Pan Am – ABC, Premiered Sept. 25
The second of this season's big broadcast entries in the retro-nostalgia genre is significantly better than NBC's sad The Playboy Club in every way except the one that counts most – its storytelling. The plotlines in the pilot are a mix of the uninteresting (sisters on a plane) and unimaginative (muddled secret agent stuff) and there is scarce evidence that it is going to become more compelling in the weeks to follow. But the period detail, the swinging soundtrack and the luxurious look of it all are utterly mesmerizing and the cast is extremely attractive, so I can imagine folks 40-plus giving it a shot. Younger viewers, on the other hand, likely won't even know what Pan Am was and won't care to invest time finding out. I'm not wild about it, but I wish it well.
Terra Nova – Fox, Premiered Sept. 26
Curiously, this big-budget science-fiction adventure about people from the environmentally ravaged Earth of 2149 who travel 85 million years into the past to rebuild civilization in an alternate time stream plays much better on TV than it did on a giant screen at Comic-Con. Maybe that's because the one-dimensional characters, uninspired action sequences and abundant adventure movie clichés were even more obvious when super-sized in a massive arena. (The dinosaurs, however, rock at any size.) There is nothing particularly new or exciting here, despite the big-league pedigree of so many of its executive producers (including Steven Spielberg), but Terra Nova is the closest thing broadcast television offers to a true family adventure series, the likes of which used to attract tens of millions of viewers, so it deserves some early support, unless it completely collapses in episode two.
Hart of Dixie – The CW, Premiered Sept. 26
Every element of this sappy light drama about a New York City doctor who relocates to a small town in the south is utterly unconvincing-- from the premise to the characters to the performance of series star Rachel Bilson. It's as hopeless as it is hapless.
Suburgatory – ABC, Premiered Sept. 28
Cheryl Hines lets her freak flag fly as a wealthy sexed-up mom in this loony-tune of a sitcom that tries to poke merciless fun at upscale suburbanites (especially the female of the species) but is ultimately strangled by its own snark. Actually, it's supposed to be about a concerned single dad (Jeremy Sisto) who seeks a better life for his sullen, too smart for the room teenage daughter (Jane Levy) by getting her out of Manhattan (after finding a box of condoms in her nightstand) -- but trust me, it's the man-hungry housewives and high-school girls who shop at South Park's Stupid Spoiled Whore store that people will be talking about – if they bother to watch. As for authenticity, it's supposed to be set on the East Coast (somewhere in Long Island, Westchester County or Fairfield County, I think) but it sure feels like parts of Pasadena, what with those giant mountains in the backgrounds and all.
How to Be a Gentleman – CBS, Premiered Sept. 29
Thirty-something heterosexual males certainly are getting kicked where it hurts this broadcast season. They are uniformly depicted as dimwits, dullards and/or douche bags in a number of deadly new sitcoms, so much so that they make Alan and Walden and even the late Charlie look like stand-up guys over on Two and a Half Men. In this one, a tight-ass etiquette columnist (David Hornsby) and a dim gym rat (Kevin Dillon) who were high school classmates are reunited years later – just in time for the dimwit dude to turn the uppity fussbudget into a manly stud, lest he lose his job at a venerable men's magazine in tumultuous transition by its new twenty-something owners. The show is a bore, but at least it understands what too many veteran journalists are dealing with these days.
Bedlam – BBC America, Premiered Oct. 1
BBC America's creepy new entry into television's currently popular horror genre is every bit as watchable as AMC's thrilling chiller The Walking Dead and FX's chilling thriller American Horror Story. It's all about life in a luxury apartment building that used to be a ghastly asylum where patients were routinely abused and is now haunted by their vengeful spirits. At the center of it all are residents Kate, a descendent of the family that ran the asylum, and her adopted cousin Jed, who sees the restless ghosts and scary visions of their terrible pasts. They're played by Charlotte Salt and Theo James, two of the hottest new stars on any new television series this fall. Pop Idol winner Will Young co-stars.
