got just the right blend of cheese and sleaze. We know, we know — Another reboot? When are they gonna learn? Didn’t anyone notice that “Bionic Woman” and “Knight Rider” didn’t exactly work? Hell, “Wonder Woman” didn’t even make it to the air. There’s a part of me that expects that “Charlie’s Angels” will continue that pattern and hopefully put to rest this bizarre trend of failed reboots. And yet, here it is, on the list of most promising shows. Why? Because it’s one of the very few programs this season that knows not to take itself too seriously. It’s a cheesy retread and the best parts of it knows that it’s silly. You would not believe the number of programs this season with essentially goofy premises — perfect memory! fairy tale characters! time travel! — that take themselves as seriously as “Boardwalk Empire.” “Charlie’s Angels” has some flaws (which we’ll get into in our review) but when it comes to potential, it’s here — an entertaining, beautiful cast in gorgeous locations with theatrical-caliber action and silly mysteries — network TV could use some more escapism.

A Gifted Man
A Gifted Man
Photo credit: CBS

6. “A Gifted Man”
Network:
CBS
Premieres: September 23rd at 7pm CST
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Ehle, Margo Martindale, Pablo Schreiber, and Julie Benz
Why You Should Set Your DVR: Because Jonathan Demme directed the pilot. Yes, THAT Jonathan Demme. The Oscar-winner. “Silence of the Lambs,” “Something Wild,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Stop Making Sense.” THAT guy.It has been tweaked enough that his name may not be on the final version according to a few websites but the core of what works about this show comes from the way that one of the best living directors brings relatable humanity to a ridiculous premise. CBS is going back to the inspirational well on Friday nights with a show not that dissimilar from other eye-network programs built around moral lessons like “Touched by an Angel” or “Joan of Arcadia.” So, why does the program about a shallow doctor haunted by his morally righteous ex make the list? The pedigree of the people involved and the gentle touch they bring to what could have been a manipulative mess. Wilson is a strong lead and supporters that include Emmy nominee Martindale and the great Ehle (now kicking ass in “Contagion”) shine. This is a show that you’ll watch and tell yourself that you’re above the emotional ploys and silly concept but you’ll still fall victim to them and want to watch next week. I’m as cynical as they come and I’m more curious about the second episode of “A Gifted Man” than most of the new programming this year. It could dive bomb into “Ghost Whisperer” silliness but hopefully Demme left some notes for future directors.

Check out page two for the top five…

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