American Horror Story – FX, Premieres Oct. 5
Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck have cobbled together a hum-dinger of a freak show that may turn out to be much less than the sum of its parts but will hopefully sustain the remarkable lunatic energy of its pilot, an hour of television unlike anything I've ever seen. The blood and guts and shocks and surprises come fast and furious, but its take on the fragility of family relationships and the darkest hazards of sexual desire -- expressed, repressed or otherwise -- may be the most disturbing aspects of this show. Outside of dropping f-bombs and showing genitalia and bare breasts I think AHS pretty much destroys any remaining content boundaries that apply to advertiser supported television, including brutal attacks on children, the graphic presentation of chopped up babies and kinkier sex than we ever saw at Lady Heather's. The extraordinary cast includes Jessica Lange, Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Denis O'Hare and Frances Conroy.
Last Man Standing – ABC, Premieres Oct. 11
Three years ago Kelsey Grammer almost destroyed our fond memories of Frasier by starring in a perfectly wretched (and mercifully short-lived) ABC sitcom titled Hank. Now Tim Allen has put at risk memories of his similarly cherished comedy classic Home Improvement with this totally bland timewaster about a man's-man dad with three daughters. Home Improvement was a hit largely because viewers could readily identify with Tim and his working-class family. That might not happen this time around, because to judge by their HGTV-worthy kitchen and patio alone, Tim and his new family seem to have money to spare. (Or do the fabulous trappings of his new TV home reflect Hollywood's idea of working-class life?) Gosh Tim, why not simply revive Home Improvement and let us see how the Taylors are faring these days?
Man Up! -- ABC, Premieres Oct. 18
Here's another put down of men everywhere – and the women in it don't come off so great, either. It's an inane would-be comedy about three grown men who enjoy video games and other youthful pursuits but tend to suck at adult responsibilities. If this awful, instantly forgettable thing had made its debut during premiere week, rather than being scheduled for one month later, it would have been a strong candidate for first cancellation of the season. Depending on what happens during the next four weeks it may still be a contender.
Grimm – NBC, Premieres Oct. 21
A young detective learns that he has inherited the ability to detect supernatural beings, most of which turn out to be monsters from the Grimm fairy tales and other supposedly fictional classics of the genre. (All those stories were based on reality, or so this story goes.) Then he and his partner get about stopping them from their evil pursuits. Oddly, NBC has scheduled this show opposite The CW's Supernatural, a far superior series about two guys hunting nasty things, making the outlook for Grimm very grim, indeed.
Once Upon a Time – ABC, Premieres Oct. 23
Credit where it's due: Nobody who samples this imaginative fantasy drama will be able to accuse ABC of manufacturing cookie-cutter television. In fact, in terms of its creativity Once Upon a Time is easily the most ambitious and imaginative new series of the season. Unfortunately it is also the most complex, so much so that ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee admitted his concerns about how it will hold up beyond its third episode at the Summer 2011 Television Critics Association tour. It's set in a creepy small town in Maine where fairy tale characters are stripped of their memories and held against their wills, or something like that. The cast, including Ginnifer Goodwin and Jennifer Morrison, is as appealing as the concept is muddled.
Hell on Wheels – AMC, Premieres Nov. 6
I haven't seen the finalized pilot, but the version offered to critics at the summer TCA tour seemed close to completion, so I'm comfortable noting that the gritty and sometimes very violent Hell on Wheels bears little resemblance to the sanitized TV westerns of old. It's not as tough as HBO's Deadwood, but it doesn't shy away from depicting the harsh realities of post-Civil War western expansion, either. As with every original series AMC has on its schedule, the overall quality of Wheels is first-rate.
I Hate My Teenage Daughter – Fox, Premieres Nov. 23
Many of the fall season's new series depict adult males as total idiots. This one turns its guns on grown women – specifically two simpering single moms who have no control whatsoever over their absolutely hateful teenage daughters. Everything about this show is unpleasant, especially the wasted talents of its leading ladies, Emmy winner Jaime Pressly and Tony winner Katie Finneran. They're both so awful here that you'll wonder how they ever won anything. The only thing that will save this show is its enviable time period; it will occupy the slot after The X-Factor at a time when the competition on that likely juggernaut will be entering its home stretch.